Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, April 15, 1998

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Puerto Rican dishes of gandule rice and pastele are served
with salad. The small mortar was brought to Hawaii by Blase
Camacho Souza's grandmother in 1901. The larger one, made
of guayacan wood, was made in Puerto Rico to separate
parchment from coffee beans.


The heart of a Puerto Rican meal

By Nadine Kam
Assistant Features Editor


A sofrito is a personal thing. In Puerto Rican cooking, sofrito has a presence comparable to soy sauce in Japanese meals, salsa in Mexican cookery and chile pepper water on the Hawaiian table. The sofrito -- a sauce that generally starts with garlic, onions, peppers, herbs and achiote oil -- is the beginning of every great meal.

"I like to make mine so there is very little water and it's very thick," said Blase Camacho Souza, president of the Puerto Rican Heritage Society of Hawaii. "I haven't changed the way I've cooked it since I was a kid."

Sofrito is often used as an all- purpose sauce to stir into cooked beans, to flavor cooked rice or for stewing any kind of meat.

As to how "authentic" Souza's sofrito might be, she said, "I'm cautious. When I cook I taste, I smell. When I think it's pretty good, I get a scrap of paper and write down what I put in."

Souza learned to cook by watching her grandmother, and by getting into the kitchen herself and taking instruction from her grandfather on what to add to the pot.

"He would say, 'Put more garlic,' but he never really told me how much. That's the trouble with recipes. Cooking is a matter of taste, not 1/8 teaspoon here and there."

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Blase Camacho Souza, right, and Geraldine Montalbo
compare family recipes. Montalbo is preparing food for
Saturday's Puerto Rican Day.

It's the same with Geraldine Montalbo, who learned Puerto Rican cooking after her marriage 45 years ago by watching her mother-in-law and her husband's aunts.

"I'm the kind of cook who will try something and say, 'Oops, I wonder if I did this right,' and keep going. Maybe I'm more stupid than brave, but when it comes to cooking, I can pick things up pretty quickly by looking and experimenting."

The casual gourmand may sample some of Montalbo's specialties when she cooks them up for "A Puerto Rican Day on the Plantation" Saturday at Hawaii's Plantation Village in Waipahu. On the menu will be habichuelas con arroz (beans and rice), arroz con gandules (gandule rice) and ensalada con bacalao (codfish salad), among other items.

Souza, who grew up on a plantation in Kohala, said she remembers employees with the University of Hawaii Extension Service visiting the plantation mothers to teach them about nutrition.

"Later, I would look at my mother and she would write down these recipes in tablets. That was the start of them sharing written recipes."

Later, when Souza went to school, teachers also would emphasize nutrition. "I would be feeling guilty because we didn't eat like that at home, but it was OK. I wasn't eating apples and oranges, but I was eating mangoes, avocados, papayas, breadfruit and whatever we had growing around us, and everything was fresh and good."

As it turns out, much of Puerto Rican cooking measures up to contemporary standards of health. There is an emphasis on beans, rice, tomatoes, root vegetables, tropical fruit, garlic and olive oil, which is believed to lower cholesterol levels in the blood.

Most of the foods are Spanish-influenced due to 400 years of colonization, but Souza said people tend to forget that Puerto Rico is a tropical island similar to Hawaii.

"The island people -- the Tainos -- their foods were the kind you grow, like taro and yucca, which is also known as cassava and manioc in the Philippines," Souza said. "There were a lot of foods you would find in Hawaii, like fish. The things they did not have were the big animals, cows and pigs. Those came with the Spanish."

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Blase Camacho Souza tends to an oregano plant that
has grown to the size of a bush in the garden
of her Aina Haina home.

African laborers brought in to work the plantations and now- vanished gold and tin mines, also added to the island stew.

Because coffee was a major island crop, the Puerto Ricans also embraced coffee as a beverage of choice.

"In our home there was always a pot on the stove," Souza said. "It's a sign of hospitality whenever someone walks in. Today, I see coffee is really something. We have our own cafe au lait. That's cafe con leche."

