Hill of beans

A pale imitation.

That’s what I’ve been cooking and serving my family for years.  Like a Mercedes built by Hyundai, or a Chanel suit produced by Walmart.  My version of Puerto Rican rice and beans was as wrong as a steak dinner from Chunky Cheese.

It didn’t taste bad, it just wasn’t right.  And right is so much better.

First, the beans were wrong.  I’ve always used habichuelas rosadas, or small pink beans.  In the correct, finished dish, they do appear pink, but that’s because of the tomato, and the achiote in both the seasoning and the oil used.  The real beans are small white navy beans.

The seasoning I used was close, but not quite.  I used Sazon with saffron.  The correct version has, as I mentioned, achiote, also called annatto.  I used jarred sofrito with tomato, which is sort of, but not really.  The flavor and aroma are completely different with homemade.

I also made mine either vegetarian, or with pot roast.  Ham hocks are what belong in it, along with fresh ham hock stock.  The smokiness adds a tremendous depth of flavor.

A few weeks ago I spent the afternoon in the kitchen of Becky Lopez, the wife of Jose Lopez, the chief of the Durham police department.  Among other things, Becky prepared authentic Puerto Rican rice and beans.  Eating hers I remembered what they tasted like when I lived there as a child.  And resolved to make it right from now on.

I gave out the recaito and achiote oil recipes in an earlier column (Herald-Sun July 22).  The Sabor-a-hamon, sazon, ham hocks, squash and the rest of the ingredients can be purchased at a Compare grocery store and most Latino supermarkets.

Habichuelas blancas and rice

white beans

1 bag of navy or great northern beans

2 packets of Sabor-a-hamon

2 packets of Sazon con culantro y achiote

1 tsp salt

2 or 3 pieces of smoked ham hocks

Recaito

2-3 tbsp of achiote oil

1 small can tomato sauce

1 handful diced pumpkin or hard orange squash, like butternut

24 hours before cooking-empty beans into 3-4 inches of water with 1 packet of Sabor-a-hamon and 1/2 tsp of salt.  Stir, cover and let sit for 24 hours.

Cooking day; 8-10 hours before service-fill large Dutch oven with cold water and in it, place ham hocks.  Cook on medium-low for 6-6 ½ hours or until the water is murky and the connective tissue on the hocks has melted into the water and pot has approximately 2 1/2 inches of water left. Remove ham-hocks from the water and any bone that may have fallen into the water. Remove bones, skin, and fat from the ham-hock and chop the remaining meat into small pieces as you would herbs to put in a sauce. Put chopped meat back into the water.

When you think they’re done, keep cooking. They should be falling apart tender.

Add beans (and their water) to the pot, along with the squash.  Add another packet of Sabor-a-hamon and 2 packets of Sazon-con-Culantro y Achote, 1/2 tsp of salt, and bring to a boil.  Lower heat to medium-low and cook until they are almost done, about 1-1 ¼ hours.

When the beans have about 20-30 minutes left, start your rice (any kind of basic white you like).

Cook the recaito:  Put a skillet on medium, and melt the achiote oil.  When it’s hot and melted, add about 1-1 ½ cups of raw recaito.  Cook until it is hot, and when you stir it, it makes sizzling sounds.  Add tomato sauce and combine.  Cook for 5-8 minutes or until it’s thickened a bit, and the color has deepened.  Stir into beans, and finish cooking them.  When they are tender, spoon over rice and enjoy.  Makes approx. 8 servings.

You can make your pot of beans on the weekend, and store in the fridge until later in the week.  It will last 4-5 days in the fridge, and 3 months or so in the freezer.

We lived in the northwestern corner of the island, in Aguadilla.

This food is the opposite of fancy.  It’s peasant food, which means it’s inexpensive to prepare, but takes time and effort.  The results of all the work are so delicious that it’s worth the effort, at least once.

My guess though, is that the first won’t be the last.

Thanks for your time.

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