Recaito - Puerto Rican Sofrito
The Secret to
Puerto Rican Flavor
Recaito is a green aromatic puree of onions, culantro (recao) leaves, garlic, green peppers, and ajíes dulces (small sweet chile peppers). It's central to so much of Puerto Rican cooking; recaito is used as the base seasoning known as sofrito. When preparing Puerto Rican cuisines, you may notice it in recipes called by either name.
Legacy and Tradition...
Today’s entry is in recognition of my Puerto Rican heritage.
Today, the National Puerto Rican Day Parade would have been held in New York City if not for the Covid-19 pandemic. An annual celebration taking place on the second Sunday in June for over 60 years, the parade is a prideful celebration for Puerto Rican New Yorkers (some affectionately self-identifying as “NuYoRicans”), as well as Puerto Ricans throughout the nation. Other localities host celebrations as well, but the one that takes place in New York City has long been recognized as the benchmark.
As young little league baseball players, my younger brothers and I had the honor of marching in several parades in the late 1980s. Our league, which played in Central Park’s North Meadow ball fields, was sponsored by Goya Foods; a longtime parade sponsor. I remember gleaming with pride as I marched alongside my Dad (who was a coach), brothers and teammates up Fifth Avenue waving our flags and shouting to the crowd. Baseball is a big part of Puerto Rican culture, and also was a big part of my childhood.
Aside from baseball, one cannot escape the fact that, as in many cultures, food is an integral part of what defines it. I also remember smelling the distinct aroma of Puerto Rican street food all along Fifth Avenue that day; Puerto Rican Sunday. It was a time before the food truck boom, a time when street selling permit regulations were loosely enforced, much simpler times than today. The aromas were intoxicating, consisting mostly of fried foods or “cuchifritos,” a variety of preparations and iterations largely consisting of pork.
Those aromas also existed in my childhood kitchen growing up. My mother was a stay at home mom for most of my early years growing up. Believe it or not, my interest in cooking began with watching her, as is the case for many chefs. Humble in her ways, my mom would always say that she was just an “average” cook and she learned what she knew from my grandmother (no real surprise there). The smell of my Mom’s habichuelas negras guisadas (stewed black beans) is something that is sort of etched in my “nasal memory” (is that even a thing?).
I wasn’t able to choose just one dish for this post that would represent the deep connection to my culture and its food. So I went to the basic root of almost all Puerto Rican cooking: Recaíto and Sofrito.
These two foundational cooking bases, whose names are sometimes used interchangeably, are the root cause of all that is aromatic bliss not only in Puerto Rican cuisine, but also in many other Afro-Caribbean and Latin American dishes as well. Many versions of similar aromatic cooking bases exist throughout the world.
The principal difference between Recaíto and Sofrito is the use of tomato product and more red pepper in the latter, lending to its reddish hue; whereas Recaíto is bright green using no tomato and considerably less red pepper.
A cry for help...
As a bachelor in my early 20s and living on my own for the first time, Mom’s cooking was no longer an everyday convenience. After tiring of the rotation consisting of Chinese food, Pizza, & “Kennedy Fried Chicken,” I had finally asked my Mom how to make Recaíto and for some pointers on how to survive in the kitchen outside of takeout. Maybe I will dedicate a future post to how many tries it took me to not make rice like clay! In any event, she shared with me some basic ratios and quantities, all the while stressing how she “never really measured anything,” (a common mantra among many moms and grandmas of the world!). She had a magical way of just making the ingredients she had on hand “work.” That being said, there is really no right or wrong way to do this.
As a cooking base, amounts can always be adjusted to suit the application or personal preference, or simply based on what can be found at the market. I will share with you my basic recipe for Recaíto (inspired by Mom of course), which I prefer over Sofrito. I primarily use it in yellow rice dishes, stews, and meat braises; many also use it in meat marinades as I do when preparing Pernil (roast pork picnic shoulder).
3 large Spanish yellow onions, chopped (slightly larger than a baseball)
3 large green bell peppers, seeded and chopped
3 cups of Ají dulce, seeded and chopped
1 pint of peeled garlic cloves
1 bunch of cilantro, washed and chopped, including stems
2-4 small bunches (15 to 20 leaves) of Recao leaves (also called Culantro), washed and chopped including stems
Wash all items well with cold water prior to chopping.
The best way to clean the cilantro is by holding the bunch by the stems and swirling the leaves submerged in a bowl of cold water. This is a technique called “floating.” Dirt and particles will sink to the bottom of the bowl as the leaves swirl in the water. You then lift the entire bunch out of the bowl and place on paper towels or in a colander to air dry. It is more effective than spraying or rinsing under a stream of water.
Use this same technique for the Culantro leaves.
Purée all ingredients well in a food processor or a blender and store the mixture in airtight plastic containers.
To slow down the darkening caused by oxidation, place plastic wrap against the surface of the mixture prior to placing the lid on the container.
This can be frozen for up to 6 months and will keep well in the fridge for about 2 weeks. My storage advice would be, if you don’t use it that frequently, freeze in smaller batches like 8 oz. containers or even by making portions using an ice cube tray. Take from your freezer only what you need.
I primarily use it in yellow rice dishes, stews, and meat braises; many also use it in meat marinades as I do when preparing Pernil (roast pork picnic shoulder).
Yield: approximately 2 ½ quarts
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About the Author
Raised in The Bronx and proud to be Puerto Rican, Luis Rivera, “BBQ Lou” recreates some of the tastiest foods by adding a new twist to traditional favorites.
“There’s nothing like the feeling of serving great-tasting food to family and friends. This sense of reward inspires me to craft traditional and new BBQ sauce flavors found in the smoky, delicious plates we love to eat.”