Eating Well: Puerto Rico - #126

BURT WOLF: The tropical paradise of Puerto Rico. The place to taste the sizzling cuisine of the Caribbean. We'll learn about the island from Broadway star Chita Rivera ... visit one of the oldest coffee plantations in the western world ... and find out how it was planned with ecology in mind. Plus, we'll get some easy great-tasting recipes ... including a marvelous paella.

Join me ... Burt Wolf ... eating well in Puerto Rico.

The Shining Star Of The Caribbean ... Puerto Rico. It's a tropical playground with over 272 miles of coastline. It boasts some of the world's most beautiful beaches. The extraordinary natural wonders of Puerto Rico include the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. Forest Service.

A thriving blend of old and new, Puerto Rico's culture dates back the the Taino Indians who came here from Venezuela some 2,000 years ago.

During his second voyage to the New World, Columbus stopped in ... and I assume without mentioning it to the Tainos, old Chris claimed this magical isalnd as a possession of the King of Spain.

Columbus' shipmate, Juan Ponce DeLeon, was designated the first governor of the isalnd. He named it Puerto Rico ... which translates into “Rich Harbor.” At that point, things got cookin'.

The fabulous fish from the sea and the abundant tropical fruits and vegetables have been a basic part of the Indian diet. The Spanish introduced rice, pork, beef and olive oil. 

Next came the West Africans who contributed tasty ingredients like okra as well as a mastery of one-pot stews.

The Taino Indians, the Spanish and the West African cultures contributed the basic cooking styles of Puerto Rico. And mixed in with their recipes came their beliefs and skills relating food to good health. These old techniques are often the secret nutritional ingredient in many of the classic recipes of the island. You'll see an ancient recipe that a group of people have been making since the beginning of their history. Today's scientists take a look at it, and they tell you nutritionally it's almost perfect. Rice and beans, for example. Many of the local recipes get excellent nutrition for very little money. A great part of the old diet is naturally high in fiber. 

Most medical authorities believe that we should get between twenty and thirty-five grams of fiber into our daily diet. But dietary fiber isn't the only fiber around here. There's also the fiber of Puerto Rican life. 

And to get a heaping helping of the full flavor of Puerto Rican life ... let's take a look at the Puerto Rico's living museum, Old San Juan.

Old San Juan is one of the two walled cities of our hemisphere. This town takes you back through five hundred years of living history. It sits between two fortresses ... El Morro is the leading castle of the wall, dating back to 1540. The back door to the city was protected by the Fort of San Cristobal. 

Many of the city of Old San Juan is laced with cobblestone streets and boasts some of the finest examples of sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish colonial architecture. It's a city steeped in history and culture. La Fortaleza, the home of the governor of Puerto Rico, was ordered into construction by Spain's King Carlos the First in 1540. It must feel great to live in a building where the mortgage was paid off four hundred years ago.

An ingredient in Puerto Rican cooking that has been paying off nutritionally even longer is the black bean. Beans are nutritional gold mines. Look at what one cup of cooked beans can do for you: supplies about a quarter of your daily need for protein ... it can lower cholesterol ... it will also give you a quarter of the daily iron that most of us need. It has folic acid which helps make your red blood cells ... and it has calcium.

And a great way to get those beans into your diet is with a bowl of black bean soup. La Zaragozana Restaurant in Old San Juan uses a traditional recipe. Take a pound of dried black beans ... cover them with cold water ... let them soak overnight. Next day, drain the beans ... and cover them with fresh water ... and let them simmer for about one hour or until they're tender.

Meanwhile, take five cloves of garlic ... a tablespoon of cumin ... a half tablespoon of oregano ... and an ounce of white vinegar ... and crush that all together. Heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in a saute pan ... add in a cup of chopped green peppers. And two cups of chopped onion. Let that cook until the onions are brown. Add in the cooked spices, and heat that together for a few minutes. Add the cooked spices and the vegetables to the beans ... and simmer for an hour more. Each portion is served with a garnish of cooked rice and chopped raw onion.

Those black beans are naturally high in fiber. There are two basic types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber dissolves in water, and you find it in fruits, vegetables, beans and oats. Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water, and you find that in the skin of fruits and vegetables and whole wheat products.

Medical authorities feel that you need both types of fiber, and together they can improve your digestion, help with weight loss, and reduce the risk of heart disease. Ha-ha ... sounds good to me.

