We return to the subject of Latin American cooking with Alyssa. This time, we visit my grandmother’s signature meal, arroz con gandules. Puerto Rican Spanish for “rice with pigeon peas,” this is a hearty meal on its own or accompanied with meat or a salad. It follows the Puerto Rican tradition of “one-pot meals,” making it relatively simple to learn and a staple when my grandmother entertains guests or contributes to holiday platters. I look forward to tasting hers again…if I am again welcome there.
First things first, though: pigeon peas. These are an established ingredient in South Asian and East African cuisine, but might be less familiar to readers from other backgrounds. The pigeon-pea plant, Cajanus cajan, originated in semiarid parts of South Asia and spread widely via human cultivation. It was already a staple foodstuff in many parts of Africa when the European slave trade began, and was among the culinary traditions and crops that also made the forced, violent Atlantic crossing. C. cajan is a nitrogen-fixing plant, forming symbiotic colonies in its roots that trap and convert atmospheric nitrogen into forms plants and other organisms can use. In this way, pigeon pea cultivation not only permits the use of poor or depleted soil for human sustenance, but enriches the soil for the next crop. This set of properties made pigeon peas a staple crop for lower-income Puerto Ricans. To this day, this African standard is a critical part of Puerto Rican cuisine, particularly in rural communities that depend on its indifference to environmental conditions. My grandmother grows C. cajan in our backyard in Miami. The English name hints at the low regard with which Europeans historically held this ingredient.
Where I am, the easiest source of pigeon peas is any of various South Asian groceries. South Asian groceries cater primarily to South Asian patrons, however, which introduces a difference between their stock and what Puerto Rican cuisine expects. Puerto Rican gandules are typically acquired fresh or canned while still green, while the pigeon peas sold in South Asian groceries are typically sold fully ripened and dried. Afro-Caribbean groceries are more likely to carry canned gandules. Fully ripened pigeon peas are much more nutritious than their immature kin, but have a different flavor. I’ll explore the exact distinctions and accommodations required to use this version of pigeon peas before providing advice about it.
As described here arroz con gandules uses smoked ham or salt pork. Arroz con gandules is something people make with the most common, least expensive, least finicky pickings of their farms. Puerto Ricans have other, more decadent plans in mind for fresh pork. A dish like this calls for inexpensive, easy-to-stockpile cured meat, otherwise meant to ease the space between pig harvests and patch over lean times. Combined with the rustic and African-derived ingredients, this makes arroz con gandules and other dishes like it the subject of derision in wealthier, whiter, more urban communities.
This recipe serves six and reheats well.
You will need a stovetop or similar bottom-up heat source, your favorite cutting and chopping tools, a long wooden spoon for stirring, and a large pot or saucepan. The traditional pot for arroz con gandules and most other Puerto Rican one-pot dishes is the caldero, a cast-aluminum pot with curved, medium-height sides and a fitted lid. Similar in concept to the “Dutch oven” style of cast-iron pot, this is a versatile and convenient addition to any kitchen and is easier to clean after use with rice than a stainless-steel, straight-sided pot. Anything with similar properties and appropriate volume will do the job; the close-fitting lid is important.
- Pigeon peas (gandules), 1 cup dried or 1 lb fresh/canned
- Water (see “Soaking the Pigeon Peas”)
- Salt (see “Soaking the Pigeon Peas”)
- Sofrito. This Puerto Rican traditional flavoring comes in several varieties. Sofrito can be made in advance and stored frozen or dried for use in this and other recipes. The one my grandmother uses for her arroz con gandules consists of the following:
- Tomato sauce, ¼ cup. Substitute with 2 tablespoons tomato paste, 2 tablespoons water, and 2 tablespoons honey.
- Garlic, 2 cloves
- Yellow Spanish onion, 1, small
- Green bell pepper, 1, without seeds
- Sweet chili peppers, 3, without seeds. Substitute with 1 teaspoon of Sriracha or 1 dried hot pepper.
- Fresh culantro/recao leaves, 3. Substitute with a slightly higher quantity of cilantro.
- Oregano, ½ teaspoon
- Smoked ham or salt pork, 2 ounces
- Annatto/achiote oil, 2 tablespoons. This is vegetable oil or lard colored with extract from annatto seeds and is responsible for the rich yellow color in Puerto Rican rice. To make annatto oil, heat 2 cups of the fat of choice with 1 cup of annatto seeds for at least five minutes, until the oil takes on the red color of the seeds. Strain out and discard the seeds. Achiote oil can be made in advance and stored refrigerated for use in this and other recipes. Annatto seeds can be substituted with paprika or saffron to similar effect in the above procedure. Alternately, the fat can be used directly, but will not impart color to the rice.
- White rice, 2 cups
- Pimento-stuffed manzanilla olives, 6
- Capers, ½ teaspoon
Soaking the Pigeon Peas
Pigeon peas often need to be soaked prior to cooking, or they will be somewhere between inedibly hard and far crunchier than this recipe demands. Depending on what kind of pigeon peas you’ve acquired, the amount of soaking time will vary. All of these steps should be completed shortly before the steps in “Preparation”; soaked or drained gandules have a very short shelf life.
Fresh: Fresh gandules are usually sold in intact pods. Boil the pods for 5-7 minutes to soften them so that they can be easily opened by hand. Discard this water. Then, soak the gandules in 4 cups of water and 2 teaspoons of salt for 15 minutes. Boil this water until the gandules are soft enough to squeeze between two fingers. Drain them and retain this water for use elsewhere in the recipe.
Canned: Canned gandules do not need to be soaked. Drain them and retain the liquid for use elsewhere in the recipe.
Dried: Rinse the dried peas to remove dust. Soak for at least 24 hours. Use a ratio of 1 cup of peas to 2.5 cups of water to 0.5 tablespoons of salt. Retain this liquid for later use in the recipe. The peas should be soft enough to squeeze between two fingers.
Note that the liquid drained from canned or dried pigeon peas will contain some of the complex sugars that induce intestinal gas and make beans troublesome for people with digestive conditions. The recipe can proceed if this liquid is discarded for their sake and replaced with ordinary water, instead of being retained. If you do not retain the water, add salt to the rice to compensate.
- Dice the smoked ham and set aside.
- Finely chop or blend the tomato sauce, garlic, green bell pepper, sweet chili peppers, culantro, and oregano into sofrito and set aside.
- Rinse the rice and set aside. This helps keep it from becoming sticky.
- In your caldero, add the oil and smoked ham and simmer over moderate heat for about three minutes while stirring.
- Add the sofrito and simmer for another three minutes while continuing to stir.
- Increase the heat to moderate-high, add 2 tablespoons of the retained water, add the gandules, olives, and capers, and simmer for another 3 minutes while continuing to stir.
- Raise heat to high, add the remaining water, and bring to a boil. If the retained water is less than 2 cups of water per cup of rice, make up the difference with ordinary water.
- Add the rice and stir well. Bring to a boil again.
- Once the water begins to boil again, reduce the heat to moderate-high and continue to cook uncovered until most of the water evaporates.
- Reduce heat to low, stir the rice again, and cover for 15 minutes.
- Stir the rice and cook until done.
Arroz con gandules is a stand-alone dish and does not require accompaniment. Its beans and ham mean that most people find it hearty and filling enough without an additional protein portion. A simple salad can add variety and brightness, however, and is often welcome. This dish is also much easier to modify for vegetarian and vegan users than most Puerto Rican food, requiring the removal of only one ingredient, and is naturally gluten-free.