Puerto Rican food is good. It is hearty and satisfying; it sticks to the ribs and demands immediate napping upon consumption. The cooking style is an inventive blend of Spanish (peppers, onions, garlic) and African (bean stews) dishes adapted to local ingredients (plantains, yuca, yautia, pork), which lead to meals that traditionally revolve around rice and beans, fried stuff, and lots of pork. We aren’t afraid of bold flavors, but aren’t particularly fond of spicy. We stick to what we know, or so I thought until my last trip to Puerto Rico.
You see, as a plant based eater, I usually find it impossible to eat when in Puerto Rico. Regardless of its rich, fertile soil, vegetables are all imported from afar (I am talking Mexico, Peru, California, and Australia, people!). Vegetables are expensive, limp, and flavorless. The local produce sold at farm stands along the highways is typically twice as expensive as the imported supermarket food, and surprisingly from The Dominican Republic, not Puerto Rico. While there is nothing as delicious as a juicy, ripe, local pineapple, or a sweet, starchy, yuca, Puerto Ricans cook with either canned or dried products, lots of meat, and very few fresh ingredients.
A subculture of local, young, farmers and chefs recently decided to take things into their own hands by reinventing what agriculture means in Puerto Rico. They planted heirloom seeds and started cultivating the land to their own standards. By using modern techniques they produce small scale, almost bespoke harvests usually directed to the upscale restaurants of San Juan and the very hippie Vieques. Nonetheless the desire for the local and the fresh is starting to set deep roots amongst the country. These resourceful farmers and chefs are slowly transforming Puerto Rico’s apathy toward locally grown, fresh products into a hip, health oriented new way of living.
Take for example the work Jose Enrique has been doing at both Jose Enrique and El Blok. Both restaurants use local ingredients to marry traditional flavors, modern cooking techniques, and very local, tasty ingredients. The local watercress salad served at El Blok was one of the freshest, most delicious salads I have eaten in a while.
While the economy is still in a rut and exile is, there is hope in the land, there is hope in food. I have hope in the people that care deeply about supporting what is local and what is true. By re-earning how to use what you have, we can lead healthier, more connected, tastier lifestyles.
This recipe was inspired by a dish I had while in San Juan. After the first bite I fell in love with how this dish was both satisfying and light. The salsa reminded me of the ubiquitous salsa criolla Puerto Ricans use to cook both seafood and mofongo with. The eggplant was tender, smoky, and vibrant, a perfect foil to the almost sweet and lightly acidic sauce.
To make the salsa, tomatoes, shallots, red bell and fresno peppers and roasted until oozing and soft. Everything is then blended with garlic, lemon juice and salt until smooth. The fresh, aromatic, and smoky flavors of the roasted peppers contrasts the earthy flavors and rich texture of the peppers for a decadent, truly unforgettable summer dish.
Whole Roasted Eggplant with Salsa Criolla
Cook time 60 minutes
NOTES: Ideally both the ingredients for the salsa and the eggplant go into the oven simultaneously. You can also make the salsa ahead of time (up to a couple days) and heat before ready to serve.
To Roast the Eggplant
- 2 small purple eggplants
- 1 tsp. sea salt
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Farenheit. Wash eggplants and pat dry. Slice lengthwise into to pieces. Using a sharp knife make criss-crossed ¼” deep incicions into the flesh of the eggplant. Sprinkle each half with salt and let sit at room temperature for half an hour. Using hands. Squeeze excess water off eggplants. Drizzle with olive oil and place in oven for 35 minutes, eggplant should be tender and slightly golden. Remove from oven and set aside as you prepare the salsa.
To make the Salsa Criolla
- 2 red bell peppers
- 1 tomato
- 2 fresno peppers
- 1 clove garlic
- 2 tsp. paprika
- 1 tsp. sea salt
- Juice of a ¼ of a lemon
- Cilantro for garnish
While the eggplant salts, prepare the ingredients for the salsa. Rinse and pat dry peppers and tomato. Individually wrap each in foil. Place in hot oven and cook for 35 minutes.
Remove vegetables from the oven. Let sit, unwrapped for a couple of minutes. Remove foil and let cool for another 5 minutes. When cool enough to handle. Remove stems and seeds from both the red bell and fresno peppers. Discard. Place tomato, peppers, garlic, paprika, and salt in a food processor. Pulse until smooth. Add lemon juice and blend until incorporated. Set aside.
To serve, scoop a generous amount of salsa into a serving plate. Place eggplant over salsa and garnish with a few cilantro leaves and a drizzle of olive oil. Eat immediately, while still hot and delicious.