That is the statue of Ponce DeLeon, the Spanish explorer who traveled around the world with Christopher Columbus. It stands in the old city of San Juan, Puerto Rico because Ponce was extremely important to Puerto Rico. 

He found gold on the island in 1508 and quite naturally decided to move in and set up shop. More than anyone else, he was responsible for the early Spanish colonization of this community. Walk through the streets of Old San Juan and you can still see his influence.

There's the White House, built as his residence. It still stands, as do many of the buildings originally constructed during those early days of European colonization in the New World.

Ponce DeLeon undertook a series of exploratory voyages from Puerto Rico, and was actually the first European to see the area that's now the United Sates of America when he discovered Florida. The story goes that Ponce was looking for The Fountain Of Youth ... a little spring that would give him perpetual boyhood. Poor guy. Huh! Never found it!

But these days, scientists are making a really good case for a diet that can at least keep you healthier longer The key elements are low- cholesterol, low-fat ... low-sodium ... and lots of complex carbohydrates. Hey! It's not as simple as taking a sip from The Fountain Of Youth ... but who said it was gonna be easy?

Well, here's something that is. It's a pork recipe from one of Puerto Rico's most versatile chefs. Jan D’Esopo studied art at Bennington College in Vermont and Yale University's Graduate School. Today she lives in Puerto Rico's Old San Juan. She paints, she sculpts, she runs an art gallery ... and a wonderful little inn with ten rooms and a serious kitchen.

When she sets a table it's decorated with sculpture and plated with dishes that are produced in the gallery's art school. Today she's demonstrating her culinary art skills with a recipe for roast pork with orange sauce.

The Taino Indians were the first inhabitants of this island; they were great lovers of roast meat. So here we are 2,000 years later following in their gastronomic footsteps.

Start by grating together a teaspoon of salt ... and a teaspoon of peppercorns. Add a few cloves of chopped garlic ... and a quarter-cup of chopped green olives. Cut a series of X's into a four-pound pork loin ... and stuff the X's with the paste. Roast the loin in a 350 degree fahrenheit oven until the internal temperature's at 160 degrees.

It's served with a side dish of rice that's been cooked with a seasoning of jalapeno peppers ... onions ... and cilantro. Hey ... that's my kind of art!

Part of the art of pork cookery is to avoid over-cooking. During the past few years the pork producers have been working to produce a leaner cut of meat and reduce the older recommended cooking time. These days they recommend the pork be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees fahrenheit for medium doneness. That'll keep the meat tender and juicy and still meet the point for healthfully-cooked pork.

A lot of great joys for good cooks in Puerto Rico are the many local markets that offer regional produce and products. They're tailored to the taste of the old cooking style.

This is the public market in Santorce, Puerto Rico. It's part of a network of public markets throughout the island that offer local produce and handcraft. Visiting a market can often be an excellent way to get an accurate look at a country's foods and flavors. 

Scientists have identified over 3,000 different types of tropical fruits ... and this place is packed with them. The warm climate encourages fruits and vegetables with intense flavors. Some are sweet and aromatic ... others are acidic and pungent. And many of them are beginning to show up in markets and recipes all over the world. 

Take passionfruit for instance, with its promise of sensuality. Passionfruit offers an intense and pungent tropical perfume. Its pulp is perfect for ice cream, nectar, mousse ... and other sweet desserts.

A perfect example of a sweet dessert made from a variety of fruits is this medley of pureed fruit, each fruit with a distinctly different color. Today we're using mango, kiwi, papaya, apple, strawberry, and blackberry. Each is separately pureed in a blender. And an ounce of each is poured onto a plate in a circular pattern.

The plate is shaken to smooth them out. Finally, the tip of a wooden spoon is run through each of the purees to make a pattern. A single blackberry goes on as a garnish. It's served as a low calorie dessert.

One of the world's finest collections of tropical and semi-tropical plants is to be found in the Botanical Gardens of San Juan... over two hundred acres of vegetation that illustrates the richness of this island's agriculture. Within the landscape is an area filled with exotic fruits that were once a major part of the Puerto Rican diet.

That's a Caimito tree. It has a star-shaped fruit with a pulp that tastes like a sweet jelly. It's eaten raw for a snack or a dessert. 

