Starting From Scratch With Puerto Rican Cuisine

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Rice and beans. Of course, there were rice and beans. It wouldn’t be Puerto Rican food without rice and beans but it could only be red beans, said our host Tom Cabrera. “I like black beans,” he says, “but no Puerto Rican would use black beans—that’s a Cuban thing.”
Jazz drummer Tom Cabrera and his wife Julie Lyon, a singer and the director of the Westbury Arts Council, live in Westbury with Tom’s mother Josephine in the house that Tom grew up in. Tom and Julie met and married in Winter Park, FL, where they both worked (she sang in his jazz trio, which became the Julie Lyon Quartet) but in 2009, when it became clear that his parents needed assistance, they moved back to Westbury.

Tom and Julie with Tom’s mother Josephine. On the table are beans and rice, cod fritters and steak and peppers.

Tom’s father, the late Tulio Cabrera, was a well-known fixture in Westbury and the Town of North Hempstead where he was a building inspector. He was also involved with the Sons of Italy. “I think they thought he was Italian,” said Tom, but Puerto Rican he was, the youngest of five boys growing up in Saint Agnes Home for Boys in Sparkill, NY. “My grandmother died young and the boys lived there while my grandfather worked in New York City.”

Tom says his father always remembered watching his father cook. He would tell Tom how, when his father was making thin-pounded steak, if Tulio got too close to the pan, he would slap him in the face with the meat.

Both Tom and Julie love to cook—a wall of their kitchen is decorated with pictures of food they took on a trip to Italy—and Tom taught himself to make Puerto Rican food.
Puerto Rican cuisine is not spicy. “It is informed by European and Spanish concepts,” says Tom, with all the local ingredients such as coconuts, plantain, tomatoes and achiote. Achiote (aka annatto) are seeds from a small evergreen that are used widely in traditional dishes throughout Central and South America, Mexico and the Caribbean. It is sometimes called “the poor man’s saffron” because of the yellow/orange color it imparts to any dish it is used in (although it does not taste like saffron). To make annatto oil, Tom infuses around a teaspoon of the seeds in approximately ¼ cup olive oil, heated over very low heat for about five minutes and then strained. Tom warns not to let the oil get too hot or the seeds will burn. Achiote seeds are also blended with cumin, coriander seeds, salt and garlic powder to make sazón (“seasoning” in Spanish), commonly used in Puerto Rican food for meats and fish.

Tom and Julie like to cook from scratch. Not satisfied with canned coconut milk, Tom makes his own from organic unsweetened shredded coconut. At home, they are close to 90 percent organic in the ingredients they use, buying, for example, grass-fed organic meat from U.S. Wellness Meats. Growing up around his Italian friends in Breezy Hill and seeing their families making wine inspired Tom to make his own. The couple use grapes grown in California and Washington State of the following varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Sangiovese, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. They’ve also made wine from raisins, apples and raspberries. Although it was labor intensive, Tom says “anything you make for yourself—especially if you can eat it—is a beautiful thing.”

Rice and Beans

For the beans, Tom sautées finely chopped onion, green and red pepper and a clove or two of garlic in the annato oil. Add the beans (any kind but the typical Puerto Rican beans of choice are small red ones). Salt and pepper to taste. A little fresh thyme is nice, too, he said.

The rice is long grain white rice that, adding his own special touch, he cooks in coconut milk instead of water. He makes the coconut milk from 2 cups organic, unsweetened shredded coconut and 4 cups of hot (not boiling) water. Pour the hot water over the coconut in a bowl and let it sit for about 2 hours. Pour into a blender and blend until mostly smooth. Strain into mason jars. It keeps for about a week.

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