Puerto Rican Rice

July 29, 2017 – Jose’ Feliciana and Manuel Iguina.

They are all I know about Puerto Rico.

I once shared the first class cabin on a flight with Jose’ Feliciana.  He’s a very pleasant traveling companion.  We spent much of the flight being embarrassed by a boorish man who insisted on telling Jose’ where to get the best Mexican food at our destination city.  Jose’ was patient but eventually and quite politely pointed out that he is Puerto Rican, not Mexican.  There’s a difference.

Manuel Iguina is another good guy.  He is a restaurateur in Washington, D.C.  He owned Mio, one of the best restaurants in a city full of restaurants.  It became my go to hangout when I was in town.  Here’s the piece I wrote about Mio.  http://travelsthroughalife.com/?cat=6&paged=2

I was greatly saddened to hear that Manuel closed Mio down not too long ago.  Possibly in remembrance, I decided recently that I wanted to know more about Puerto Rican food.

Puerto Ricans, I learned, tend to refer to their cuisine as “cocina criolla.”  Creole cooking.  It contains elements of the many cultures that have passed through the island.  Beginning with the Arawaks and Tainos, the first inhabitants of the island who ate fruit and seafood, cocina criolla adopted elements of later arrivals.  Spanish, Cuban, Mexican, African, and American.  Puerto Rico took the best of them all to create their own unique cuisine.  But it was the European Spanish who influenced island cooking most.

Puerto Rican dishes often begin with a sofrito, which can include tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, onions, and garlic.  A sofrito, or something similar to it, is common in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and throughout Latin America.

Adobo can mean different things depending on where you are.  In Puerto Rico it’s a spice mixture, usually (but not always) consisting of salt, pepper, oregano, garlic powder, onion powder, and turmeric.

As in other Latin American cooking, annatto is often used in Puerto Rican dishes.  With a relatively mild flavor, it’s most often used to impart a golden color to a dish.  As it’s difficult to find, a similar effect can be achieved with paprika, turmeric, saffron, or a combination of any or all of them.  I used all three.

Arroz con gandules is often mentioned as something akin to the island’s national dish.  Rice with pigeon peas.  That’s what I wanted to make but I couldn’t find pigeon peas.  I had to make do with what I had.  Plain old green peas from the freezer.

So with apologies and due respect to Jose’, Manuel, and the entire island, here’s my take on Puerto Rican rice.

And, by the way, this is an excellent accompaniment to a ribeye!

Puerto Rican Rice

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 yellow onion, diced

1/2 roasted red pepper, diced

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 cup peas

1 tablespoon paprika

1 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon cumin

pinch of cinnamon

pinch of saffron

Salt & pepper to taste

2 cups water

1 cup rice

In a heavy pot with a tight lid, heat the olive oil.

Saute’ the onion, garlic and roasted red pepper until they are softened, being careful that the garlic doesn’t burn.  It should take about five minutes.

Add the spices.  Stir to mix.

Add the water.  Bring it to a boil.

Add the rice and turn the heat to low.  Cover and let the rice simmer for 20 minutes without disturbing it.

Bon temps!






Zia’s Italian Café & Gelato Bar

July 19, 2017 – Twice she brought home small, hand pies from a nearby bakery.  Blueberry and apple.  The crust enclosing the fruit filling was as good as I’ve ever eaten.  I preferred the apple filling but I would probably eat that crust with most anything enfolded in it.  It’s that good.  I had to visit Zia’s Italian Café & Gelato Bar.

Zia’s is a small, brilliant jewel.  It is a coffee house that serves the finest coffee in beautiful presentations.

It’s a gelato bar offering multiple flavors of creamy gelato made in house.

It’s a bakery where pastry chef Sergio Mendoza-Orta produces  an assortment of sweets enclosed in that magnificent, perfect crust.  And rows of other delectable delicacies.

If you want lunch, they offer a selection of excellent spuntini.  Translated literally spuntini are “snacks.”  Small plates.

It’s a little bit of Italy in California.

Owner Shari Coia Fulton stopped by my table to say hello.  She opened Zia’s eight years ago in Placerville.  After four and a half years, she moved the café a few miles down the road to El Dorado Hills.  She oversees a staff that is friendly and helpful.  A staff that makes it downright fun to be there.

Matteo Boger manages the front of the house.  Desiray and Sean seemed pretty easy to manage from what I could see.  Both showed up with the courses I had ordered at just the right time.  Memorable service.

In the kitchen, Chef Sergio works his magic daily turning out one pastry after another.    Desiray also spends time in the kitchen.  The day I was there she had started early in the morning making scones.  More magic.