That's a tamarind tree which can live for over two hundred years. The fruit is inside this powder-packed shell. It's a bit sticky and has a flavor that will probably remind you of Worcestershire sauce ... which makes sense because tamarind is used to make Worcestershire.

This is a Spanish lime, or a key lime ... much smaller, much more tart in flavor and much more difficult to find in the supermarket than a standard lime. It's what the bakers really had in mind when they made the original key lime pies. And if you ever get to taste a real key lime pie ... you'll see that it has a much more intense citrus flavor than the key lime pies we make with our standard limes.

That fifty-foot tree is a Quenepa tree. The fruits are small ovals that look like lichee nuts and you eat them the same way. Peel off the hard skin and watch out for the large pit. 

During the summer these fruits are sold along the roadsides as a snack ... and a healthful one too. 

Now, let's meet a woman whose Puerto Rican heritage produced the first major break in her entertainment career.


Tony Award-winning actress Chita Rivera has been delighting audiences with her amazing performances and dynamic dancing since she was sixteen years old. Over the years her tremendous talent has brightened the lights of Broadway and made theatrical history.


CHITA RIVERA: My father was ... uh ... a musician. And he played clarinet and saxaphone. My mother always wanted to dance but she had five children ... she was as graceful and as beautiful as the most beautiful ballerina. And ... I ... I maybe through that ... mother put me in school ... in ballet school. I won a scholarship to New York City Ballet Company ... that got me to New York ... Mr. Balanchine saw me and got me into New York.

And my first show was the road company of Call Me Madam ... I have to say the road company because if I said the original company that makes me even older. (LAUGHS) But the national company gives me a year and a half.


And when you reach this stage in your life -- give me any minute I can have. And that was the beginning of meeting wonderful, wonderful people. 

Well, it was Can-Can, it was Guys and Dolls, there was ... there was ... uh ... Zorba, there was Bye-bye Birdie, there was the wonderful West Side Story which is an interesting situation because I ... being Puerto Rican ... they were very lucky to find somebody that could appease the Puerto Rican population because it was also at a certain time when it ... that sort of thing was actually happening. 

And it was kind of brand new. And ... uh ... I had to sing a song I ... “Puerto Rico you lovely and then ugly island” ... tongue in cheek. And ... uh ... we didn't want to insult ... so it was easier coming from a Puerto Rican girl ... they could accept the ... I even then got some ... some letters that people that didn't really understand that I was only joking.

But it was a wonderful time to be able to introduce that magnificent piece of work ... but to say what we had to say which was very important in brining people together in this world which we still have to do desperately.

BURT WOLF: If someone has never been to Puerto Rico, describe it for them.

CHITA RIVERA: Oh, my gosh. It's ... uh ... it's very warm ... its people are very, very warm. There's beautiful color there ... the flowers ... the greenery ... the blue of the water. Uh ... the smell of the food. You get off the airplane and you can smell it.

When we first went for the very first time ... I went with my ... my brother who's my manager, Armando. And daddy ... daddy's been dead since we were very young ... and we had this overwhelming feeling as we looked down ... you know ... that we were approaching an area that was a great part of our history. When I talk about it I get teary-eyed really. Because there's a depth there that ... that you don't know until you really visit.

I'm always a bit ashamed because I don't speak the language fluently. Uh ... with a name like mine. I mean, my name is really Dolores Conchitta Figuero de Rivera ... I mean, what am I talking about here.


We're not talking about Chita O'Hara ... we're talking about all of that!

BURT WOLF: Tell me about the Puerto Rican dishes that you like to cook at home.

CHITA RIVERA: I just cook the simple red beans and rice and the plantains ... the green ones and the yellow ones ... the platanos and the pernil ... and black bean soup ... uh ... we ... I love rice ... I mean, if you were to separate me from rice then we'd have an awful lot of trouble, you know. 

When my daughter was born ... she's half Italian, half Puerto Rican, and I said to her ... alright Lisa, it's time you answered this question ... is it pasta or is it rice? She said pasta ... and it upset me very badly. (LAUGHS)

BURT WOLF: Are there any specific foods that you feel give you more energy for your performances?

CHITA RIVERA: A piece of fruit always picks me up. Every once in a while, though, my body will say I need ... uh ... some red meat. And I listen to it. I mean, that's the wonderful thing about ... you know ... about listening to your body ... it has a voice of its own ... your muscles have a voice ... your nervous system has a voice ... and if you just stop for second and listen ... if you feel low, you go for something that will give you some energy.

