Debbie Matthews: Caribbean excursion on a budget

May. 21, 2013 @ 03:12 PM

It’s the strangest thing. Since the third member of our merry little family band, The Kid, has come home for summer break, our food bills have gone up by almost exactly one third.
Go figure.
Lucky for me, Petey is one of the least fussy eaters on the planet. So, some nights, when payday is still a few days away, he’s content with scrambled eggs and canned corned beef hash, or tuna sandwiches with blue box mac for dinner.
The Kid is not very picky, either. But I do like to prepare food that my child really enjoys.
One night, a few weeks back, the freezer was pretty empty, and so was my wallet.
I decided to make something that was cheap, and our little one hadn’t tried before. I had developed a dish a few months ago, when I was cooking for just two. It was my take on a popular Puerto Rican dish: pigeon peas and rice.
Normally, when I make beans, I start from dry. They’re cheaper, and I can season them to our tastes exactly. And cooking from dry is easy.
Except when I have attempted to make pigeon peas (gandules, in Spanish).
Whenever I’ve tried, I’ve ended up with pigeon pea-shaped rocks. I’ve researched to find out what I was doing wrong, and tried to fix them.
No dice. I still get a pot full of pebbles.
But I really like them, so I buy them in a can.
There are plenty of brands out there, thus many choices. After trying a few varieties, I have settled on my favorite. They are made in a town called Bayamón, in Puerto Rico, not too far from where I lived when I was a child. It’s a brand called Jibarito. There isn’t really a one-to-one translation to English, but it means something like “mountain boy.”
I purchase them at Compare Foods Supermarket (2000 Avondale Drive). It’s also where I get the other specialty ingredients for the dish. They have plain ones, but I buy the peas that are in coconut milk; it adds a ton of extra flavor and creaminess to the finished dish.
Much to my delight, The Kid loved it.
So we have a new family fave that is cheap, easy and delicious.

Pigeon Peas and Rice
3 slices bacon
½ yellow onion, chopped
2 envelopes Goya Sazón, with saffron
1 teaspoon Goya adobo powder with bitter orange
2 ½ cups uncooked long grain rice
4 cloves garlic, finely diced or put through press
¾ cup light-colored, inexpensive beer
1 bay leaf
2 ½ cups chicken stock
15.5 oz. can Jibarito pigeon peas with coconut milk
2/3 cup drained green olives with pimentos, sliced in half
Cut bacon into ½ inch strips, and sauté on medium in a heavy pot until the slices have rendered enough fat to cover bottom of pot, but haven’t begun to brown. Put onions into fat along with the bacon and add adobo and Sazón.
When the onions are translucent, add rice, and stir to coat. Toast rice for 5-6 minutes, stirring frequently. Add garlic and bay leaf, mix to combine. When you can smell the garlic, add beer to deglaze pan. When the beer has evaporated, add chicken stock, entire contents of can of pigeon peas, and olives.
Stir pot once and bring to boil. Drop heat to medium low, and cover. Cook for about 20-30 minutes, or until all the liquid has cooked in (you’ll hear sizzling and not bubbling).
Take off heat, and let sit covered and undisturbed for fifteen minutes.
Uncover, fluff with fork, and serve.
Makes six large servings.

I serve this with a crisp, cool green salad. The rice dish also reheats in the microwave like a dream. Petey and The Kid have both taken it to work for lunch.
My sincerest apologies are offered to any authentic Puerto Ricans who are offended by this corruption of a beloved PR recipe. But, unfortunately, when I lived in Puerto Rico, I wasn’t interested in learning to cook any of the amazing food, only eating it. If anyone out there would like to offer some lessons in authentic island cooking, I would be most grateful.
It may not be textbook “arroz con gandules,” but when it’s cooking, I close my eyes, inhale the savory aromas and can almost hear the infectious Caribbean music and waves breaking upon the shore of my beloved childhood home.
Thanks for your time.
Debbie Matthews lives, writes and cooks in Durham. Her email address is