In fact, when I think about it, many of my dishes are attempts to create a culture of food that simply never existed in my family. Sure, my Mom made some killer casseroles at holidays, and since her death I lovingly re-create them, in all their fattening cheesy glory, every year. But if you're talking about tradition, slow cooking, a real love for and relationship with food ... well, that's something I've had to discover on my own. Hence my Liberian bean soups and African stews and Indian curries and fried green tomatoes and what I imagine to be comfort food from all over the world.
I've made arroz con gandules - rice and peas - before, but this is the first time I've made my own sofrito. Sofrito can mean different things in different cuisines; in Puerto Rican cooking it is a flavorful aromatic base of onions, cilantro, garlic, and tomatoes that is incorporated into many dishes and imparts a distinctive zing to rice and peas. And rather than use store-bought sazon, which is often chock-full of MSG, I decided to just blend my own.
Now, there was one ingredient for the sofrito I didn't have - culantro, sort of a much stronger version of cilantro. Some recipes will tell you not to sweat it, just increase the amount of cilantro you use. Others say if you don't have culantro, you can't make sofrito. Honestly? I have no idea. I thought mine worked in the dish, but I will definitely hunt down culantro for next time so I can see for myself.
For the Sofrito:
(You can increase these amounts if you want to make more, but this makes a lot. I read somewhere to just freeze the extra so you can break off chunks of flavor whenever you need it.)
1 large green pepper
1/2 red pepper
1/2-1 head garlic
1 bunch cilantro
1/2 bunch flat leaf parlsey
Coarsely chop all the ingredients and then puree in the food processor. That's it! It doesn't sound like much, but wait until you smell it. It should look like this:
For the sazon:
For this one, I really kept playing with the spices until it smelled "right," which for me was like Goya Sazon without the MSG.
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp hot paprika
pinch sweet paprika
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp garlic powder
salt to taste
Now on to the arroz con gandules!
1 -1/2 cups dried pigeon peas, soaked overnight (I had to supplement this with some dried pinto beans, as I was almost out of pigeon peas!)
1/2 onion, chopped
1/2 green pepper, chopped
1 cup long grain white rice
2 cups vegetable broth
2 cups water
2-3 tbsp olive oil
7-8 tbsp sofrito
sazon - to taste
tiny dash of liquid smoke
dash of Worcestershire sauce (vegetarians omit this step!)
dash of white balsamic vinegar
handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
In a stockpot, saute the onion and green pepper in olive oil, along with a pinch of sazon. Add the sofrito, more sazon, and stir for another few minutes. Add the beans, rice, water, and vegetable broth. Bring to a gentle boil then reduce to a simmer and cover. You want to check on this every now and then for the next hour or so and see how the water level is doing - you don't want everything to dry out and stick to the bottom! At the same time, you want the beans and rice to slowly absorb the liquid completely so that you don't end up making soup. So add liquid as necessary and stir gently until everything is tender.
Once the beans are tender and the rice is done, lower the heat some more and season with more sazon, salt, pepper, the liquid smoke, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, and fresh cilantro. Stir, taste, and season until it's just right!
This makes so much that I had enough for a bonus leftover lunch the next day - tacos. I just put the rice and peas in a corn tortilla with some queso blanco, hot sauce, and sour cream. It may not be traditional, but it sure was yummy!