BURT WOLF: We're gonna go back in the kitchen now and the chef is going to prepare a paella of chicken and rice.


BURT WOLF: Tell me your feelings about that dish.

CHITA RIVERA: I think that we should get to the kitchen as soon as possible. (LAUGHS)

BURT WOLF: Paella comes from the Latin word for pan ... today it has come to mean a Spanish rice dish that is cooked in a paella pan. Each chef has their own recipe for paella ... but this is one of my favorites. 

Start with two chickens cut into pieces. Lightly flour those pieces ... and saute them in a little vegetable oil until they're tender. That should take about twenty minutes. Put a few tablespoons of oil into the paella pan ... heat them and add in two chopped onions. Three cloves of garlic that have been minced ... some saffron ... a pound of uncooked shrimp ... black pepper ... and salt. Three cups of long-grain rice ... a couple cups of peas ... and the cooked chicken is added back in. Some slices of sausage ... six cups of chicken broth which are gonna be absorbed by the rice ... two dozen pre-cooked mussels ... a cup's worth of pimento strips ... and two dozen pre-cooked clams.

We found a few crayfish in the refrigerator so we just added them in. Paella's a very flexible recipe. What you got is what you cook. When the rice is tender, the paella is ready to serve. 

CHITA RIVERA: This is the area you come into when you're doing a nightclub act. You come out smelling like paella.


BURT WOLF: Ah, yes. Coming out smelling like paella ... hey ... to me that's better than coming out smelling like a rose. 

Puerto Rico is the Caribbean's most popular vacation destination, and for good reason. This sun-kissed playground is an oasis of culture and history. The old city of San Juan is the oldest city in the New World. It's a man-made treasure. But Puerto Rico also has been blessed with extraordinary gifts from Mother Nature.

Puerto Rico has hundreds of miles of palm- fringed beaches. On the north side of the island they face the Atlantic. The southern coast presses up against the Caribbean sea. And there's the rain forest of El Junque. It collects over one hundred billion gallons of rain each year, and gives the visitor a fascinating glimpse of the untouched beauty of nature in the tropics.

Across the center of the island is a mountain range that is topped with a group of small inns that are part of a government program to preserve and promote the traditional cooking of the provinces of Puerto Rico.

And on the southerly side of these mountains is an amazing antique coffee plantation.


The Hacienda Buena Vista sits in a sub-tropical forest on the south coast of Puerto Rico. Built during the first half of the 19th century, it became a classic example of the type of agricultural operation that thrived in this intense climate. Too hilly for sugar cane, it was ideal for coffee ... and within a few years began to produce a grade of coffee considered one of the finest in the world. Carlos Vivas, the son of the founding father, instituted a system of small dams and canals that gave him the water power needed for coffee bean processing. He was very serious about ecology and made sure that all the water he used was cleaned and returned to the river. We could learn from Carlos.

Today, the Hacienda is a property of the conservation trust of Puerto Rico and it's been restored to its original condition so that tourists can take a look at what a working coffee plantation of the 1850's really looked like. Coffee came to Europe first from the Ethiopian town of Kaffa and that's probably how coffee got its name. After a while, the Indonesian port city of Java became a major export point ... and Americans took the word “java” as a slang expression for what is our national brew. We consume over a half of billion cups of coffee every single day.

There's a lot to see in Puerto Rico. And the responsibility for bringing everyone here to see it belongs to Miguel Dominich ... the Executive Director of Puerto Rican Tourism. 

Now, let me quite blunt about this report. Miguel negotiated a deal with me. He said if I would show all those exquisite pictures of Puerto Rico ... all of which are really nice to look at ... he in turn would show me his recipe for chicken and rice ... which is really nice to eat. Now, it's Miguel's turn.

Okay ... Miguel starts by sauteing a chicken cut in parts in a little olive oil until the surfaces are brown. Then the chopped onion goes in. Some chopped green pepper. A few capers. A few green olives. And a handful of chopped pimento. A cup of tomato sauce ... oregano ... pepper flakes ... three cups of long-grain rice ... and three and a half cups of chicken broth. 

It's covered and simmered for twenty minutes. Cooked peas go on top as a garnish. A hearty rice dish like this is good for you and easy to make too.