I was hungry.  I ordered the Roman Holiday.  Bacon, eggs, tomato, shaved Parmigiana-Reggiano cheese nestled in a piadina.  Piadina is a thin flatbread most often associated with the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.  With Bologna as its capital, Emilia-Romagna is surrounded by the better known Tuscany, Lombardy, and Veneto.  With Florence, Milan, and Venice as competition, Bologna gets little attention.  The piadina, however, has been added to Italy’s list of traditional regional food products and attributed to the Emilia-Romagna region.

My piadina was excellent.  It was very light, a quality that transferred nicely to the ingredients.  Satisfying but not heavy.  A perfect mid day spuntini.

I asked for a medium gelato.  Peach melba.  I got three scoops of Italy’s famous answer to ice cream.  Gelato has less fat content than ice cream.  Also less air.  It has a smooth texture that just isn’t found in traditional American ice cream.  Zia’s gelato is excellent.

Zia’s offers a lot of chocolate.  And their chocolate comes from TCHO in San Francisco.  I’ve visited TCHO.  It’s all about chocolate.  It’s a place for chocolate lovers. You can read about TCHO here.  http://travelsthroughalife.com/?cat=5&paged=4

But after devouring my spuntini and gelato, I was content.

They were out of the blueberry hand pies that day.  I had to settle for two apple pies to take home.

Guess I’ll have to go back for the blueberry.



Shrimp Cakes

July 15, 2017 – I had been reading about bacalhau.  Portuguese dried cod.

I don’t know much about Portuguese cuisine.  But I do know the search for food has driven much of the history of our world.  The global exploration that began with the Vikings landing in North America some time around 1100 A.D., then exploded in the late 15th century, was fueled by the search for cod.  Well, also maybe gold and a few other things.  But cod was a big driver.  And the Portuguese were major players in exploring the far corners of the earth in those days.

Cod was an important food source because it was easily dried.  That meant it had a long shelf life.  Let’s not forget.  Life in those days was all about finding food.  Every day.  There was no supermarket or even a corner grocery store.  In those days you killed it, grew it or stole it.  There were no options.

The Portuguese make a fish cake.  I suggested we might try that.  My wife wasn’t thrilled.  She liked the idea of a seafood cake.  It was the fish part that didn’t appeal to her.  We thought about crab cakes.  I mean, really.  Who doesn’t like crab cakes?  But we’ve eaten a lot of crab cakes.  As usual we were looking to try something new.  We settled on shrimp cakes.

I put together this recipe using the small crustaceans we call Petersburg shrimp in Alaska.  Elsewhere they’re usually called salad shrimp.  I thought they would work better pressed into a cake.  You can use larger shrimp if you wish.  Just chop them into relatively small pieces.

For bread crumbs we like to use Panko.  They have a larger flake which lets them soak up more of whatever flavorings they’re mixed into.

I include Creole mustard in the recipe because I like it.  Any dark and/or spicy mustard will work.

My wife made a spicy Tartar-style sauce and a green salad featuring some onions she had pickled a few days before.  The shrimp cakes resting on the salad, dribbled with the sauce, were really terrific.

Shrimp Cakes

(Makes six cakes)

1 cup Panko bread crumbs

1/2 cup olive oil

2 eggs

1/2 pound Petersburg (salad) shrimp, chopped

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 onion, finely minced

1 tablespoon parsley, finely minced

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

1/4 cup roasted red pepper, finely minced

2 tablespoons Creole mustard

1 tablespoon dried dill

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Salt, pepper & cayenne to taste

Combine the Panko crumbs with 1/4 cup of the olive oil.  Mix together until the oil is absorbed.

Lightly beat the eggs.  Add the eggs and shrimp to the bowl and stir to mix with the bread crumbs.

Add the coriander, onion, parsley, paprika, mustard, roasted red pepper, dill, and lemon juice.  Season to taste with salt, pepper, and cayenne.

Stir until all the ingredients are integrated.

Shape the shrimp mixture into round, flat patties.

Heat the remaining 1/4 cup of olive in a large, heavy skillet.  Cook the fish patties until they are browned, about three minutes per side.

Bon temps!





Potatoes au Gratin with Personality

July 5, 2017 – My wife wanted potatoes au gratin.  It’s one of her favorites.  It would be on the list for her last meal.

Potatoes au gratin or scalloped potatoes.  Either works for  her.

What’s the difference you ask?  Not much these days.  Originally potatoes au gratin involved cheese; scalloped potatoes did not.  But times change.  The terms have become interchangeable.  Except, perhaps, for die hard purists.

