A Puerto Rican Feast: Pernil, Tostones, Cuban Beans, Arroz Con Gandules

I'm half Puerto Rican and half Latvian. That means I'm genetically predisposed to pork.

I dig the pig, I'm fine with the swine. And whatever shortcomings I've got, I've at least been able to parlay that heritage into being able to cook. My father could too, although he never made the same recipe twice, owing to the fact that he never wrote anything down.


But my mother did. Here's an easy menu that stays simple and familiar — pork roast, beans, rice — while adding some unfamiliar ingredients — plantains, pigeon peas — without getting exotic or complicated.

This is a "Spanish" menu, and not one that evokes tapas. A nod to my Puerto Rican abuela, who claims that I'm at least partially of European Spanish descent. My father claims I'm 1/16 cannibal, but I don't really have any recipes for that.

Illustration for article titled A Puerto Rican Feast: Pernil, Tostones, Cuban Beans, Arroz Con Gandules

Pernil, a garlicky pork roast

  • one 3-4 lb. pork roast, preferably a shoulder roast
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 6 peppercorns
  • 1 tsp kosher salt per 1/2 lb. of roast, so usually 6 or so
  • 1 1/2 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil

I've recently taken to getting shoulder roasts from Bradley Farm at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket on Saturdays, but feel free to consult your favorite source. The great thing about pork is it doesn't have to be expensive. Unless you buy organic, where I routinely blow $30 for a roast. Stupid? Genius?


Using a mortar and pestle, crack the peppercorns and combine the garlic, salt and oregano. Crush the cloves of garlic: you're going to want nice slivers and chunks, not slices. Add the olive oil once you've thoroughly mixed the dry ingredients. The results will be sort of a wet, sandlike paste.

Prepare the roast by patting dry, setting it fat-side down, and cutting a diamond-like pattern in the top with a sharp knife, using crisscrossing diagonal cuts. Since the roast will likely be tied with string, be mindful of the string but don't sweat it if you cut it. While you're wielding a knife, make some deep plunging cuts in the roast, creating 1- to 2-inch pockets in the meat.


Take your moist adobo mixture and rub the roast thoroughly. The crisscross cuts will provide some nice crevices for the mixture, so work it into the meat. Remember those deep plunge cuts? Stuff those with slivers of the garlic, or even whole cloves. It is now ready for the oven.

The oven should be at 325 degrees, or 350 if it runs cooler. The pernil will take about 90 minutes- 25-30 minutes per pound.


When the peril is done — I aim for about 160 degrees internal temperature — remove to a cutting board and let it sit for about 10 minutes to finish cooking. You'll have a lovely crust on top, and the fat on the bottom should have a nice chicharron quality, a crispy layer that adds flavor and texture.

Using a sharp knife, slice the beast between the strings, into inch-thick portions. If you did it correctly, you may get cross-sections of the garlic you stuffed into the meat, almost like pistachios in mortadella. That's a good sign, my friend.


Tostones, fried savory plantains

  • 3 green plantains, unripe
  • 1 cup olive oil (or your preferred lighter frying oil)
  • kosher salt to taste

Making tostones is easier with two people. Again, be sure to use green plantains: tostones are savory and starchy, unlike their cousins, maduros, which are made from ripe plantains and are sweet. Remove the plantain skins, and cut each one into about 1 inch pieces. Pour the olive oil into a shallow skillet or frying pan: you want enough to cover each piece about halfway. Get the oil nice and hot (mm hmm!), and place the plantains into the oil so that they are cooking round side down.

Illustration for article titled A Puerto Rican Feast: Pernil, Tostones, Cuban Beans, Arroz Con Gandules

The oil at once becomes a hazard, but have fun with it. While one side browns in the oil, prepare a hard surface with paper towels: you can use a large butcher block, even a plate will do. Flip the plantains to brown the other side. When they are lightly browned, remove them and cover with additional paper towels. Here's the fun part: apply pressure on each piece using a rolling pin, cutting board or the heel of your hands. Just be sure to press STRAIGHT DOWN. The result should be a uniform set of plantains about 1/2 inch thick and 2-3 inches across, preserving their rounded tops and bottoms.


Then! Throw these back into the hot oil until they are a golden brown. Drain on paper towels, season with kosher salt-or for a touch of variety add just a touch of granulated sugar as well.

Cuban Beans (should be called Puerto Rican black beans, really)

  • 2 cans of black beans, drained and rinsed (or you can use dried)
  • 1/2 Spanish onion
  • 1/2 green pepper
  • 2 tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • white vinegar
  • olive oil
  • 1 bay leaf

Throw your beans into a good-sized saucepan and get them going over low-medium heat. You already know this, but you should be using Goya black beans. Since the onions and the peppers take the longest to soften, throw those in next. Eyeball the veggies: you want them to complement the beans, not the other way around. Ideally, a 2/3 beans to 1/3 veggies mix is what you are aiming for, but feel free to adjust to suit your proclivities.


Add the tomato paste, vinegar, olive oil, bay leaf and cumin, then stir the holy heck out of everything for maximum flavor integration. You may also add some Goya Adobo to taste. Lower the heat to simmer, stir occasionally and watch for the beans sticking. Once they are done, you can always remove them and re-heat quickly before serving.

Arroz Con Gandules, rice with pigeon peas

  • 1 cup white or yellow rice (I generally prefer yellow, but white is fine)
  • 1 can Goya pigeon peas
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • tomato paste to taste
  • 1 bay leaf

The rice is even easier: make the rice however you normally make rice. I use the old-fashioned method with water and a saucepan, but if you have a rice cooker then by all means indulge. Once the rice is just this side of done, throw in the other ingredients and mix thoroughly. If you used white rice, the tomato paste should result in a nice rosy hue.


While some of the ingredients are seemingly exotic, this is still a rustic meal. Forgo the Reidel stems and use simple Italian wine glasses like these awesome ones from Fish's Eddy.

In keeping with the theme, I generally like to accompany all of this awesomeness with a Spanish red wine. Go Priorat if you're feeling indulgent (and spendy), but remember a couple of things. This is a rustic meal, so a good tempranillo or monastrell will work just fine. Second, there's plenty going on flavor-wise with the food, so simpler, more earthy wines — Pinots, for example — are a better bet than juicy Zinfandels.


A version of this recipe appeared on The Awl on 30 August, 2010.

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