Authentic Puerto Rican cooking is a lost art in the U.S. according to a Valparaiso cook-turned-cookbook author and her new book created to change menus with what she considers "the spice of life."
Aida Lugo McAllister, of Valparaiso, published her new cookbook "Aida's Kitchen a lo Boricua" ($29.95) earlier this year, featuring 42 classic Puerto Rican recipes with some modern adaptations in both English and Spanish.
"We were raised here thinking we were eating authentic food," McAllister said.
"However, due to a lack of proper ingredients, the cost of transportation and the lack of Latin specialty stores, Latin immigrants made substitutions for recipes."
She said now proper ingredients are more widely available, so she is recommending others follow her page-by-page lead and return to the authentic Puerto Rican kitchen cuisine.
McAllister likes to give the example of the Puerto Rican "pasteles," a dumpling similar to a tamale. She said the pastel is traditionally wrapped in banana peel. But due to the scarcity of the banana, early 20th century Latin immigrants substituted the peel for aluminum foil.
"We think we're eating our authentic [Puerto Rican] food, but we're not, because of the lack of produce," she said.
Correcting these misconceptions is where McAllister said her book comes in handy. Each of her 42 recipes includes actual photos of the dish as well as some background and historical perspective. Additionally, McAllister draws on her background as a high school teacher to walk people through each recipe.
"A lot of people have sent me emails and said, 'Finally, I have a cookbook I can understand and follow. I have my mother's Spanish cookbook I can't understand and it is so difficult,' " McAllister said.
She also hopes her book clears up some other misconceptions with her selection of dishes she said are staples to any Puerto Rican household.
"People think Puerto Rican food is lots of tacos and they don't have any knowledge, thinking all Latin people eat the same food," McAllister said.
"Puerto Rican is closer to New Orleans food than Mexican."
So far, McAllister said her book has been well received. She has been selling books out of her home through her website aidaskitchenboricua.com and book signings in Northwest Indiana, including Las Palmitas in Hobart this past weekend.
"I wanted to do this for my culture and as a legacy for the new generation," McAllister said.
"Our grandparents are dying, we are dying, and we have the younger generation that wants to make this food."
McAllister knows this from her own experience and the death of her father helped lead to the realization of her book.
"My mourning process after my father's death was to do the cookbook, and I dedicated it to my dad," McAllister said.
Aida's Puerto Rican Pumpkin Pie
1 cup flour
1/2 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons skim milk
Dash of salt
Pumpkin Pie Filling:
16 ounces cooked calabaza (a West Indian pumpkin found in ethnic grocery stores), mashed
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 large eggs
12 fluid ounces skim milk
DIRECTIONS: To make crust, using a stainless steel spoon, mix all ingredients to form a dough to roll out and line a 9-inch baking pie pan. Spread dough evenly, using your hands, on the sides and bottom of pie pan. To make filling, cut pumpkin in half and remove the seeds and strings. Cut the pumpkin into wedges and remove the skin. Place pumpkin wedges in a vegetable steamer and cook until tender, approximately 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the pumpkin from the steamer and mash. Let stand to cook and measure 2 cups for filling. In another large bowl, mix sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg until well blended. Beat eggs in small bowl and add to dry ingredients. Stir well. Add the 2 cups of mashed pumpkin and milk. With a wooden spoon, mix all ingredients until well blended. Pour the mixture into pie crust. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 40 to 50 minutes, or until firm. Makes 2 pies.
• Recipe courtesy of "Aida's Kitchen a lo Boricua"
Aida's Stewed Red Kidney Beans
4 cups cooked dry red kidney beans or 2 cans (15.5 ounces each can) red kidney beans
1/3 cup water
4 ounces calabaza (West Indian pumpkin found in ethnic grocery stores)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 seasoning envelopes with coriander and annatto
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons tomato sauce
2 tablespoons sofrito (puréed condiments)
3 sprigs fresh cilantro, chopped
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/3 cup lean ham, diced (optional)
DIRECTIONS: Pour beans in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. If you are using canned beans, pour beans along with liquid into saucepan and add 1/3 cup of water. Cut a section from the pumpkin. Discard the seeds and remove the strings. Peel the pumpkin wedge and cut into 1-inch chunks. Rinse the chunks of pumpkin and add to saucepan. Add the remaining ingredients. Stir well and cook with lid over medium-low heat for 20 minutes or until pumpkin pieces are tender. Stir occasionally. If you prefer a thicker sauce, remove the lid and continue cooking the beans until sauce thickens to your liking. Serve with rice. Makes 6 servings.
• Recipe courtesy of "Aida's Kitchen a lo Boricua"