Welcome Readers! This is The Infinite Table’s very first guest post and I could not be more excited about it. So read this post and love it!

Gabriel Kussin lives and works in Durham, North Carolina. He is the Membership Coordinator at El Centro Hispano, a Latino advocacy organization and is always searching for new and exciting recipes.

I recently started working at a Latino advocacy organization and the first two questions that my colleagues asked when they discovered my Puerto Rican heritage were, “What can you cook?” and “When will you cook for us?” There was an automatic assumption amongst these Ecuadorians, Mexicans and Colombians that not only could I cook, but I could cook well.

The connection between being Boricua (the indigenous Taino name for Puerto Rico and its inhabitants) and Puerto Rican food is representative of the rich diversity of the Caribbean island. Our music, our people, our landmarks and our food are mixtures of African, Spanish, Taino and, more recently, American influences. In Spanish, Puerto Ricans refer to their cuisine as comida criolla, or literally “Creolefood.” While each Latin American country possesses its own distinct culinary flavor, Puerto Rican food has the greatest range of tastes, styles, ingredients and dishes. Yet even if you are eating chicharronde pollo (a breaded, garlic chicken) or a traditional Puerto Rican Octopus Salad there is something that reminds you of La Isla. You may not be able to describe it, but it will leave you wanting more.

In an attempt to represent that diversity of flavor as well as experimentation that is quintessential to Puerto Rican food and culture as a whole, I decided to make several trademark Puerto Rican dishes withsome small twists: salmon filled pastelillos, or miniaturized empanadas, fried plantains and asopao, a Puerto Rican gumbo.

Growing up, during house parties, my mother would always find a way to perfectly time completing pastelillos with the arrival of each guest so upon immediately entering, a piping hot appetizer was already in their hands. Pastellilos are usually filled with picadillo (ground beef), cheese, or a potato mixture; however, I decided to put an Italian twist on the dish by filling it with grilled salmon and a dash of freshly grated parmesan cheese.

My first step was to grill a single filet of salmon until fully cooked, generally about five minutes for each side. While I usually like to go nuts by creating strange and exotic seasonings for fish, I decided to cookthe salmon without seasoning to keep things simple and the taste as authentic as possible.

When making the pastelillos, it’s easiest to have a deep fryer, but in my opinion the dough is actually a better consistency if you use a non-stick pan with about a half an inch of vegetable or olive oil atmedium heat. In addition, instead of making my own dough, I purchased the frozen, Goya brand discos which you can find in the frozen international food section of most grocery stores. Once thawed, I took a small forkful of salmon and placed it in the center of the disc and covered it with just a small sprinkle of the parmesan. This is the trickiest part of the process since you don’t want to put too much filling in your pastelillo or it won’t stay sealed during cooking, yet if you put in too little, you’ll taste only fried dough.My single salmon filet was able to fill about four discs.

To seal the dough, fold the disc in half over the filling and take a slightly wet fork and press down firmlyon the edge until you’ve sealed it entirely. Flip the pastelillo over, wet your fork once again to keep the dough moist, and repeat on the other side. Once it’s sealed, place it in the heated oil. The oil shouldn’tcover it completely so with a spatula, gently push some of the oil over the top of the pastelillo to fry the untouched parts. While it won’t fry evenly, this technique will create those amazing bubbles that expand and make the dough taste like an explosion of awesome. After a few minutes, when the fried side is a light brown, flip the pastelillos over and repeat on the other side. Once done, place the pastelillos on apaper towel covered plate and let them cool only momentarily: they are best served still hot when the dough is the crunchiest and most flavorful!

Another aspect that makes Puerto Rican cooking so special is our ability to be resourceful and cookmassive, high-quality quantities of food on the cheap. You want to cook like a real Puerto Rican? Yousure as hell better not discard that oil just because it’s “used.”How else do you think Puerto Rican food got so popular in New York City, the most expensive city in the world?

Now it’s time for the plantains. Depending on where you live, they may be a little bit difficult to find butif you go to any Spanish supermarket like Compare, you can find them on the cheap. Unlike bananas, plantains are best cooked when they are EXTREMELY overripe. We’re talking paper bag brown here. In addition, you don’t want to peel a plantain like a banana: take a knife and cut down the entire length of the fruit and on that split, gently take the casing off. Take that same knife and cut a third of an inchslices diagonally. Again, like the pastelillos if you make them too thick they won’t cook evenly, yet if theyare too thin, they will break apart in the oil. Once you’ve sliced your plantain, we are actually going to cook two different types of plantains, maduros and tostones.

Maduros are just fried plantains without any batter or dough. They are sweet, chewy and a greataddition to any meal. Drop the first half of the sliced plantains in the heated oil and be ready to take them out quick! The reused oil should be able to cover them completely and once they are a deep shadeof brown, take them out and put them to the side. Even though the amazing smell will likely drive you to the edge of chaos, don’t touch them! They are for something special later!

