Why It Works
- Sofrito is the true backbone 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.
- For the Puerto Rican Sofrito:
- 1 medium yellow onion, cut into chunks
- 1/2 medium green bell pepper, cleaned and chopped
- 1/2 medium red bell pepper, cleaned and chopped
- 6 large garlic cloves
- 1 cup packed cilantro, roughly chopped
- 3 green onions, trimmed and chopped
- 2 ají dulce peppers (optional)
- 1/4 cup packed culantro (optional)
- Large pinch sazón seasoning
- For the Arroz con Gandules:
- 2 tablespoons neutral cooking oil, like grapeseed or canola oil
- 1/2 cup smoked ham steak, diced
- 1/4 cup fresh sofrito (see provided recipe)
- 2 tablespoons diced pimento peppers, drained
- 2 tablespoons capers, drained
- 2 teaspoons sazón spice blend (see notes)
- 1 teaspoon adobo spice blend (see notes)
- 1 chicken bouillon cube, crumbled
- 1 large bay leaf
- 1 15oz can green pigeon peas, drained and liquid reserved
- 1 cup jasmine or long-grain rice, rinsed and drained
- Water, enough for 1 1/2 cups total
- Kosher salt, to taste
- Cracked black pepper, to taste
- Fresh or frozen banana leaf, for steaming (optional)
For the Sofrito: In a food processor or blender, combine all of the ingredients together and pulse, adding 1 to 2 tablespoons of water if needed to create sauce, similar to pesto or salsa. Refrigerate for up to 5 days or portion into ice cube trays or containers and freeze for up to 6 months.
In a medium-sized pot or dutch oven, over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons neutral cooking oil. Once hot and shimmering, add the 1/2 cup smoked ham cubes and cook until crisp around the edges, about 7-10 minutes, stirring often.
Next, add the ¼ cup fresh sofrito, 2 tablespoons diced pimento peppers, 2 tablespoons capers, 2 teaspoons sazón spice blend, 1 teaspoon adobo spice blend, 1 crumbled chicken bouillon cube, and 1 large bay leaf. Stir well to combine everything and cook until the sofrito is fragrant, about 3 minutes.
Add the drained pigeon peas and stir. Cook the peas with the ham and sofrito mixture for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then, add 1 cup rinsed and drained rice, stirring to toast the rice and make sure all the grains are evenly coated with the seasoned pea mixture for another 5 minutes.
Once the rice is toasted, add the water and the reserved pigeon pea liquid. Taste and adjust seasoning with kosher salt and black pepper to your liking.
When the rice and liquid are both rapidly boiling and the water has mostly evaporated (you should see little bubble pockets in the pot), turn the heat down to low, stir the rice to fold it over on itself, cover the rice with the banana leaf, cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid, and let the rice steam for 20 minutes.
Once your timer is done, fluff the rice using a fork and serve immediately with sliced ripe avocado and tostones (twice-fried plantains).
Caldero or Dutch oven
Using dry or canned pigeon peas for the recipe is definitely personal preference. During the holiday season when making this in large batches, I prefer using dry pigeon peas that get sent to me from my family back home in Puerto Rico. To prep those, I pressure cook them with fresh sofrito, a smoked ham hock, and other aromatics until they’re tender and store them in plastic deli containers and freeze until I’m ready to cook with them. At that point, I portion what I need and then continue the recipe. Canned pigeon peas are just as good and definitely save on time in the kitchen!
Depending on which brand of sazón or adobo spice blends you use, the saltiness will vary between each. Keep that in mind while making this recipe and adjust accordingly to your liking to avoid oversalting the rice. I prefer to make my blends at home to control the salt level, so if using store-bought blends, start with 1 teaspoon and work from there.
Frozen banana leaves can be found in most international grocery stores and I always keep them on hand for steaming rice and proteins. Simply cut out a portion of the leaf that will fit into the pot you’re using by tracing the edge of the pot lid on the leaf to get the right size.
If wanting to make pegao, which is 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 or heavy-bottomed pot instead of nonstick pots. When serving pegao, it’s traditionally served on the side to accompany the rice itself.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Using dry or canned pigeon peas for the recipe is definitely personal preference. If using dry pigeon peas, pressure cook them with fresh sofrito, a smoked ham hock, and other aromatics until they’re tender and store them in plastic deli containers and freeze until ready to cook. At that point, simply portion what’s needed and then continue the recipe as written.
The finished rice dish can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 days, and leftovers are great topped with a fried egg.