Sitting in a dimly lit lecture hall, my professor polled the room, “What is your favorite meal?” I shot my hand straight up into the air and proudly proclaimed, “Rice and beans!” The response: “How pedestrian.” Clearly my professor never had my Mama’s rice and beans!

As a very picky eater, I’ve always had an extreme love affair with rice and beans. I turned my nose up at many dishes and even mastered a very dramatic gag reflex to express my dissatisfaction with the smell of certain foods. The one thing I never said “no” to was a bowl of rice and beans.

My mother is Puerto Rican and my father Dominican, so rice and beans were a staple in our home. It was guaranteed I could experience the hunger-quenching satisfaction of my mother’s rice and beans at least three times a week. The weekly menu consisted of yellow rice cooked along with the beans or pigeon peas (moro de habichuelas) or fluffy grains of white rice enveloped by tender beans in a creamy and flavorful sauce made with a sofrito base (arroz con habichuelas guisadas). Sofrito, the holy grail of Puerto Rican and Dominican foods, is the base flavor in many of traditional recipes. (see the recipe below)

Rice and beans are a love letter to our Spanish, indigenous and African heritage. They are the national dish of both P.R. (arroz con gandules––yellow rice with pigeon peas) and the D.R. (la bandera––white rice, red beans and meat). Spanish settlers and enslaved Africans are credited with bringing rice to our shores as meat was not a huge part of the diet.

A comforting staple dish, rice and beans is a complete meal on its own. It is cost effective and it is one of the healthiest dishes you can eat, loaded with protein, minerals, and fiber. Traditionally made with white rice, I have adapted my mother’s recipe with brown rice for even more fiber. (see recipe below)

As simple as rice and beans is to prepare, sometimes you just want someone else to make it (like me…the chef). So here are my official East Harlem go-to places you must try:

• La Lechonera on East 125th Street delivers and the food is authentic and consistent – I ordered twice in two days!

• Cuchifritos on East 116th Street is an economical choice and killed the craving.

Culturally significant or a family favorite, Puerto Rican style rice and beans is one of my most popular cooking classes––second only to empanadas. Please give the recipe below a try and let me know how it goes.

Happy cooking and as we say before a good meal, buen provecho!

Puerto Rican Brown Rice & Beans

Serves 6

Ingredients

2 ounces olive oil

4 tablespoons, sofrito (recipe follows)

6-ounce can tomato sauce

1 15-ounce can black beans, drained (OR white beans, chickpeas, pink beans, pigeon peas, or corn)

½ medium onion, chopped

2 ounces pimento stuffed olives, rinsed

1 pound brown rice, rinsed

3½ cups boiled water

Salt and pepper to taste

Sofrito – a base of many Puerto Rican meals, blend the following and it can be stored for 1 week in fridge, 3 months in freezer.

1 medium green bell (seeds removed)

1 medium onion (peeled)

1 head of garlic (peeled)

1/2 bunch cilantro leaves

6 ajies dulces (small sweet chile peppers. NOTE: resemble habanero peppers)

Directions

Heat a large pot, caldero, or Dutch oven and add the oil.

Once the oil is hot, add sofrito mixture and sauté for 1 minute. Add tomato sauce and sauté until combined. The sauce in the pot will thicken and be a homogenized mixture.

Add beans, onions, and olives; sauté for 2 minutes. Once combined, add the rice. Sauté the mixture for 3-5 minutes on low to medium heat. Add hot water, and season mixture with salt and pepper (taste to adjust flavor). Cook for 6-8 minutes until there is just a thin layer of bubbling water over the rice. After most of the water has dried up, turn/stir the rice with a large spoon, and drop the heat to a low flame; cover the pot. Cook for 45 minutes to an hour.

Eileen Barett is a chef, nutrition educator, culinary instructor, flavor consultant and the executive chef at Aromas Boutique bakery. Visit her at www.chefeileen.life, @AromasBakery on Instagram, Chef Eileen on YouTube.

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