Puerto Rican recipes

As we come to the end of the 2018 hurricane season, Puerto Rico is on my mind. Still a long way from recovering from last year’s hurricanes, Irma and then Maria. Still repairing the damage and mourning the loss of so many.

When I got my hands on a copy of Von Diaz’ “Coconuts & Collards” ($28, University Press of Florida), I read it in one fell swoop. In her book, she tells the story of her family and their path to Atlanta from Puerto Rico and what it meant to grow up as a Latina in the American South, what it means to be Puerto Rican.

I was drawn into her story and wanted to make every recipe in the book.

I wondered how it would read to someone from Puerto Rico so I shared my copy with a friend, Belsie González, who was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and came to the United States about 20 years ago.

She was as enchanted as I was. “Between poignant stories and savory recipes, (Diaz) takes the reader through the experience of living between two worlds, an experience that many of us coming from a different culture have to maneuver every minute of the day, and it is in the kitchen with the smells and flavors of our land and our mothers that we are home,” González emailed me after she read the book.

When I questioned her about the recipes and whether they reminded her of home, she told me she felt Diaz represented a new generation of Puerto Rican cuisine, one with rich influences that do not dilute the original, but respectfully enrich it. Together we read through the recipes and she told me the stories they brought to mind of her mother’s cooking, of childhood meals, of the food of home.

“Coconuts & Collards is part novella, part cooking book. Not being a foodie, I never thought I would be so captivated reading a cook book. I could identify with the stories and dream with cooking those delicious recipes to warm my tummy and the heart of others.”

Atlanta is no stranger to Puerto Rican cuisine. Puerto Rican chefs like Hector Santiago and Andre Gomez have been part of the Atlanta culinary scene for many years. The area’s newest Puerto Rican restaurant is actually a mashup of Louisiana meets Puerto Rico. Talk about hurricanes: Louisiana and Katrina, Puerto Rico and Maria. Those winds blow food to distant shores.

2 Sistas Soul Food is tucked into the food court of the Nam Dae Mun Farmers Market on South Cobb Drive in Smyrna. The cafe is a collaboration between Allyson Lewis and JoAnn Fuentes with Lewis preparing dishes she learned in her native New Orleans and Fuentes cooking the dishes she remembers from growing up in New York City in a Puerto Rican family.

The women met through jobs, bonded over potlucks and food and decided they were ready to leave the corporate world and cook for a living.

“We spent months planning and looking around for the right spot,” said Fuentes. They had scouted the location at the farmers market, but it was being leased to someone else. Then they got a call, the planned tenant had fallen through, were they still interested? Yes, they were, and they opened their cafe in August.

The hot line features one Creole and one Puerto Rican dish each day. When I visited, it was shrimp and crab in garlic butter and pastelon, a lasagna-type dish of plantains and picadillo. “We’ve found there are so many similarities in our food because of our background and culture. The Spanish had Louisiana, the Spaniards had Puerto Rico, and of course there were other influences. We try to stick to down-home food. On Monday I fix rice and pigeon peas and roast pork. For Allyson, it’s red beans and rice because on Monday in New Orleans it’s laundry day and that’s what you have cooking on the stove. That’s something we share with Creole and Puerto Rican food. We’ve got to have beans.”

For those who want to delve further into Caribbean cuisine, look for “Provisions: The Roots of Caribbean Cooking” by Michelle Rousseau and Suzanne Rousseau ($30, Da Capo Lifelong Books), full of recipes using traditional Caribbean ingredients such as cassava, ackee, plantains, guava and mango, scheduled for publication October 30.

Von Diaz, author of “Coconuts & Collards” ($28, University Press of Florida) writes, “It’s Puerto Rican because I made it.” She’s referring to how she’s adapted traditional recipes, but also uses traditional Caribbean ingredients in the dishes she learned when her family moved from Puerto Rico to Atlanta. Cooking these dishes won’t make you Puerto Rican, but they will bring you close to the people of Puerto Rico and their delicious cuisine.

Pastelón de Plátano (Sweet Plantain Shepherd’s Pie)

There are as many ways to prepare this dish as there are cooks. Some thinly slice the plantains and fry them, then layer them with the picadillo. In this recipe, the plantains are boiled, then mashed and the result is similar to a shepherd’s pie, but with the wonderful flavor of sweet plantain to contrast with the savory filling.

