Rich and flavorful Puerto Rican cuisine has been influenced by an amalgam of cultures and flavors. The Spanish and Africans, as well as native Taino and Arawaks, all had their hands in creating what local people call “Cocina Criolla.” Indigenous ingredients were mixed with foreign spices, old methods mixed with new, to create unique flavor combinations, and shockingly pungent, delicious fare.
I am very fortunate on two counts. (Well, at least as how my good fortune relates to Puerto Rican cuisine.) First, I have a Puerto Rican cooking muse. My very dear friend Luis knows authentic flavors, and I know how to cook. He has been in my kitchen coaching me on frying bacalaítos (salted cod fritters): “they need to brown a little more, and be a touch spicier,” my pastelillos (empanadas): “these need homemade hot sauce for dipping,” and my recaíto: “add more garlic – you’ve just got to get this one right because it’s so important.”
Second count? I live in an area where there are many Hispanic grocery stores. What seems somewhat exotic is often readily available right in my neighborhood. Recao, sometimes called culantro, is a tropical herb at the heart of many Puerto Rican dishes. When blended with sweet and spicy peppers, onions, garlic, and cilantro, it forms the frothy, aromatic recaíto, a Puerto Rican staple used in flavoring soups, vegetables, grains, and meat dishes. This emerald green flavor-packed mix is so versatile. I like to make it in big batches and store extra in the freezer. Many Puerto Rican cooks advise freezing recaíto in ice cube trays, making it simple to melt a cube or two for a recipe.
Caution – it’s easy to get hooked on this stuff. Try some in this easy Shrimp Recaíto. Pretty soon you will be slathering it on sandwiches and using it to top off your omelets. Buen provecho!
2 medium yellow onions
3 green cubanelle peppers
6 large sweet green chili peppers
8 garlic cloves
12 recao (culantro) leaves*
¾ cup cilantro leaves
Have a food processor (or large blender) at hand. Peel and coarsely chop onions. Add to food processor. Wash, slice, seed and coarsely chop cubanelles and sweet green chili peppers. Place chopped peppers in food processor. Peel garlic cloves and add to other chopped vegetables. Wash and trim recao and cilantro leaves. Add to food processor. Pulse a few times, or mix on low until mixture is well blended and frothy. Freeze excess recaíto until ready to use.
Makes 5 to 6 cups recaíto.
* If you cannot locate recao, use 1 ½ to 2 additional cups of cilantro as a substitute. Cilantro is an unrelated plant with a similar, yet more powerful, flavor.