Tostones are fried plantain chips made with any form of batter or seasoning you prefer for frying. I personally like my tostones made with a slight rub of bread crumbs, but if you prefer flour it’ll work just as well. Like the maduros, drop them into the oil until they are a crispy deep brown. The breadingwill make the cooking time a little bit longer…but not much. Keep your eyes peeled and your spatula atthe ready. You don’t want your tostones or your kitchen to burn. Once done, tostones are traditionallyserved with a traditional garlic adobo or homemade sauce.

What’s this adobo? It’s at the heart of countless dishes and at many Puerto Rican restaurants it’s served complimentarily like salsa at a Mexican restaurant…and you are going to make one yourself!

An essential part of any Puerto Rican cooking experience is the mortar and pestle. At ancient Taino ruins in the rainforests in Puerto Rico, you can find massive, stone, communal versions at the center of villages. Our version is going to be slightly smaller and more wooden. Take a four or five peeled cloves of fresh garlic and drop them, uncut, into the mortar and grind them until flattened and crushed. Once completed, transfer the garlic to a small bowl and cover the garlic with a liberal amount of extra virgin olive oil (two thirds to a full cup). Then add a smaller portion of white vinegar and then a tablespoon each of ground pepper and oregano, and mix it all together vigorously. Boom. You just made your adobo. The longer you can allow the components to mix and settle; the stronger the adobo will taste. Be adventurous as well. Add fresh parsley, onions, or any other seasoning you think will give your adobo, and therefore your food, more kick.

Now, onto the main course: the asopao. Most commonly, asopao is a stew made with chorizo, or sausage, yet for my asopao I decide to use chicken drumsticks. Like the pastelillos you can literally use anything you want as the main meat ingredient (or no meat at all!) but I am a dark meat kind of a guy and chicken drumsticks are a very cheap poultry selection especially for the recent college grad. Asopao is the perfect poor man’s food: easy and quick to make, the ingredients are cheap, a single serving isincredibly filling and it only tastes better as leftovers.

Did you throw out that oil that you used for the pastelillos and the plantains? You sure as hell better not have because that is what you are going to use to cook your chicken! In a deep heavy pot or a Dutch oven, sauté the chicken (or whatever meat you choose) at medium heat until fully cooked. Lower the heat and add your adobo from earlier along with some chopped vegetables like peppers and onions. Let that marinate for a bit until that unmistakable smell hits you. Add a tablespoon or two of tomato pasteor puree until it blends completely.

Now add two cups of rinsed, white rice, a 14oz can of rinsed gandules, or pigeon peas, some capers andolives to complete the central ingredients of the asopao. Now you might be thinking, “This sounds a lot like arroz con pollo,” or a simple chicken with rice dish. While the ingredients are similar, the subsequent steps are what set the asopao apart. Add eight cups of water to the pot and bring the heat up tomedium. Keep it uncovered as it boils as you want some of that water to evaporate; arroz con pollo ismade with significantly less water and is cooked covered.

Now unlike a soup which you can leave unattended, you have to stay over the pot constantly stirring tomake sure the rice doesn’t stick to the pan and that the flavors fully mix. Now as the saying goes, “when you introduce fried plantains in Act One, they have to be cooked in Act Three.” Take those cooked maduros from before and add them to the asopao after around 15 minutes of cooking. This will add a much needed sweet factor to the dish and will help absorb some excess water.

When is it done? Clearly when the rice is fully cooked you are well on your way; however, it is a little more complicated than that. You don’t want too much water to be left or else it’ll resemble more of a soup than a hearty entrée. Additionally, too little rice will not only burn the rice, but will also basically just give you arroz con pollo. Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to fail…there have been PLENTY of times where I’ve burned my asopao, but once you make it perfectly that one time…you will know. Sliceup some avocado as a garnish and some cooked black beans as a complimentary side dish and you havea traditional, Puerto Rican dinner…and lunch for the next day…and dinner that night…and lunch for the next day…

When I brought my huge pot of asopao into my office, as each coworker tasted the meal, their faces showed a simultaneous look of familiarity with something in their past and excitement at something new. In essence this is what Puerto Rican food is all about: celebrating our traditions and creating newexperiences that represent our diversity.

Ingredients for Pastelillos:
4-6 Frozen Goya “Discos”, thawed
1 Salmon Filet, unseasoned
1 can of gandules (chick peas) around 14 oz, rinsed and drained
1 2/3 – 2 cups of white rice, rinsed
1 cup of chopped onions and peppers
1 pound of meat (chicken, chorizo, sausage; your choice)
8-10 Spanish Olives
1 tablespoon of capers
¼ cup of tomato paste
Oil to cook meat
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
2/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup of white vinegar
1 teaspoon of black pepper and 1 teaspoon of oregano

And there you have it, campers! Big thank you to Gabriel for his guest post. I’m only upset I couldn’t taste it myself!