A Taste of Puerto Rico brings Caribbean cooking and culture into your kitchen
It was a home-cooked, multi-course meal in another couple's home, prepared by a guest chef. There were flavors and textures I had never experienced thanks to Ishmael Huggins who owns A Taste of Puerto Rico with his wife Lori Williams. Williams sets the stage with music and a festive table while Huggins heads to the kitchen to prepare dishes from his homeland. He is best known as a singer of Caribbean-Latin music for the band Broken English.
First to the table was an attractive platter of Serenata de Bacalao which merges the culinary cultures of Africa, Spain and Italy. Dried salt cod, soaked in water to remove most of its briny taste was mixed with chunks of potato, tomatoes and pimiento-stuffed olives and dressed with olive oil and oregano. On top were sliced hard-boiled eggs and slivers of ripe avocado.
Huggins noted that chilies are not used in cooking as they are in Mexico, but that hot sauce is used to spice things up at the table. Huggins brought Goya brand hot sauce which we enjoyed on everything, even on strips of fried plantain, a fruit resembling a banana but starchier.
Huggins said rice and beans are eaten daily in Puerto Rico, and Arroz con Gandules is a national favorite. Pigeon peas, native to Africa, were simmered with roasted peppers, green olives and sofrito, an herbed Spanish red sauce. Rice was then added and cooked al dente.
Yucca, or cassava, is native to South America but grown extensively in Africa. Huggins cooked the sweet, starchy root with onions and aromatic garlic, dressing it with a light vinaigrette.
Pasteles, the last dish to be served, is a source of pride for Puerto Ricans and a traditional Christmas dish. These tamales were quite different from the cornhusk-wrapped masa-based treats we're familiar with. Although they can be made with plantains, ours were made with yucca. Wrapped in banana leaves and parchment paper, and then tied together as juntas (two in one), they were steamed. We gingerly opened the packages anticipating the gift inside and shaved them onto our plates. Through the almost gelatinous, semi-translucent starch emerged outlines of chickpeas, raisins and bits of meat. As the bottle of hot sauce made its final trip around the table, I was aware that I was well-nourished. Not only was my stomach at capacity, but I had learned about growing up in another culture sharing beans, rice, roots and stories.
It is that time of year when the deck at Michael's on Main hosts Tuesday evening food and wine pairings. Each week a themed dinner buffet ($25) includes wine tasting and an acoustic serenade.
On June 14 Sarah's Vineyard will complement freshly caught and smoked salmon and other fish specialties. On June 21 it's a dad's day barbecue feast with Michael's first ever beer pairing.
Subsequent weeks feature Asian flavors, Caribbean nights with Jerk Chicken, Indian specialties and Cuban food.
Michael's on Main Food and Wine Pairings, Tuesday nights from 6:30 to 8 p.m. 2591 Main St., Soquel, 479-9777. Full bar. Visit michaelsonmain.net/newWP/events/wine-pairings
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