Cementing Memories with Food and Culture

Aya and I, Santurce, Puerto Rico circa 1983

The other day my mother accused me of being a nostalgic person. She’s right. But the why is an answer I don’t have. At times I think it’s because I was always on the go and I always longed for what I just left while I dreamed of what would happen next and thus my thoughts became a sort of fort where my mind could hide to. The other part makes me think it was my Aya who I feel molded me into being the one sibling who would make sure to keep our life treasures close and share stories of our family to my future nieces, nephews, children and hopefully grandchildren like she did for us. She never read me bedtime stories during the times that I would stay downstairs while my parents had gone out for the night. She would just tell me the memories of her childhood and I now regret getting lost in how I imagined it all to look like. For a while I thought her life was led in black and white until I realized that was just the nature of old silver film and not of life. It took me a while to realize that life is full of color and flavor. I don’t have many pictures of her and I in the kitchen; in fact, I don’t think I have any at all. It’s a shame, because the root of my love for the kitchen and my ever growing desire to start a family comes from her. She was a Spanish woman, whose English was at an elementary level when she went to study Chemistry at Marymount College in Kansas in the 1940s when few women went onto achieve higher education. A feat onto itself, she like I, was pushed to become something more than a stay-at-home mom. But that is what she became and I’m glad as she is one of my greatest examples just like my maternal grandmother (a Pharmacist) is a perfect example of how a woman can become what she wants to be if you are to work hard and fight through.

Enjoying Ribs, Laytonsville, Maryland Early 1990s

Although to this day I still feel like I’m walking the tight rope towards adulthood and it’s only recently that I’ve started to discover my post college graduation purpose. I remember seeing my name on the list of the year’s graduates and thinking, “now what?” instead of feeling elated at finally closing that chapter. And speaking of chapters, this week marks 10 years since I graduated high school and it’s only now that I feel like a woman or at least that I coming close to becoming one.

Meanwhile, on my way to work I can never keep myself from staring out of the subway window while it goes over the Manhattan Bridge. My mind races as fast as the speeding view out of the dirty and scratched train windows. I often stare out  while children play and babble and I start to wonder if in years to come they will remember this day. If they’ll remember me starting out the window in the background just like I do of some people in my memories. But that could just be because I’m weird, overly sensitive and emotional. However, the sounding reason to why I hope for them to keep memories is because I feel it’s a huge part of who we become and how we face the world in the day-to-day. But just as memories are to us as people, sauces are an important building block in the development of our meals. I do realize that’s a strange switch of subjects but, I do believe that the underlining flavors of one’s cuisine, in its essence, is a fundamental building block to culture whether within our own home or the country we live in.

*No need to watch the whole video, I just think it adds visual movement

The flavor base for the culture that I am most attached to are those that make up a Puerto Rican sofrito. The Italians have their sauces as do the French and Indians, Koreans and I could go on and on, but for me it is sofrito. Not to be confused with the Italian version of a French mirepoix,  it is base flavor for almost every dish that I grew up with. From rice and beans, arroz con pollo, to patitas de cerdo con garbanzos, sofrito is the principal flavor binder that defines Dominican, Cuban and Puerto Rican food. Below I am providing you with a simple recipe that can be used as a Technicolor flavor booster to any dish at all even if not Latin American. I highly recommend it!

————————————

Sofrito
For better shelf life, freeze your sofrito in an ice-cube tray and use one cube for a small meal that would feed 2 to 4 or 2 to three for a meal for around 6 to 8 people.
1 Large green bell pepper, deseeded and chopped
1 Small head of garlic or half a large one
1 Large yellow onion, roughly chopped
1 bunch cilantro, clean and rinsed
¼ Cup canola or olive oil
Large bunch of recao* or substitute with another bunch of cilantro
½ lbs. Aji dulce peppers

1) In a blender, combine all the ingredients until they are all combined and roughly chopped; adding water to help combine them, but only if necessary.
 
2) Pour into ice cube trays and freeze before transferring the frozen sofrito into either an air-tight container or Ziploc bag.

 
*Recao, also known as culantro, grows wild in the Caribbean and has a stronger flavor than domestic cilantro. Mostly used in Caribbean cooking and can be easily be found in various Bodegas all across New York City.

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