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Homestyle Healthy: Puerto Rican Food

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May Vokaty
Recently, my husband and I took a little vacation to Puerto Rico.  Getting away to a tropical island for a little R&R was a most welcome treat.
Puerto Ricans are friendly, charming and very proud of their beautiful island, and rightly so. Majestic beaches, beautiful weather, the ancient rain forest, El Yunque are just a few of the reasons to fall in love with Puerto Rico.
Old San Juan transported me back in time. Piraguas, a shaved ice treat covered in tropical fruit flavored syrup and sold from a pushcart, were a refreshing treat on a sunny afternoon.
All of this is reason enough to make me long for another trip to this gorgeous island, but perhaps my favorite thing about Puerto Rico was the melodious Coqui. The tiny tree frogs called Coqui, began to sing every night at dusk. Named after their distinctive call, “Ko-Kee,” they sang me to sleep every night.
Naturally, I was curious about Puerto Rican food, so I was thrilled to find a cooking class offered by local chefs. The food of Puerto Rico is a combination of ingredients, flavors and cultures. Influenced by the native Tianos, the Spanish conquistadores and African slaves, locals call their cuisine “cocina criolla” or Creole cooking.
Among the mildest of Latino cooking, Puerto Rican food is flavorful and somewhat sweet. After all, the Spanish Caribbean was home to the New World’s first sugar plantations. Although it has a bad reputation for being fatty, chefs and home cooks alike are making an effort to “lighten up” traditional cocina criolla.
Here is a quick explanation of some of the more exotic ingredients for today’s recipes.
Annatto (achiote): rust-colored seeds with a tangy, almost iodine like flavor. This spice was the New World’s substitute for Spanish saffron. A spoonful of paprika will add the same color but not the same flavor.
Banana Leaves (plantain): shiny green leaves used as wrapping for tamales and empanadas. If using a frozen product, just thaw and cut the wrapper to size with kitchen shears. If your leaves come straight from the tree, then wash carefully to remove any pesticide residue and pass over a flame to make the leaves pliable enough use as a wrapper.
Guava Paste: a thick, sweet, ruby-colored marmalade-like jelly. It is sweet, sticky and utterly delicious.
Yuca (manioc, cassava or tapioca) a starchy tuber. Not to be confused with Yucca. Available fresh as a long, brown root or frozen already peeled and cut into manageable pieces. Yuca is bone white and bland and is easily compared to mashed potatoes. Serve yuca soon after cooking; it becomes starchy and heavy when it sits too long.
It was surprisingly easy to find the ingredients I needed to re-create my cooking school recipes. I found yuca and mango puree in the freezer section of my local grocery store. Guava paste and seasonings were found in the Latino foods section. Banana leaves and annatto seeds were found in a Hispanic market.
Heavy duty aluminum foil will make an acceptable substitute for banana leaves and paprika for annatto oil. Sadly, I was unable to find the Puerto Rican cheese Queso de Hoja, but the chefs assured me Queso Fresco was an acceptable substitute.
I hope you’ll enjoy these recipes as much as I have. One taste and I’m transported back to Puerto Rico. Is that a Coqui I hear? Maybe.

May Vokaty is the food editor of The Voice in Blythewood. She approaches cooking with a lighter approach to traditional recipes to keep people both happy and healthy. She grew up in Mississippi and worked in health care for 15 years. Contact her at MayKVokaty@gmail.com.