Last week I went out for dinner with a group of friends and I got a serious case of nostalgia. We went to Delicias Colombianas, a Colombian restaurant on St. Zotique, to wish a friend bon voyage before a long trip to the Middle East. The restaurant was very accommodating for such a large group, the portions were more than generous, and the food was fresh and delicious. I asked some Colombian friends about it, and they gave the place a rave review in terms of authenticity and flavour. They also recommended Cafeteria Las Palmas on Rachel and St. Dominique.
The source of my nostalgia was my steak, which was served with very typical Colombian sides – an arepa, tostones, and rice and beans. Rice and beans are popular throughout Latin America and this particular batch, Colombian or not, instantly reminded me of my mother’s. My mother makes the most delicious Puerto Rican rice and beans I could ever fathom, and I miss them terribly. Suddenly, a Middle East goodbye party became one of those moments where food calls to mind vivid notions of the comfort of home.
Arroz con habichuelas – or rice and beans – make a perfect winter dinner and together constitute a ‘complete protein,’ or a nutritional super food. They also happen to accommodate a student budget quite well.
Rather than spending hours in the kitchen experimenting and testing recipes, I called my mom and asked for hers. Her recipe calls for recaito, a blend of onions, garlic, peppers, culantro and cilantro that serves as a cornerstone to Puerto Rican and Cuban cooking. Thankfully, the Latin food giant Goya sells recaito in a jar. If you’re struggling to find Goya products, head to the Librairie Espagnole on St. Laurent and Roy. Or if you’re in a rush, just chop up some cilantro. Her recipe also calls for adobo, which is a spice blend (Goya again). The shortcut here would be salt, pepper, and garlic powder, but adobo is really delicious and useful to have on hand to throw into nearly any dish (try rubbing it on chicken before grilling).
For the beans, begin by sautéing a small white or yellow onion, two cloves of garlic, and half of a bell pepper in olive oil. Sprinkle with adobo and cook until the onion is translucent. At this point, add two cans of drained and rinsed black, red, or pink beans. Stir to combine and add stock or water to cover. Add one 14.5 oz can of diced tomatoes, and two heaping tablespoons of recaito. Cover, and simmer on medium for 20 minutes.
My mom had a lot to say about rice, a subject that I had always thought of as straightforward. It’s not. In a Puerto Rican kitchen, perfect rice preparation results in pegao – toasted, crispy rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot. You always get to it at the end of the meal, and it’s more satisfying than any dessert I know. Begin by adding 1/8 of an inch of canola oil to the bottom of a saucepan, with two cups of white rice and two teaspoons of salt. Stir the rice over high heat until it changes colour (my mom says you’re looking for it to become “chalky-white”). At this point, add enough water to cover the rice, with an extra inch. Stir once, and cook on high until the water has cooked down to the level of the rice. Stir once more, adjust the heat to low, and cover – don’t even look at it for 20 minutes.
Nearly every Latin cook has their own recipe, and regardless of the nuances in spice and seasoning, rice and beans of any style are hearty, satisfying, and perfect for student life during the Montreal winter.