I planned to go with the original au gratin approach.  Lots of cheese.  I had red potatoes, or new potatoes as they’re called in the south.  I also had some Pace picante sauce, some roasted red peppers that I needed to use, a jalapeno, and a ham steak.  While au gratin potatoes are traditionally bizonal, i.e., one dish dominated by two elements, I thought the addition of the other items would brighten it up.  Give it a little personality.

When I took it out of the oven it was beautiful.  The cheese topping was beautifully browned.  I spooned out a small amount to taste and found it delicious.  Potatoes, cheese, and a hint of spice.  How could anyone not like this?

I sent her a picture via text.  The jars of salsa and roasted red peppers were in the picture.  I received a message back.

Her:  “Did you put those peppers and salsa in there?”

Me:  “Certainly.  And a jalapeno.”

Her:  “Hmmmm.  I’m an au gratin purist.”


But fortune turned in my favor.  That evening she tried the potatoes.  Then she had seconds.

“These are the best au gratin potatoes I’ve ever eaten,” she said.

Potatoes au Gratin with Personality

(Dinner for two twice; lunch for one once)

3 pounds red potatoes, cut into 1/4 inch slices

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 jalapeno, sliced

1 tablespoon parsley, minced

1 1/2 cup ham, cubed

1/4 cup chopped roasted red pepper

3 tablespoons salsa

1 tablespoon garlic powder

Salt & pepper to taste

4 cups grated cheese (I used cheddar because it’s what I had on hand.)

1/2 cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 350.

Melt the butter and warm the oil in a non stick skillet.

Saute’ the jalapeno in the butter and oil until it is softened and beginning to brown.

Stir the jalapeno together with the ham, roasted red pepper, and parsley.  Add the salsa and garlic powder.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Mix well.

Layer an oven proof dish measuring roughly eight by 11 with sliced potatoes.  Spread half the salsa mixture over the potato slices.  Cover generously with grated cheese.  Pour half the heavy cream over the layer.

Repeat with a second layer being sure to completely cover the top with cheese.  Pour the remaining cup of cream over the top layer.

Bake for an hour.  Reduce the oven temperature to 325 and bake for another half hour.

Bon temps!




Slow-Cooked Pork Ribs

June 29, 2017 – Fourth of July is just around the corner.  Parades!  Fireworks!  Barbeque!

Are we making light of what should be a sober reflection on freedom?  I don’t think so.  And neither did John Adams, our second president and one of the founders of the nation.  It was Adams who urged a joyful celebration in a letter to his wife, Abigail:  “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

And barbeque!  I was ready for some ribs.  Didn’t think I could wait five more days.  I made up a dry rub and a barbeque sauce.  Two racks of ribs seasoned and slow-cooked in the oven.  Adams’ “anniversary Festival” was underway at our house!

Though I made up my own dry rub and sauce, there are scores of both available at any grocery store.  Or you can make your own.  All you need to do is look at your spices and decide which ones you like the best.  Put’em together and there you go.

I added a little allspice to the dry rub.  It gives a hint of flavor that is hard to figure out.  Cinnamon, ground cloves, or freshly grated nutmeg will serve the same purpose.

I opted for a sweet sauce but added a little heat and few things to make it more complex.  Layers of flavor make memorable meals.

Here’s what I came up with.

G’s Dry Rub

(For two racks of ribs)

2 tablespoons garlic powder

2 tablespoons onion powder

2 tablespoons chili powder

2 tablespoons smoked paprika

1 teaspoon allspice

Salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

Mix thoroughly.

For the sauce, I used Creole mustard because it’s my favorite.  You can use most any kind of mustard.  Or no mustard at all.  Your sauce; your choice.

G’s Sweet Barbeque Sauce

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 onion, chopped

3/4 cup ketchup

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup honey

3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons Creole mustard

1/4 cup finely minced roasted red pepper

1 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

Salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

Water as needed

Heat the oil in a sauce pan over medium heat.  Saute’ the onion in the hot oil until soft, about five minutes.

Add the remaining ingredients.  Reduce the heat to low and simmer for about half an hour.

Add water a quarter cup at a time to prevent the sauce from becoming too thick.  You don’t want it too thin either.  It should be just thick enough to cling to the ribs.

Slow-cooked Pork ribs

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.

Cover the ribs with dry rub.  Wrap in aluminum foil.  Let them cook slowly for two hours.

Open the foil and douse the ribs good with the sauce.  Close the foil and let them continue cooking for another hour.

If you wish, you can open the foil and expose the ribs to the broiler for three or four minutes to crisp them up a bit.

Serve the remainder of the sauce on the side for dipping.

Bon temps!

And Happy Fourth of July!