I had a very special experience last night. I cooked for Ania’s parents for the first time, as part of her father’s birthday festivities. I made a point not to cook something elaborate and time-consuming, though, as one might expect of a holiday meal. Instead, I went with something simple that shows off Puerto Rican cooking techniques that is also very special to me: arroz con salchichas. I look forward to arroz con salchichas every time a visit to Miami is in the offing, and after long, tense absence, I missed it profoundly. As tensions with my parents continue to rise and fall like so many narcissist tides, bringing this dish to a family that accepts me with enthusiasm is an emotional coup. As I come to recognize my belated mastery of this dish, that I had tried to learn how to make intermittently since I moved to Ottawa, I am ebullient.
Arroz con salchichas, like the other Puerto Rican food I have come to love and understand, is the product of poverty. Its achiote coloring is a local, less expensive substitute for Spanish saffron, and its salchichas are not fancy Spanish chorizo or Serrano ham, but Vienna sausage one can now find in grocery stores for less than $1 per can. Cured meat, in all of its forms, is a fixture of La Isla Bonita’s staple dishes, something the well-to-do among us disdain and the rest of us recognize and enjoy.
Perceptive readers will notice that this recipe is very similar to my arroz con gandules. “Puerto Rican rice” could very well be its own recipe, consistent between rice-based dishes across Puerto Rican cuisine, and this provides a shared base from which to innovate. Arroz con salchichas effectively substitutes the pigeon peas, salt pork, and Manzanilla olives of arroz con gandules with its eponymous sausage, and adjusts some steps accordingly. Like the previous rice dish, it is generally hearty enough on its own to not require additional protein, but benefits from lettuce or another salad alongside.
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 salchichas 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-steal, straight-sided pot. Anything with similar properties and appropriate volume will do the job; the close-fitting lid is important.
- 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 I use for arroz con salchichas 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
- Annatto/achiote oil, 2 tablespoons.
- This is vegetable oil or lard colored with extract from Bixa orellana 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.
- A third option is Badía-brand sazón with annatto and coriander, sprinkled generously.
- White rice, 2 cups.
- Water for the rice, 4 cups
- Salt for the rice, if sazón is not used
- Vienna sausages, 2 cans
- Capers, ½ teaspoon
Sofrito can be made in advance and stored frozen or dried. My mother prefers a simpler mix of garlic, green bell pepper, and Spanish onion, which my household now puts in just about every meat dish.
- Finely chop or blend the tomato sauce, garlic, green bell pepper, sweet chili peppers, culantro, and oregano into sofrito and set aside. For this sofrito, include the liquid from the Vienna sausage cans as well.
- Rinse the rice and set aside. This helps keep it from becoming sticky.
- In your caldero, add the oil, sofrito, and capers and simmer over moderate heat for about three minutes while stirring.
- Raise heat to high, add the water, and bring to a boil.
- If desired, chop the sausages in half for smaller pieces.
- Add the rice and sausages and stir well. If you are using sazón, add it here. 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. Stirring is important because the sausages float and so are found only at the top of the rice when it is done cooking.
This is Puerto Rican comfort food, relatively simple to make and rewarding to eat. It comes with warmth, calm, and nostalgia. May it come to be associated with similar joys for you.