For the past two thousand years the history of Puerto Rico has been a story of blending cultures. Sometimes the blending was quite gentle ... and at other points in Puerto Rico's history, the blending has been somewhat violent.

The final results, however, have been first- class. As each new ingredient is incorporated in Puerto Rico, the people of the island have taken a look at their new environment and tried to decide what had happened. 

There are three basic elements that make up this scenario. The first are the native tribes ... the second are the Spanish ... and the third are the Africans. And you can still clearly see their influences on the faces of the people ... the art ... the literature ... the cultural institutions ... and especially in the food.

But each of those original elements have been totally transformed, in the same way that baking soda, sugar, flour, eggs and milk disappear to become a great cake.

Since the 1950's Puerto Rico has had an extremely stable period in its history, a period which has allowed the inhabitants of the island to understand what it means to be Puerto Rican ... and to begin to appreciate and preserve their Puerto Rican history and culture. 

One of the most interesting programs for the appreciation and preservation of things Puerto Rican is a government project in the area of gastronomy. During the 1980's the government of Puerto Rico decided that it was time to protect, preserve and promote the traditional regional foods of the island. In order to do that, they instituted a program called Mesones Gastronomico. Which translates roughly as “Houses Where You Can Get Something Really Great To Eat.” There are about fifty of them spread out around the island. In order to be one, you have to be in a beautiful area ... cook the traditional recipes of that area ... and serve them at reasonable prices.

All of the restaurants in this program are outside of San Juan. Many are located in the most picturesque parts of the island... in small villages, along the seashore, and up in the mountains. The foods that they serve represent some of the best of Puerto Rican cooking. And often at the best prices too. It's as if the U.S. federal government decided to help preserve the best recipes from each of the neighborhoods in our country, and help set up small restaurants to keep up the good cooking.

Puerto Rico's Mesones Gastronomico does just that. It holds onto the island's culinary heritage for the Puerto Ricans and for people who just come to the island to visit too.

A Lei-lo-li Festival is a celebration of Puerto Rican food, music and dance. And almost every evening you'll find one taking place in the hotels of San Juan. The foods presented are the traditional dishes of the island. There's a yucca salad ... yucca’s a root vegetable ... not my reaction to the taste ... it tastes fine. It's a codfish salad. Pinon, which is made from sweet plantans made with meat... Puerto Rico's answer to the lasagna.

Pastelas ... which are chicken and vegetables wrapped in leaves ... pestoles ... .from fried plantans ... paella and roast pig. And to drink ... the national beverage of Puerto Rico ... the pina colada ... which means strained pineapple. 

Pina colada got her start right here in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1952. It's made by mixing an ounce of cream of coconut together with two ounces of Puerto Rican gold rum ... an ounce of cream and four ounces of pineapple juice. That's blended in a blender with a half cup of crushed ice. Strained pineapple ... this is no strain at all!

So let's take a look at what we saw here in Puerto Rico. We started with a two-thousand-year-old culture ... eating lots of fish, fresh fruits and fresh vegetables. The the island is colonized by Spain ... and we get rice, domesticated pork, beef, and olives. West Africans bring in the skills of one-pot cooking. 

Today all of these influences are being blended together ... and so is the collective knowledge on how to get the best nutrition and the finest flavor in the same pot. There are excellent Puerto Rican recipes that take a little bit of meat, fish or poultry ... and make it go a long way with complex carbohydrates from rice and beans. And that's a great way to control food costs too.

Which reminds me of a wonderful story. When supermarkets first came here to Puerto Rico they used standard cash registers from the States ... but things would go nuts and long lines would form when someone would ring up the “no sale” sign. In Spanish “no sale” reads “don't leave.” (LAUGHS) Hey! Life could be confusing. And so could your search for a high-fiber diet.

Any Puerto Rican recipe solved the need by using beans. They are a high-fiber, nutritional gold mine. This report, however, would not be up to date if I did not mention that during this present century some of the elements of U.S. cooking and eating have become part of the Puerto Rican palate. But with a strong sense of heritage -- they have made each one in their own Puerto Rican style. They have a great pizza with a tortilla base. (LAUGHS)

That's Eating Well in Puerto Rico. Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for foods that taste good and make it easier to eat well. 

I'm Burt Wolf.