As for the most famous of Puerto Rican foods, the pastele -- savory pork, chicken or other delicacies wrapped in a yautia (or dryland taro) and green banana masa -- Souza said these are primarily a Christmas treat and won't be served Saturday.

Montalbo said that because the pasteles are labor intensive, she will make them by the hundreds, freezing many for later enjoyment. "Then it makes it worthwhile to work two days to make it."

Usually, she said, "It takes one day peeling and grating the taro, which before, we would do my hand, but now we're lucky to have the Osterizer. The next day we make the pork and wrap it."

Her suggestion for those who have never gone through the process, "Go buy it in the market."

Nevertheless, we have included a recipe for pasteles, as well as recipes for other specialties from Montalbo and Souza.


Blase Camacho Souza's sofrito

1 to 2 tablespoons achiote oil
3 to 4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 small onion
1 green pepper, diced fine
2 sweet peppers (or 1/4 cup red bell pepper), diced fine
8 fresh culantro de monte leaves, minced (sometimes available in Chinatown markets, or substitute with cilantro, to taste)*
1 tablespoon fresh oregano
1 to 2 tablespoons tomato paste

Heat oil in skillet. Add garlic, onion, peppers. Saute gently. Add culantro or cilantro and oregano. Saute until all are limp. Add tomato paste. Mix well and continue cooking for 1 or 2 minutes. Makes about 1-1/2 cups. Use as basis for stewed beans below, or use to saute chicken or pork.

bullet Approximate nutrition analysis per 1/2 cup, using 1 tablespoon oil: 90 calories, 5 grams fat, no saturated fat, no cholesterol, 90 milligrams sodium*


Stewed beans
(Habichuelas guisadas)

From Blase Souza

1 pound dried red beans
1 pound smoked ham shanks or hocks
8 cups water
Sofrito, 1 recipe above

Wash and soak beans overnight or follow package directions. Drain beans. Pour beans into a large pot. Add 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat.

Add the ham shanks. Cook until beans are almost tender. Remove the ham shanks when meat is tender. Cut meat into small pieces.

Return ham to the beans. Add more hot water if needed. Bring to a soft boil. Add the sofrito.

Simmer for 30 minutes to 1 hour until thickened Makes 1 cup.

bullet Approximate nutrition analysis per serving: 260 calories, 11 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 55 milligrams sodium*


Geraldine Montalbo's sofrito

1 teaspoon achiote oil
1-1/2 cups onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 ounces salted pork, finely diced
1 cup green onion, finely chopped
2 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1/2 teaspoon Chinese parsley

Cook onions and garlic in oil until soft. Add pork and cook 5 to 10 minutes until cooked through. Do not burn.

Add remaining ingredients and allow to simmer about 30 minutes. Let cool and put into a glass jar for later use. Cover tightly. This mixture will keep about a week in refrigerator. Makes about 3 cups.

bullet Approximate nutrition analysis per 1/2-cup: 110 calories, 9 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 10 milligrams cholesterol, 140 milligrams sodium*


Gandules and rice
(pigeon peas and rice)

From Geraldine Montalbo

1 tablespoon achiote oil
2 pounds lean pork, diced
2 15-ounce cans gandules (green pigeon peas)
1 onion, chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped
6 cloves garlic, crushed
6 cups uncooked white rice, washed
2 14.5-ounce cans chicken broth
2 6-ounce cans pitted olives and brine
Salt and pepper to taste
Cilantro, for garnish

In a large, heavy pot, heat oil. Put pork into pot and brown. Don't burn. Add 2 cans pigeon peas, onions and garlic. Stir to cook.

Add 2 cans chicken broth and 2 cans of olives with brine. Bring to a boil. When mixture is boiling, add rice. Cover pot. Turn the burner down and cook for about 30 minutes. Stir once and cook until done. Garnish with cilantro if desired.

