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Puerto Rican Trip Floats Memories Of Tropical Cuisine
By CINDA CHAVICH
14 October 2004
No sooner were we home from five days in Puerto Rico, which the tourist bureaus like to hype as the "Island of Enchantment," than my husband, Ace, was out chasing skirts.
The object of his adoration is Churrasco, and it's not a sultry Latin lady that stoked his lust, but a steak. Not just any steak, but the tenderest, moistest strip of steak he'd ever eaten. It is made with a cut of beef called skirt steak, popular in Texas, but rarely found in Pittsburgh.
The bane -- and the blessing -- of travel is trying to re-create both the steak and the sizzle from such a culinary experience.
The Churrasco meat is marinated, then quickly grilled. Unlike many traditional Puerto Rican dishes, it is not fried. If your idea of a vacation is a decadent delving into the languid land of the devilish deep fryer, this will be heaven, where nary a word is spoken about low-carb.
Fortunately, I developed an appropriate theory of eating in this pretty place: Any fat-fried food can be neutralized by a bowl of tropical fruit, or at least that's the rule we lived by during our five days there.
We members of the Association of the Food Journalists, food editors and writers from the United States and Canada, had gathered in Puerto Rico last week to dip into the cuisine of the Caribbean (the warm water wasn't bad, either), as well as explore heady topics such as why Puerto Rico is the rum capital of the world and controversial subjects such as genetically engineered foods.
No short trip can capture either a cuisine or a people, but what we did experience was impressive. The people were lovely, from the joking Ritz-Carlton waiter who picked up my empty plates on a dime to the tiny, sweatered woman in Old San Juan, who not only told us the historical background of a 500-year-old church, but took my hand to lead Ace and me inside, so she could point out where the important people were interred.
"I don't know what religion you are," she said in a serious voice, "but anyone is welcome in this cathedral."
Of course, people immediately brightened when they discovered we were from Pittsburgh -- Pirates hero Roberto Clemente's hometown of Carolina was oh so close.
At Fort San Cristobal, we met a friendly young woman -- the U.S. Park Service requires its rangers to wear long pants made of polyester and wool in the 90-degree humidity of the tropics, but she kept her cool. She told us about a Michigan meeting of park interpreters, carefully explaining these interpreters don't translate languages, but interpret historical and nature sites. The convention in Grand Rapids, Mich., was of interest to us because our daughter, Jessica, majored in parks and recreation with a specialty in interpretation.
The young Puerto Rican park ranger, who was beautiful with a personality to match, had studied Italian and Russian, and, like most young people there, is fluent both in Spanish and English.
One oddity we noticed: The newspaper stories were written in English, but its advertisements were in Spanish. Though Ace and I long to speak that beautiful, melodious language, it wasn't necessary. In fact, at an arts and crafts store, where I was drawn to the Puerto Rican version of The Three Kings (as a child, Jessica referred to them as "The Three Wise Guys") -- they rode in on horseback to bring their gifts to Jesus.
An erudite cab driver explained Puerto Rico's political parties, then provided his recommendations for some good books to read, including "The House on the Lagoon" by Rosario Ferre. Though his English was perfect, he said he thinks in Spanish.
Still, the language of good food is universal.
At a restaurant frequented by locals, I ordered an avocado salad. One-half of a perfect avocado, deftly sliced, arrived on a bed of greens with a light dressing. While Ace dreams of skirts, I'll fantasize about this, the best avocado I have ever tasted.
One native dish has a catchy name that couldn't be more fun to say. Mofongo. Mofongo. Mofongo. For some crazy reason, the word brought back happy memories of one of my favorite Pittsburgh bands, Mon Gumbo.
Mofongo is made from plantains -- they're similar to a banana, but need to be cooked before eating -- that are chopped and fried, sometimes with some delectable protein inside the plantain shell.
Some familiar words -- gazpacho, tortilla, mango -- take on a whole new mouth-watering meaning in Puerto Rico, where tropical fruits reign and both our fabulous breakfasts at the Ritz-Carlton and evening tapas at a wonderful restaurant in Old San Juan featured tortillas, or Spanish omelets. Erroneously, we expected the cuisine to be hot and spicy with peppers, but it was not. It was, however, a meat-lovers paradise. Veggie-aversives like my husband found themselves in hog heaven.
Ritz-Carlton executive sous chef Stephen Strickland, 30, who grew up in Natrona Heights, told us that he was surprised by the lack of vegetables on the island. After graduating from Pennsylvania Culinary, Downtown, in 1993, he worked for the Ritz in Atlanta, then in Naples, Fla. He's been in Puerto Rico since July 2003.
"They just don't eat vegetables -- it's not part of their culture," he says. "We put them on the plate, but the Puerto Ricans push them to the side and they come back to the kitchen."
Salad ingredients such as lettuce and tomatoes come from either the mainland or the Dominican Republic. On the plus side, outside of Hawaii we've seldom tasted pineapples, mangoes or papayas like these. After five days of vegetable withdrawal, I shouldn't have been surprised when I was served possibly the world's worst vegetarian sandwich. We had visited the Caribe Hilton to partake at the place where Ricardo Gracia invented the pina colada 50 years ago, and I thought, "I'll order something green for lunch!"
Aside from the guacamole I requested, the pitiful sandwich consisted of two slices of whole-wheat bread, a meager tablespoon of alfalfa sprouts, four 2-inch lengthwise slices of carrot cut 1/8- inch thick, cucumbers and a slice of chayote, a squash common in Puerto Rico.
As for the abundance of delicious fruity rum drinks, we're warning you. Nothing goes down quite so easily, so beware. Overindulge, and you might think it's Puerto Rico's coqui frog chirping at you in the twilight, but it could be your conscience talking.
Coming soon in Food:
We're on the trail of a great recipe for Churrasco, and we hope the winner of our "Best Butcher" readers poll will cut the requisite skirt steak for our recipe test.