2 tablespoons plus 1/2 teaspoon salt, divided

6 ripe plantains, peeled

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing pan and brushing across top

3 tablespoons olive oil

Picadillo (see recipe)

1/2 cup crumbled feta, plus more for garnish

In a large stockpot, bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons salt and the whole plantains. Boil 15 minutes or until the plantains are easily pierced by a knife. The riper the plantain, the more quickly it will cook.

While plantains are cooking, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-9-inch baking dish.

Drain plantains, reserving 1/2 cup cooking water. Put plantains in a large bowl and use a potato masher or wooden spoon to mash. Fold in 4 tablespoons butter, olive oil and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Use reserved cooking water if needed to loosen the mixture enough so it can be easily spread. Taste for seasoning.

Scoop half the mashed plantains into the baking dish and spread evenly. Top with picadillo. Sprinkle with feta. Top with remaining mashed plantains, spreading evenly. Bake 30 minutes or until top is golden brown. Remove from oven and let rest 5 minutes before cutting into squares. Serves: 6

Per serving: 552 calories (percent of calories from fat, 45), 18 grams protein, 61 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 29 grams fat (10 grams saturated), 92 milligrams cholesterol, 1,741 milligrams sodium.


2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup Sofrito (see recipe)

1/2 cup tomato sauce

1 tablespoon Sazón (see recipe)

2 bay leaves

1 pound ground turkey or beef

1/4 cup pimento-stuffed manzanilla olives, cut in half

1 tablespoon drained capers in brine

1 tablespoon raisins (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add sofrito and cook 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add tomato sauce, sazón and bay leaves, stirring frequently until sauce darkens and liquid is mostly evaporated about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and fold in ground meat, breaking it up and mixing into the sauce. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally 10 minutes for turkey, 15 minutes for beef, until meat is fully browned, liquid is completely reduced and a thick sauce is created. Add olives, capers and raisins and season to taste. Remove bay leaves before using. Makes: 3 cups

Per 1/2-cup: 173 calories (percent of calories from fat, 60), 14 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 11 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 60 milligrams cholesterol, 968 milligrams sodium.


This recipe makes more than you will need for your Picadillo, but it’s a key component of Puerto Rican cooking. Freeze what you don’t need now in 1/2-cup portions and use for future batches of Picadillo, or to add when cooking beans, rice and vegetables. It’s a great all-purpose seasoning.

Aji dulce chiles are small, thin-skinned peppers that are traditional in Caribbean cooking. Substitute another red bell pepper if you cannot find them available fresh. Culantro is a broad-leafed herb also traditional in Caribbean cooking. I found mine at the Buford Highway Farmers Market. It has a flavor similar to cilantro, but a little stronger and a bit bitter. If you don’t have it, the sofrito will still be delicious. Just double the amount of cilantro and add a little fresh parsley.

1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and quartered

3 aji dulce chiles, seeded and roughly chopped

6 large garlic cloves

1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped

6 fresh culantro leaves

6 fresh cilantro stems with leaves, coarsely chopped

In the bowl of a food processor, combine bell pepper, aji dulce chiles and garlic and pulse until finely chopped. Add onion and pulse until mixture makes a smooth puree. Add culantro and cilantro and pulse until leaves are finely chopped and you have a loose paste. Makes: 2 cups

Per half cup: 21 calories (percent of calories from fat, 5), 1 gram protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 2 milligrams sodium.


The Hispanic section of your grocery store will have boxes of Goya Sazón. You can use that if you like, but this recipe leaves out the MSG and includes lots less salt. It will store in your pantry indefinitely.

Achiote molido is ground annatto seed, used primarily for coloring. Sweet paprika makes a good substitute.

2 tablespoons salt

2 tablespoons achiote molido or sweet paprika

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon cumin

1 tablespoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

In a small bowl, whisk together salt, achiote, garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, turmeric and black pepper. Store in a jar until needed. Makes: 1/2 cup

Per tablespoon: 17 calories (percent of calories from fat, 2), 1 gram protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 1,602 milligrams sodium.

