Just as Juan Ponce de León searched for the fountain of youth and adventurers, to this day, comb the peaks of the Himalayas for their yetis, I have been – until now – on a heretofore futile mission to recreate Nana’s Puerto Rican Rice. Not nearly as sexy as preternatural beauty or as exciting as a vicious bear-man, this elusive dish with bits of pork goodness and the brininess of green olives dancing a culinary waltz with sofrito and just a whisper of tomato’s acidity rightly sent me into a search from which I could not return until its luscious flavor secrets revealed themselves to me. Lordy, this is good stuff that, yes, makes me write bad prose and most likely bad checks if that need ever arose.
Nana was Stephanie’s paternal great grandmother. Her name was Mague Agosto though she went by Mary. When she died of cancer in 2003, she was in her early eighties. In all the time that I knew her, she lived a few blocks from the ocean in Florida, in a small house with a tiny kitchen. What she could produce out of that little formica-lined galley would shame anyone out of thinking granite and stainless make for the meals of our dreams. Along with hugs and smiles that made you think you were the most important person around, Nana would fill a table with so much delicious abundance you were sure she was celebrating your vote into office by the College of Cardinals or coronation in Westminster Abbey. Never elaborate or fussy in the cooking or presentation, that woman could turn a supermarket chicken or hunk of stew beef and some vegetables into something magical. Did I mention she lived by the ocean. Do you know what sort of internal turmoil the bathing suit bod had with the taste buds?
Born, raised, and married in Puerto Rico, Nana relocated with her husband and three young children – one of them, Sally, Stephanie’s grandmother – to New York City and later Washington, D.C. Nana brought the dishes of her youth to the States. There were no recipes or books that she cooked from. She just made deliciousness out of what was on hand. I am slightly, well more than slightly, chagrined to say that she once came to my house and showed me how to make her rice. I diced the salt pork, minced the ingredients for the sofrito, rinsed the rice, and was sure – in my youthful mind – that along with my notes and those of one of her granddaughters, I would be able to whip this bit of wonderfulness up anytime I wanted for its number one fan, Stephanie. Unfortunately, years and circumstance along with a few moves displaced my notes and muddled my memory. I’ve asked Nana’s daughters for help but they never learned to make the rice and any notes that had been around were gone. Nana’s rice went by the wayside.
Over the years, occasionally Stephanie would say she was having a craving for Nana’s rice which would get me thinking that I really wanted the rice, too. In the past several months, on my quest to gather other family recipes, Nana’s rice – which she used to call Spanish rice – became a thorn in my culinary side, mostly because I had made the rice with the woman herself. Unfortunately, I also have a keen palate memory (is that such a thing?) and I knew exactly what the rice should taste like. Attempt after attempt, we got it almost there but always fell short. Until now.
After many tries, both with Stephanie and solo, below is our version of Nana’s rice. A deceptively humble ode to a woman who, with very little, always gave so much love, always had a kind word (except one very entertainingly wicked go at a certain son of hers that had piqued her somehow), and always placed in front of you a plate or bowl of something exceptionally tasty that made you feel like you mattered and were loved. Please enjoy.
[Editor’s Note: The boob in charge of this blog, me, has failed to maintain the memory card with the pics. Will post step-by-step soon. The recipe is pretty straightforward as is. Please let me know if there are any confusing or missing instructions.]
Nana’s Puerto Rican Rice
1 cup diced onion
½ cup diced green pepper
1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 3 large cloves)
4-6 oz. finely diced salt pork*
1 lb. long grain rice
¼ cup canola oil
4 teaspoons Goya adobo seasoning with pepper
1/3 cup pimento-stuffed green olives (the smaller the better or cut in half if large)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 – 8 oz can tomato sauce
3 cups of water
[Depending on who she was feeding (she knew everyone’s likes and dislikes), Nana would sometimes add a can of drained, rinsed Goya pigeon peas and/or fresh cilantro to taste. I add neither since I like the basic recipe; feel free to have at it and do report your taste findings, I’d been much obliged.]
Dice the onion and green pepper. Mince the garlic. Dice the salt pork.
* I use homemade salt pork which is not as salty as commercial. If you use the packaged variety, before making the dish, bring a small pot of water to a boil and toss the diced salt pork into the boiling water for about 1 minute. Continue on with recipe as above. You can also use pork shoulder or belly in the same amount if you happen to have it lying around. Do not use bacon.
Rinse the rice for about 30 seconds in a mesh strainer and let drain while you go onto the next step.
Pour the canola oil into a medium sized saucepan over medium heat. Add diced pork and cook until no longer pink (about 4 minutes).
Add the onion, green pepper, and garlic to the salt pork. Cook for 5 minutes or until onions are translucent, stirring occasionally.
Add the rinsed rice to the pot and stir until everything is incorporated. Cook for 3 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add the adobo seasoning, olives, oregano, tomato sauce, and water. Stir well. Increase heat to medium high. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, cover the pan, reduce the temperature to low, and allow rice to simmer for 20 minutes or until all of the liquid is absorbed. Use a fork to fluff the rice. Your goal is to have some crispy bits on the bottom of the pan. This is good stuff!