Rice and Beans, With an Exhilarating Crunch

I spent my childhood hungrily competing each night with my brothers for the darkest, crunchiest pieces of tahdig — the golden crust of rice that forms at the bottom of a pot of Persian rice. Some of my most meaningful friendships have been secured by a mutual love of crispy rice. So I knew that the chef and writer Reina Gascón-López was a kindred spirit when she said, “I get such a sense of satisfaction when I take a wooden spoon and scrape the bottom of a rice pot and hear a crunch — it feels like I’ve unlocked a major cooking achievement.”

On her blog, The Sofrito Project, Gascón-López introduces herself as a “Southern Boricua,” influenced in cooking and life by both her native and adopted cultures. The 34-year-old was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in a military family in Charleston, S.C., where she still lives. The Sofrito Project began in 2017 as a way for Gascón-López to chronicle her journey through culinary school for family and friends. By the time I stumbled upon the site earlier this year, however, Gascón-López had begun to include recipes she’d adapted from a rich family trove — everything from arroz con pollo to coquito, Puerto Rico’s cream-of-coconut answer to eggnog.

Reading and cooking my way through The Sofrito Project, I realized how little I know about the island’s cuisine. “When people learn I’m Puerto Rican,” Gascón-López told me, “they automatically lump me in with Mexicans, which is what most Americans tend to do with Latinos who aren’t Mexican. They’re like, Oh, you all like spicy food,” she said, with an audible sigh. “I always say Puerto Rican food is a blend of three different cuisines: Spanish, Indigenous and African. And I specify that we don’t really eat a lot of spicy foods.”

When I asked Gascón-López to share her favorite holiday dish with me, she didn’t hesitate: “My mom’s special arroz con gandules — it’s one of my favorite things to teach people about because it combines all three cultures in one pot.” West Africans cultivated rice and brought gandules, or pigeon peas, with them during the era of the Atlantic slave trade. The Spanish colonists brought pork, olives and olive oil. And Indigenous cooks were experts at using their local ingredients, including annatto.

I was already eager to get to my kitchen, but then Gascón-López sealed my interest: “Arroz con gandules is all about the pegao.” Pegao is Puerto Rican tahdig, and I’d never tasted it before. I couldn’t wait to make it.

Like practically any Puerto Rican dish that starts on the stove, this one begins with a blend of aromatic vegetables called sofrito. In contrast to the Italian version, though, which is deeply caramelized, Puerto Rican sofrito is lightly cooked and packed with herbs. And the pigeon peas make this version of rice and beans distinctly Caribbean. Gascón-López prefers to start with dry gandules, which her family sometimes ships to her from Puerto Rico, then flavor the pot with some sofrito, a bay leaf or two and a smoked pork neck. I don’t have family in Puerto Rico, and I couldn’t find dry pigeon peas at my Latin market. But a quick Google search and text thread with my brain trust of Indian cooking experts revealed that I could get dry pigeon peas, labeled toor, at any Indian grocer.

As I cooked the dish, I could tell that every step and every ingredient added something important. Annatto seeds steeped in oil lend the rice its signature marigold hue. The banana leaf imparts a subtle, tropical aroma to the rice as it cooks. Olives, ham, beer and peppers with their brine offer salt, fat, acid, umami and a bright pop of color. The sheer number of flavors layered into this dish make it a delight to unpack. But by far, the most exhilarating layer is the last one: pegao.

Once the rice was cooked, I mounded it in the center of the pot and lowered the flame to let the pegao form. After 20 minutes, I came back and scooped away the rice, unable to wait any longer. With my sharpest metal spatula, I dug straight in and couldn’t believe my eyes — I’d managed to make perfectly brown, glassy shards of pegao. I could hardly stop eating the salty, crisp pieces long enough to take pictures to send to Gascón-López. When she responded that I’d nailed it, I, too, felt as if I’d unlocked a major cooking achievement. Later that night, as I semi-guiltily ate the rest of the pegao by myself, I felt comforted remembering something Gascón-López told me as we were getting off the phone. “Forget about the rice,” she said, “it’s all about the pegao.”

Recipe: Arroz con Gandules (Puerto Rican Rice With Pigeon Peas)

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