Arroz con Gandules Recipe
Why It Works
- Sofrito is the true workhorse of many savory Puerto Rican dishes. This herby and aromatic seasoning base of peppers, onions, garlic, and herbs freshens up heavily-flavored rices, stews, and soups.
- This method of cooking rice can be applied to any kind of bean or pea, along with various proteins, like sausages, tinned seafood, and more.
- Arroz con gandules is commonly served in large quantities during the holiday season with pernil (slow roasted pork) and pasteles (meat and root vegetable tamales) but it can be made any time of the year in smaller portions.
- Pegao, also known as scorched rice, is often coveted when making Puerto Rican rice dishes and is a great way to build flavor and depth in a one-pot meal like this.
Arroz con gandules, rice with pigeon peas, is considered the national dish of Puerto Rico. And for good reason. This flavorful rice and pea dish encompasses the shared connections between West African, Spanish, and indigenous Taíno ingredients and cooking methods that influence the cuisine of the island. As a chef and recipe developer, I often find that sharing my love of Puerto Rican food with others always starts with a brief historic rundown of our food and culture with those who may not be familiar with it.
When the influence of Spanish cooking methods and foods were introduced to the island during colonization, they overlapped with the indigenous Taíno cuisine and the West African dishes of the enslaved populations who were brought to the island to work the sugar cane plantations. For example, indigenous foods, such as yautia (similar to a taro root), yuca, annatto seeds, recao (culantro), and calabaza (West Indian pumpkin) along with West African foods like rice, pigeon peas, plantain, okra, yams, and coconuts are all still used in our cuisine to this very day. Spanish ingredients like olive oil, citrus, eggplant, meats like pork and beef, and importantly, the use of sofrito (an herby and aromatic seasoning blend) also play a major role in our dishes.
The more I learned about Puerto Rican cuisine outside of what I was taught by my mother and grandmothers, the more I appreciated our connection to West Africa and across the diaspora: most notably, the rice and peas we frequently eat both in Charleston (where I currently live) and in Puerto Rico, the savory or sweet plantain, the spicy pepper sauces, and the fritters: they all come directly from West African influence. This particular connection between cultures is crucial to understanding our national dish and embracing the flavors that are built while cooking it.
Building and layering flavor is important to this dish, and the base starts out like most savory Puerto Rican meals: with sofrito. This aromatic seasoning base made of peppers, onions, garlic, and herbs lays the foundation for the tender rice, which is studded with smoked ham chunks, briny capers, pimentos, and pigeon peas. The seasoned mixture that’s created while cooking this base and before adding the rice is what gives all of the flavor to the dish itself.
Pigeon peas were introduced to our cuisine by West Africans and these beans (yes, they’re technically beans) are prepared in many different ways, stewed with plantain dumplings, tossed into a variety of salads, or simmered in soups, but they truly get to shine in this rice dish. Gandules tend to have a crisp, firm texture and somewhat nutty flavor, often difficult to describe to people who haven’t had them before.
Toasting the rice is another important step when it’s time to combine it with the seasoned ham and pigeon peas. Making sure rice is rinsed and drained is a standard practice in many kitchens around the world to avoid mushy rice, but toasting it ensures fluffy and individual grains later. When the rice is almost done, it’s topped with a banana leaf to finish steaming and you end up rounding out the dish with a subtle and slightly sweet finish. It only takes a few tricks to create a well-balanced one-pot rice meal.
If wanting to make pegao, which is what we call the often coveted scorched rice at the bottom of the pot, let the rice continue to cook for another 15-20 minutes, carefully adjusting the heat as needed to avoid burning the rice. It’s easier to make this using an aluminum dutch oven called a caldero or heavy-bottomed pot instead of nonstick pots. When serving pegao, it’s traditionally served on the side to accompany the rice itself and normally fought over at the dinner table.
Arroz con gandules has always been a favorite recipe I’ve grown up with and I love making this to introduce people to Puerto Rican food. And the great part about making this particular rice dish is that once you learn how to make it, you can make any other variation of Puerto Rican rices. Easily adaptable, you can omit the smoked ham and substitute bacon (which I often do) or smoked turkey, or not put any meat at all to make it vegan, which is great for a variety of guests or dietary restrictions at your dinner table. As a kid, my mom always made our dishes with olives but since I have an aversion to them, I prefer capers for that tiny pop of salty flavor needed in the rice.
This dish is commonly served during the Puerto Rican holiday season, one of the longest in the Caribbean (starting before Christmastime and ending on Three Kings’ Day), or on special occasions like barbecues, quinceañeras, or weddings, but I love making smaller batches at home when the craving really hits. Being able to recreate the same feeling from the holidays on a smaller scale makes this national dish an approachable move in my cooking routine.