— Recipes adapted from “Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South” by Von Diaz ($28, University Press of Florida)

Coconut Grits and Coconut-Braised Collards

The coconut is a ubiquitous tree for almost any island nation, and every part gets used. If you have a coconut tree, you’d probably make your own coconut milk. The rest of us would resort to canned.

Coconut Grits

These grits will taste primarily of coconut. If you want to scale that back a bit, use more chicken stock and less coconut milk.

2 cups chicken stock

2 cups coconut milk

1 cup stone-ground grits

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

In a medium saucepan, heat stock and coconut milk over medium heat. Whisk in grits and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer, whisking often, for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until grits are tender. Add more water or stock if needed. Taste for seasoning and add pepper and butter. Serves: 4

Per serving: 483 calories (percent of calories from fat, 64), 7 grams protein, 38 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 35 grams fat (29 grams saturated), 16 milligrams cholesterol, 1,116 milligrams sodium.

Coconut-Braised Collards

The sweet, rich taste of coconut is a perfect foil for collards.

1 large bunch collards, well-rinsed (about 1 pound of leaves)

1 bunch scallions

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, optional

1 tablespoon coconut oil

1 1/2 cups coconut milk

1 tablespoon soy sauce

Salt and pepper, to taste

Cut any bare stems off the collards, then coarsely chop the leaves and remaining stems. Cut roots off scallions, the thinly sliced whites and greens.

In a large saucepan, melt butter and coconut oil over medium-high-heat. Add scallions and cook 1 minute. Add greens and keep stirring until greens soften and you can add all the collards to your saucepan. Add coconut milk and soy sauce and bring to a simmer. Lower heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, stirring frequently, until the collards are cooked to your preferred tenderness, at least 10 minutes. Season to taste. Serves: 4

Per serving: 268 calories (percent of calories from fat, 88), 3 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 28 grams fat (24 grams saturated), 8 milligrams cholesterol, 273 milligrams sodium.

— Recipes adapted from “Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South” by Von Diaz ($28, University Press of Florida)

Mami’s Bizcocho de Ron (Mami’s Rum Cake)

This rum cake is serious. Rum in the batter, rum in the soaking syrup, there’s no question what this cake is about. The method of making the cake is a little unusual but results in a texture that holds up perfectly to absorbing all that rum syrup.

The recipe calls for walnuts, but we substituted Georgia pecans. Baking them in the bottom of the cake allows them to toast while they’re baking, adding a nice crunch to the cake.


1 cup finely chopped walnuts

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup granulated sugar

1 (3.4-ounce) box instant vanilla pudding mix

1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup milk

4 eggs

1/2 cup coconut oil

1/2 cup white rum

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Rum Syrup:

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1/2 cup white rum

1/2 cup light brown sugar

1/4 cup water

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a Bundt pan with cooking spray and sprinkle with walnuts. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine flour, sugar, pudding mix, butter, baking powder and salt. Beat on medium 1 minute or until mixture is the texture of coarse sand. Stop mixer and add milk, eggs and coconut oil. Beat on low speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Stop mixer and add rum and vanilla and beat 1 minute. Pour batter into prepared Bundt pan and level with a spatula. Bake 50 minutes or until cake is pale golden in color and a toothpick or cake skewer comes out clean when inserted in the center of the cake. Rest cake on a wire rack.

While cake is cooling, make Rum Syrup: In a small saucepan, combine butter, rum brown sugar, water and vanilla. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes or until sugar is dissolved and glaze has thickened slightly.

While cake is still warm and in the Bundt pan, poke holes all over the cake. Pour the hot syrup over the cake. Not all the syrup will absorb right away. If your pan is big enough, you can add all the syrup at once and let it soak in. If there’s not room for all the syrup, pour in what you can, let the cake absorb the syrup, then keep adding syrup until all is used. Cover cake and let it sit at least 3 hours or overnight. When ready to serve, turn cake out onto serving plate. Serves: 10

Per serving: 654 calories (percent of calories from fat, 57), 9 grams protein, 58 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 39 grams fat (22 grams saturated), 135 milligrams cholesterol, 490 milligrams sodium.

— Recipe adapted from “Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South” by Von Diaz ($28, University Press of Florida)

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