Words by Katy Kennedy Rivera
Puerto Rican at Heart
Photography by Alberto Lopez
When his comfort food becomes your own
Chef Emil Rivera had to make his famous Fat Boy Breakfast—pancakes with cheese sauce, sausage, and an egg—to get a date with me. It was my best friend Isabel’s payment for setting us up. The rest, as they say, is history. It is a story about how this woman from Maine married her life with a man from Puerto Rico and his food.
From that fateful brunch eight years ago, food has played a central role in our relationship. It pulls our pasts together as we nurture one another and our two daughters, Divi, 13, and Olivia, 3 going on 13.
Living in Maine, we are physically far away from the white sandy beaches and palm trees of Emil’s childhood home, but we work hard to keep Puerto Rican culture in our daily life. Emil speaks to the girls in Spanish and, when they are cooking together, is careful to call all ingredients by both their English and Spanish names.
Puerto Rican cuisine—once totally unfamiliar to me, even after years working in restaurants in New York and Washington D.C. and attending the Culinary Institute of America—is now a daily part of my culinary repertoire. Inexpensive, generally quick and easy, and as versatile as it is delicious, it’s perfect for a working mom like me.
Puerto Rican comfort foods, like roasted pork, yuca en escabeche, and tostones, find their place on our table frequently, but our staple is rice and beans. I make a pot of beans every week. We’ll first eat it with roasted chicken and rice. The rice and beans are even better on the second night. On the third night (when Emil is working late) the girls and I will turn the leftovers into refried beans, chili, or some other soup entirely. As a cultural mutt myself, I’m not a purist in keeping to any cuisine—something Emil simply doesn’t understand. He fits the chef stereotype of being particularly particular. For instance, using the proper technique to cook rice is paramount to him. Before we got engaged, unbeknownst to me, the ring he had ordered was somehow lost in transit. As he battled insurance claims to get a new one, he diverted my questions about marriage with rice preparation. “Before we can get married, you have to learn how to make proper Puerto Rican rice,” he said.
It’s simply medium-grain white rice—not seasoned with pigeon peas or anything else exotic—cooked using a distinct technique requiring a nice drizzle of olive oil in the water that makes it both fluffy and tender and leaves a thin layer of crispy cooked rice, lovingly called pegao, at the bottom of the pan. I made rice every day for a month to master the technique. But it took months for the replacement ring to arrive and officially signal I had finally passed the Puerto Rican rice test.
For special occasions, a flan de queso is Emil’s go-to dessert. My extended family has adopted flancocho, a combination cake-flan, as one of its favorite desserts. My dad’s been known to eat the leftovers for breakfast.
Flancocho, though, is the one Puerto Rican recipe for which I don’t follow Emil’s lead. Before we met, I had learned to make Flan Impossible, a similar dessert comprising cake, flan, and caramel. I prefer this recipe to his culturally exacting one because of the “impossible” part—the caramel goes into a Bundt pan first, then chocolate cake batter from a box, followed by a custard mixture. As it bakes, the cake and custard switch positions, so when the dessert is fully baked, cooled, and inverted, the flan sits atop a moist cake with caramel sauce spilling down the sides. Since desserts in our family usually fall to me, Flan Impossible is what we serve—even if Emil prefers to have his traditional method and vanilla cake in the mix.
I have recently been entrusted with the Rivera family’s coquito recipe. My mother-in-law instructed me on how to make a big batch of this spiced coconut milk and rum beverage before Christmas because we could not visit her. It’s good right away, but it’s best if left to mature in the fridge for a couple weeks, a month, or even longer. I’ve still got a small bottle tucked away for my birthday later this month. Hidden coquito doesn’t last long once it’s discovered; that stands true whether the bottle is found in Maine or in Puerto Rico.
My favorite island dish is pastelón de carne. I affectionately call it “Puerto Rican meat pie,” but it’s more accurately described as plantain lasagna. It’s not fancy or complicated—just sliced, sautéed plantains layered in a Pyrex baking dish with seasoned ground beef and cheese. It comforts me.
The first time I tasted it was early in our relationship, on a weekend trip to visit with Emil’s cousins in New York City. The Latin music, the cacophony of Puerto Rican dialogue, and the aromas of fried plantains and sautéed onions in a cloud of island spices made me feel like I was in San Juan, not Manhattan.
When we were able to visit Puerto Rico together in the fall of 2013, I wanted pastelón wherever we went. We stopped at a roadside restaurant in Luquillo, en route to a kayak tour of a nearby bioluminescent bay, and the dish was as good as I remembered it was from New York. It always is. When Emil makes it now, and the moon hits our snow-covered backyard, the whole scene is wonderfully reminiscent of that spot in Luquillo. But it is also concrete evidence of the blended Puerto Rican and Northern New England life we have forged together.