Optional: Lay cut ti leaves or banana leaves on top of rice before you close pot for a different flavor. Serves 12.

bullet Approximate nutrition analysis per serving: 450 calories, 9 grams fat, 2.5 grams saturated fat, 35 milligrams cholesterol, 600-plus milligrams sodium*


Pork pasteles

Adapted from "Puerto Rican Cookery"
by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli

bullet Filling:
4 sweet chile peppers, seeded or 1/2 cup red bell peppers
2 large cloves garlic
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon salt
4 fresh cilantro leaves
1 pound lean cured ham, cubed
2 pounds lean pork, cubed
1 green pepper, seeded and diced
1 onion, peeled and diced

bullet Masa:
8 pounds yautia or any kind of dryland taro, peeled
15 green bananas, peeled and rinsed in salted water
2 cups lukewarm milk
1-1/4 cup achiote powder
2-1/2 tablespoons salt

For filling: In a mortar, crush first 5 ingredients. Stir crushed mixture with ham, pork, pepper and onions; cover and set in refrigerator until masa is ready.

For masa: Wash, drain and grate the taros and bananas. Crush gradually in mortar.

Place taro and banana mixture in a very large bowl and stir in milk, achiote power and salt, blending to make a smooth paste.

Spread about 3 tablespoons of the masa thinly on the center of a sheet of aluminum foil measuring about 9-by-12 inches. Spread about 3 tablespoons of filling on top of masa. Fold foil over to make watertight.

In a large pot, boil 5 quarts of water with 3-1/2 tablespoons salt. Boil wrapped pasteles and boil for 1 hour. When finished, remove pasteles from water immediately. Serve hot. Makes 36. Remaining pasteles can be frozen for enjoyment later.

bullet Approximate nutrition analysis per serving: 230 calories, 2.5 grams fat, 1 grams saturated fat, 20 milligrams cholesterol, 400-plus milligrams sodium*

A Puerto Rican Day on the Plantation

bullet Featuring: Food and cultural exhibits; entertainment by Puerto Rican Folklorico Dance Group, Julio and Son, Eddie Hosino y Su Grupo.
bullet Place: Hawaii's Plantation Village, Waipahu Cultural Garden Park, 94-695 Waipahu St.
bullet Date: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
bullet Admission: Free
bullet Call: 677-0110

Blase Camacho Souza's culantro.

Glossary of Flavors

bullet Achiote oil: An oil that uses achiote (Hawaiian lipstick plant) to give foods a red-orange hue. Found in most supermarkets. To make the oil for the recipes, stir 4 tablespoons of achiote seeds into 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a small pot over moderate heat. The seeds will color the oil red. When the oil reaches the desired color, remove seeds. Store in a jar.

Achiote plant

bullet Culantro de monte: Also called recao in Puerto Rico today, this herb has a flavor similar to, but more intense than, cilantro. The plant resembles a cactus with its serrated leaves. It grows coarser and thicker than cilantro.

bullet Gandule: Green pigeon pea. Can be found in canned-bean sections of supermarkets under the Goya label. Dried beans sometimes available.

bullet Pastele: A Christmas treat of savory pork, chicken or other delicacy wrapped and steamed or boiled in a masa, or dough, of yautia and green bananas. They can be found commercially at The Pastele Shop, 2101 N. School St. (847-6969) and at Maili Pasteles, 87-680 Farrington Highway (668-2966) for about $2.25 each. Maili Pasteles are also available at Foodland, Sack N Save, Tamura Superette and Tropic Fish & Vegetable Center in the Ward Farmers Market. Or if you're adventurous, look for roadside signs advertising homemade versions.

bullet Sofrito: A sauce used to flavor meat, rice or bean dishes. The ingredients are a matter of personal taste, and although Puerto Rican food is not particularly spicy, modern cooks often add hot chiles. Sofrito can also be found in supermarkets under the Goya label.

bullet Yautia: A type of dryland taro. This may be substituted with any type of Hawaiian dryland or Chinese taro.

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