Date Squares, Alyssa Style

Canadian coffee shops hold little allure for me, as a tea drinker who is well aware that her tastes are an afterthought in this space. I have spent a great deal more time in them than I ever wanted to, but I do appreciate one thing that happened in Canada’s coffee shops: me getting introduced to date squares. Invented in Newfoundland, this distinctively Canadian pastry is two layers of oat and flour crust around a filling of date paste, and it mingles crunch, sweetness, sourness, and general heft to satisfying effect. There is a strange irony to encountering dates more often living in Canada than I did in Miami, given that I come from a culture strongly influenced by Mediterranean cooking, but life has a way of surprising us.

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Date Squares, Alyssa Style
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Pasta a la Boricua, Alyssa Style

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.

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Pasta a la Boricua, Alyssa Style

Banana Nut Bread, Alyssa Style

Baking is, famously, a different beast entirely from other kinds of cooking. Particularly for bread, it depends on careful ratios and a fair bit of luck and isn’t as amenable to mid-stream course corrections as most other techniques. It’s easy to end up with loaf after loaf of grimly tolerable bread or overly dry cake and not know what to do with it. I decided to challenge myself recently with a foray into one of the easier kinds of baking, with a twist to make it fit within my dietary restrictions.

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Banana Nut Bread, Alyssa Style

Johnnycakes, Alyssa Style

One of the subtler lessons of food blogging is that everything is connected. Influences range far and wide, ingredients travel the globe, and especially in mixing places like North America, our foodways inevitably coalesce out of a mix of origins and practices. So, today I’m going to tell you about how I made gluten-free johnnycakes.

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Johnnycakes, Alyssa Style

Cacerola Bayamo, Alyssa Style

Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, and with that size comes more regional variety than outsiders realize. In particular, the Oriente region of Cuba, facing Haiti and closer to the equator than the rest of this already-tropical island, are known for spicier fare than parts farther north. Bayamo, one of the oldest cities in Cuba, is at the heart of this region, and gives its name to this curious casserole.

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Cacerola Bayamo, Alyssa Style

Chuletas a la Jardinera, Alyssa Style

A quick survey of the dishes I’ve presented so far might present the impression that Puerto Rico’s and Cuba’s primary proteins are sausage, beans, and beef. Beef certainly has a prominent place in Cuban cuisine, but in Puerto Rico, the place of honor goes to the pig. (And we haven’t even started exploring the chicken possibilities that these gastronomies offer.) Like everything else about Puerto Rican cooking, the pig became the fixture it is today because pigs are easier to raise in Puerto Rico’s difficult terrain than cattle, and less expensive for an island with a long history of poverty and neglect from is colonial masters. I’ve neglected my way into a nostalgic fixation with the pork dishes of my youth, so, here are chuletas a la jardinera, or, “garden pork chops.”

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Chuletas a la Jardinera, Alyssa Style

Frijoles Negros, Alyssa Style

This recipe is as much a requiem as a celebration.

Frijoles negros, black beans, are at the center of the Antillean Hispanic culinary constellation. Any group meal will have them, any celebration platter will center them, and any rotation of different dishes will find them eventually. One does not experience the food of Puerto Rico, Cuba, or the Dominican Republic without dining on black beans and rice. I made this meal the center of numerous efforts to impress non-Hispanic paramours, and I kept it in my repertoire because of how constant, and powerful, its memories are.

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Frijoles Negros, Alyssa Style

Papas Rellenas, Alyssa Style

The papa rellena, or “filled potato,” is some of Latin America’s finest party food. A papa rellena is mashed potato made into a meat-filled dumpling/fritter, breaded, and deep-fried. They emerge from the fryer looking like small loaves of golden-brown joy, and provide a deeply engaging combination of textures when bitten. I’m a big fan, and I challenged myself recently with learning how to make them, as part of a foray into more technically challenging Hispanic recipes.

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Papas Rellenas, Alyssa Style

Coquito, Alyssa Style

Where there are Puerto Ricans celebrating something in the latter half of the year, there is coquito. My people’s answer to eggnog, coquito is much stronger and creamier than its American cousin, almost a dessert in beverage form. The family coquito recipe is a closely-held treasure, differing from those of other families and passed down by grandmothers. She will make the batch in semi-secrecy, usually without assistance, to maintain this mystique. To receive it in her practiced script is an honor, accorded to trusted daughters and daughters-in-law to keep the knowledge alive.

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Coquito, Alyssa Style