Cuisine is a conversation. Foodways are not static and nothing traditional is the age people think it is. For a culinary tradition as circumstantial and inventive as Puerto Rican food, this is especially true, as new low-cost ingredients get incorporated into old patterns. That’s where this entry in our journey appears: pasta in tomato sauce, but make it Puerto Rican.
An important part of this story is the history of dry pasta. Dry pasta is a distinct creation from fresh pasta, designed to be stored for long periods where fresh pasta degrades over time. As a result, the dough used to make dry pasta is not the same as the dough for fresh pasta, in particular rarely including egg. Although it is easy to imagine dry pasta as a recent, industrial invention, records of dry pasta as a trade good go back to at least the 13th century. That being said, dry pasta’s status as a product with a relatively simple recipe designed to be shipped and stored for long periods made it ideal for industrialization in the 20th century, and this plus the growing Italian diaspora throughout the Americas helped bring dry pasta dishes to many parts of Latin America and to many Hispanic communities in the United States. As in Italian-American cooking proper, the differing availability of ingredients in Puerto Rico led to different emphasis in the dishes to follow. Italian-American cooking features much more beef than cooking in Italy, and in Puerto Rico, the proteins of choice were chicken and pork. The result is as simple as it is profound: a pasta in red sauce that is not Italian in character, but Hispanic.
There are as many different versions of this concept as there are people who make it, as the selection of recipes available online will attest. This one is mine, adapted from Puerto Rican Cookery by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli, one of the foremost authorities on Puerto Rican cooking, and fitted to my preferences. As far as I know, other people haven’t started calling it pasta a la Boricua yet, but I hope my name for it catches on.
This recipe serves four and reheats as well as the pasta used with it.
You will need a stove or similar bottom-up heat source, a pot for boiling water for pasta, another pot for cooking meat and making the sauce, a selection of spatulas and/or wooden spoons, and your favorite measuring tools. The traditional pot for this application 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. Anything with similar properties and appropriate volume will do the job; the close-fitting lid is important.
- Chorizo, approximately 10 cm of typical-diameter length.
- Chicken thighs, 4 or 5
- Green bell pepper, ½
- Oregano, 1 tablespoon.
- Cuban oregano, 2 tablespoons.
- Cooking oil, 2 tablespoons. Olive oil is traditional.
- Dried hot pepper, 1
- Sazón, 1 tablespoon. Substitute salt, 1 tablespoon.
- Pimento-stuffed Manzanilla olives, ½ cup
- Capers, 1 teaspoon
- Canned whole tomatoes, 1 (796 mL)
- Dry pasta, 375 g. Rotini is ideal.
- Salt and water for pasta.
- Parmesan cheese for garnish (optional).
- Variations: Thicken the sauce with tomato paste, or thin it by including premade tomato sauce.
Common Food Restrictions
- Gluten-Free: This recipe is naturally gluten free if the sausage used with it is gluten-free.
- Ketogenic / Low-Carb: Substitute konjac noodles or another low-carb alternative for the most carbohydrate-rich ingredients.
- Low-FODMAP: Reduce use of sazón and chorizo, which contain onion and garlic. Consider not using cheese as a garnish to reduce lactose.
- Vegetarian/Vegan: Substitute out chorizo and chicken for vegan meat alternatives of choice. This recipe otherwise contains no animal products.
- Cut chorizo and chicken into small pieces. Blenderize green bell pepper. Finely dice herbs.
- Heat oil in caldero on medium and sauté chorizo for five minutes.
- Reduce heat to low, add green bell pepper, dried hot pepper, and sazón, and continue sautéing for 10 minutes.
- Add chicken pieces and cook until pink no longer shows. They do not need to be cooked all the way through yet.
- Add olives, capers, oregano, Cuban oregano, and canned whole tomatoes. Mix and cook while preparing the pasta (next step). Be sure to squeeze tomatoes as they cook.
- In a separate pot, prepare pasta according to package directions. It is wise to undercook the pasta slightly so that it can finish in the sauce.
- When the pasta is complete, drain. If desired, add some pasta water to the sauce to thicken it and cook the sauce longer before adding the pasta.
- Add pasta to the sauce and continue cooking until pasta’s recommended cooking time is complete.
- Let cool and serve, garnished as desired with parmesan cheese.
With its distinctive spice combination and rustic presentation, this dish provides a welcome twist on the American classic of pasta in red sauce. I’ve enjoyed it and look forward to make it a regular part of my culinary routine. I hope it serves you all well.