My Father's Rice and Beans



Rice and beans meant home to my dad. No matter the occasion, rice and beans were his way of celebrating the place he knew and longed for always.


As I child, I grew up listening to the stories of tenacity from his homeland of Puerto Rico. His memories of losing everything during the Great Depression and selling food in the streets were hard to imagine as an ordinary American kid. For him, banding together as a family wasn’t simply a nice idea, it meant survival. Each sibling before him worked hard, saved money to go to college, then found a job in order to send money home for the next one to do the same. This pattern repeated over and over until it was his turn, the youngest child of seven children.


My dad left Puerto Rico in the late 1950s to attend medical school in Philadelphia. Going against his family’s wishes and the politics of the country, my father gave up all he fiercely loved – family and home.

Even when my father was dying and in his late 80s, his understanding of family held an unfathomable depth.

No matter his state of health, he always mustered the energy to make rice and beans for my visits home. It was the buoyant remnant of a far-flung place and hope he carried with him always. It was his way of sharing something with us that was more than food, but a love that only lately I fully understand.


On the surface, rice and beans is a truly humble dish, yet deeply personal. Even among my four siblings, we cannot agree on the subtleties. In fact, as I was composing this recipe with them, each vehemently chimed in with their own absolutes. Rice and beans are a vast legacy and taken seriously by all of us.


My dad passed away in April 2020 during the peak of COVID at age 90. I find it ironic and tragic that my dad, a small-town doctor who saved countless lives, was unable to have a moment to celebrate his one incredible life. But in many ways, he was just like the dish he loved to share. Humble. Deeply personal. Passing away in a pandemic would have been exactly his style, preferring to quietly tuck away and not make a fuss.


Puerto Rican Rice and Beans starts with a sofrito – the basic preparation of foundational elements in Latin American cooking. (see recipe below) Sofrito typically included a combination of onion, garlic, tomato, and salt pork or bacon. My dad’s favorite way to make Puerto Rican rice was by cooking it to the point of an extra crispy, almost burnt layer on the bottom for texture. This was achieved by adding a generous amount of oil to finish it at the end, cooking it undisturbed for an additional 30 minutes on low heat. This crispy bottom layer was called “pegao” or “stuck” in Spanish. This was the best part and always fought over in our family.


Now, each time I make rice and beans, I celebrate him. My hands fall into a satisfying rhythm of chopping and assembling the ingredients. Taking my time, it is a dish best prepared in a slow, puttering state. By not rushing things, the ingredients are given proper time to bloom and fully ripen together. For my father, he wasn’t just giving us a meal, he was showing us home. He was reliving the beauty of a faraway island and he wanted us to see it at its very best. This meal deserved preparation with a sense of sacredness and care.


As I make it now, I’m reminded of his deep love of home and family. I make this dish partly because it connects me to a place and a culture, but more to honor a love that remains. It remains despite living far from my childhood home, despite my own family looking vastly different than his from Puerto Rico, and despite my father no longer cooking on this side of heaven. I make this dish and I honor him.


In this way, I am deeply reminded of his ability to demonstrate family and love as always what you make it. In this way, home is never far away.


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My Father’s Puerto Rican Rice and Beans

Serves 8-10



Like all good recipes, it serves as a reflection of the deeply personal nature of family and should be adapted to your own personal family tastes and style.










Puerto Rican Beans or Habichuelas Puertorriqueñas


Ingredients:

2 cans kidney, pinto, or pink beans – 15.5 oz each – rinsed

6 strips of bacon, diced

1 tomato – roughly chopped

1 medium onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/8 tsp. Oregano

3 tab. olive oil

To taste - salt and pepper

Additional Liquid for moisture – options: ½ cup Broth, Water or ½ can Unsweetened Coconut Milk in true Caribbean tradition


Puerto Rican Rice or Arroz Puertorriqueño


Ingredients:

3 cups rice – medium to short grain rice - rinsed

3 cups water

2 tab. olive oil

Salt, to taste

6 strips bacon, diced

1 tomato – roughly chopped

1 medium onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/8 tsp. Oregano

Sazón Seasoning Packets (2-3 total, according to taste)

¼ c. Sliced Spanish Olives stuffed with Pimentos - rinsed (optional) Cilantro for garnish (optional)


Directions – Puerto Rican Beans


1. Start by making the sofrito by frying the bacon in olive oil over medium-high heat in a deep saucepan until brown. Drain off excess oil and leave 2-3 tablespoons of oil.

2. Reduce heat to medium, add onion, garlic and cook gently until soft and translucent. Add Oregano.

3. Remove from heat and stir in tomatoes. Return the pan to the stove over medium heat for an additional minute until combined.

4. Rinse beans and add to the pan. Simmer gently for 20 mins over low-medium heat, stirring occasionally.

5. As beans simmer, add liquid to keep moist. Options are - ½ cup broth or ½ cup water. Or in my father’s Caribbean tradition, add ½ cup unsweetened coconut milk and continue to simmer on low until ready to serve.

6. Check seasonings. Serve with Puerto Rican Rice (see below).


Directions – Puerto Rican Rice

1. Heat the olive oil on medium-high heat in a deep pot.

2. Start by making the sofrito by cooking bacon over medium-high heat until lightly browned. Drain off excess oil and leave 2-3 tablespoons of oil.

3. Add the onion, garlic, Oregano and saute until soft and the onion is translucent.

4. Add tomato and continue cooking for an additional minute until combined.

5. Add one Sazón packet for seasoning. Stir in and coat the rice for 1-2 minutes.

6. Add the water and bring to a boil. Once boiling, cover and reduce the heat to low and cook for 30 minutes or until liquid is absorbed and rice has become fluffy.

7. Adjust seasoning by adding an additional Sazon packet(s)/additional seasoning as needed.

8. Add rinsed Spanish olives (optional) and any additional personal touches.

9. Optional – If you like an extra crispy bottom layer for the rice or “pegao” which means stuck, continue cooking undisturbed and covered over low by adding ¼ c. extra olive oil or bacon drippings for additional 15-20 minutes until lightly browned and crispy layer forms.

10. Remove from heat and fluff rice with a fork and check seasonings. Leave lid half-covered until ready to serve or reheat.

11. Garnish with cilantro.







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