I am in full on Christmas mode! Feliz Navidad mi gente! I just so excited to be going home to P.R. for Christmas. Because I am so pumped for Christmas I’m going to be sharing some of my favorite Christmas foods. Yesterday I told you all about a creamy coconut rice pudding called arroz con dulce. Today we are going to talk about rice. Rice? Yes, rice because you must understand that Puerto Rican Christmas isn’t Christmas without arroz con gandules. Every Puerto Rican Christmas Eve dinner requires three things arroz con gandules, pernil and pasteles. It’s not Christmas without this trinity.
If there is anything, we Puerto Ricans know it’s rice. Growing up, I think I ate it with almost every meal. It wasn’t always the same rice; sometimes it was white, yellow or orange. Sometimes it had chicken, beef, pork or sausage. Sometimes it had beans over it and an over-medium egg with some fried sweet plantains on the side. Mmmmmm, I am making myself hungry again. In PR, there are countless ways to make rice but, this is my favorite hands down.
There are a few things that are essential to making a great pot of arroz con gandules.
Tips for Making Arroz con Gandules
When I was a kid watching my mother make dinner, she would always rinse the rice. When I got older, I thought that this step was more of a learned habit then a necessary step. But, I quickly realized that this is a very necessary step. Rice straight out of the bag is coated in excess starch, and that added starch will make your rice sticky if not rinsed. Arroz con gandules is not meant to be sticky; it should be light and fluffy.
Pork is frequently used in one form or another in Puerto Rican cuisine. It can make an appearance as a main dish or as a flavor booster. In, arroz con gandules, it’s used as a flavor booster. Can you make arroz con gandules without bacon drippings? Yes, you can use olive oil or canola oil instead. But, bacon dripping adds to an authentic flavor. However, be careful to use bacon that has not been cured so, no hickory or applewood smoked bacon. If you can find strips of skin-on pork belly like pictured above that is GREAT! If not, you can also use salt pork. But, make sure you thoroughly rinse the salt pork under cold water to remove some of the salt. Finally, take your time and cook the bacon slowly at a medium temperature. This will produce the crispiest bacon and most drippings.
Sofrito is the heart and soul of Puerto Rican cuisine. It’s our version of mire pox or the holy trinity, except there are way more than just three ingredients. It is the base to many Puerto Rican dishes and leaving it out when it’s called for is not an option. I am a firm believer that homemade is superior to store bought, so I choose to make my own. But, that does not mean I never use store bought. Sometimes there isn’t time to make it, and store bought is acceptable. However, let me clarify the difference between sofrito and recaito. In Puerto Rico sofrito, DOES NOT have tomatoes, unlike Spain’s sofrito that is made with tomato. Also, sofrito and recaito are used interchangeably in Puerto Rico. That being said if you are going to buy sofrito what you want is recaito. I know confusing, sorry. The best way to remember is with a little rhyme “green go and red no.”
Puerto Rican rice is made with medium-grain rice…the end. The problem is that in the states medium grain rice can be hard to find. But, thanks to the power of the internet you can have a bag delivered to your door. Which is what I did when I lived in Tulsa. Why do we use medium grain rice? It’s all about the texture. Short grain rice produced rice that is too sticky, and long grain makes very loose rice. We like our rice somewhere in between.
Toasting the rice in drippings or oil helps to keep the rice loose and fluffy. Do not over stir the rice when toasting. You want to allow it time to toast and create a thin barrier from the liquid that helps towards optimal fluffiness. You want to toast it until it’s just beginning to brown.
Also, if you want the coveted “pegao”, which is the crusty toasted rice at the bottom of the pot, you have to make the rice in a caldero. After the last stir of the rice while toasting and before adding the liquid add a little more oil and let the rice toast until it starts to stick to the bottom. Then add the liquid and cook as instructed cooking for 10 minutes longer allowing the rice to get crispy on the bottom. Keep an eye on it! You want it to toast not burn. Making pegao is an art not everyone get it right on the first time.
The standard ratio of rice to water is 1 to 2. So, for every 1 cup of rice you use two cups of water. But, when it comes to arroz con gandules I have found that that ratio isn’t quite right. The issue is that the added ingredients such as tomato sauce, sofrito and gandules and rinsing of rice equals to added liquid. I have found the ratio of 1 1/4 cups of water per cup of rice works better. This is something that my grandmother and mother-in-law taught me, and it works for me every time.
A tight seal when steaming the rice is essential! Back in the day, a plantain tree leaf would be laid over the rice and covered to help create a tight seal. Nowadays we use foil. Not having a tight seal allows heat and water to seep which could result in undercooked rice.
Arroz con gandules is not strictly for Christmas it’s just a must have during Christmas! It is the most loved rice, very tender and full of flavor and I love the pigeon peas because they kind of pop in your mouth. This is great and, believe it or not, it makes great leftovers. It doesn’t get hard and brittle like most leftover rice. It stays soft and re-heats very well. Make a big pot because you’re going to want more later. My favorite way to have arroz con gandules leftovers is topped with a runny egg! NOM!
- 4 cups medium grain rice, rinsed
- 4 strips pork belly or uncured thick cut bacon
- ½ cup Sofrito
- 1 15 oz can Gandules (Pigeon Peas), drained
- 1 cup tomato sauce
- 1 tablespoon capers
- 8 Spanish olives, halved
- salt and pepper
- 5 cups water
- 1 banana leaf (optional)*
- Equipment & Special Ingreidants Needed
- Sofrito (Recaito)
- Medium Grain Rice
- Heat a large pot or caldero on medium heat, slowly cook the pork belly until crispy, remove bacon from pot and set aside leaving the drippings.
- Add sofrito to the drippings, cook about 3-5 minutes. Add rice to the pot to toast the rice, about 5 minutes or until just beginning to brown. Stirring occasionally. Add tomato sauce, capers, olive and pigeon peas. Gently stir until well combined.
- Add water, bring it to a boil on high until water begins to evaporate, place banana leaf or foil over the rice, cover and simmer on low for 35 minutes.
- Add crispy bacon and fluff with a fork. Serve
*The banana leaf it optional, it give the rice a nice flavor. I purchase my banana leaves at my local Asian market.