Burt Wolf's Table: Ponce, Puerto Rico - #217

WOLF:  The  Puerto Rican city of Ponce, called the “Pearl of the South.”  For three hundred years it has been one of the artistic and literary centers of the New World. We'll visit the finest classical art museum in the Caribbean and see what it can teach us about good eating, and we'll learn the recipes for some of the best tasting dishes on the island. So join me in Ponce, Puerto Rico at Burt Wolf's Table.

WOLF:  Ponce is Puerto Rico's second largest  city with a population of just under two hundred thousand people. It was founded in 1692 and recently spent some four hundred and fifty million dollars in restoration projects to help celebrate its three-hundredth birthday.  The city was named after Juan Ponce De Leon, who arrived on Puerto Rico with Christopher Columbus.  He was the island's first governor and more than anyone else responsible for its early development.  The city of Ponce is situated on the south coast of Puerto Rico and faces the Caribbean Sea rather than the Atlantic Ocean, which runs along the north coast. The Caribbean gives Ponce a much more gentle and picturesque shoreline. Ponce is also located in what meteorologists call a rain shadow. The rain- filled clouds coming down from the north are pushed up or trapped behind the peaks of the central mountain range.  As a result, Ponce has some of the best weather in the Caribbean.  That good weather has allowed the town to develop a fascinating blend of open architectural styles. Isabel Street is a perfect textbook example of the seven basic architectural styles that are found throughout this community. If you've ever been to the old French Quarter in New Orleans you’ll recognize these buildings, and that's because the people who originally built the French Quarter in New Orleans came there from this part of the Caribbean. 

The core of the city is the Plaza Central -- actually two plazas landscaped with giant Indian laurel trees that shade the local residents.  In the middle of the Plaza is the Cathedral Of Our Lady Of Guadeloupe.  The Cathedral concentrates most of its activities on the delights of heaven -- but directly behind it is a structure that is concerned only with the fires of hell. It is the Parque De Bombas; Ponce's Victorian firehouse and one of the most photographed structures on the island of Puerto Rico. It was originally constructed as part of a fair and exhibition that opened up in 1882. The architecture was meant to echo the Arab and Moorish influences that are so much a part of Spanish history, not only in architecture but even more important, in food. 

The reason that rice is a basic part of many Spanish dishes results from the fact that Spain was under Arab control for many years, and it was the Arabs who brought rice to Spain from the Middle East.

Rice is one of the world's most important foods. It's also quite healthful, low in fat, no cholesterol, no salt and a good source of complex carbohydrates. Chef John Carey of San Juan, Puerto Rico's El San Juan Hotel combines rice with fiber-filled crunchy walnuts to make the stuffing for a classic Puerto Rican dish of stuffed beef. Two cups of cooked rice go into a mixing bowl; two cups of  chopped walnuts are blended in. A two and a half pound eye round of beef is set on a flat work surface and a long, thin knife is used to poke a hole down the center.  Stuff the rice and walnut mixture into the beef. Close the ends of the meat with toothpicks. Pour a little oil into a pan. Put the beef in.  Add a sliced onion, some sliced peppers, tomato cut into strips, plus a half cup of beefstock. Into a three hundred and seventy degree fahrenheit oven, uncovered, for two and a half hours. When it comes out... it's sliced into rounds and served with a tomato and onion sauce on top.

WOLF:  The Arabs also brought sugar and coffee to Spain and gave the Spanish an introduction to the idea of sweet desserts.  You can see that influence here in Ponce by looking at the city's seal.  The leaves on the left represent a coffee plant. The right side has a group of sugar canes.  For centuries these were the crops that made Ponce rich.  Directly across the street from the old firehouse is a shop that is famous for it's use of sugar.  It is the King's Cream Store which makes sorbets from the local fruits and nuts.

Quite frankly if there was nothing else going on in Ponce, I'd make the hour or so trip from San Juan just for this place. They make their sorbets from coconuts and almonds and peanuts and lots of exotic fruits from the island.   The sugar that sweetens those treats was responsible for one of Puerto Rico's most important industries: rum. 

WOLF:  It was during Columbus's second voyage to the New World in 1493 that he first set foot on the island of Puerto Rico.  That was also the voyage during which he brought sugar cane to the Caribbean.  He brought it here from the Canary Islands, which are in the Atlantic just off the coast of Africa. By 1515 the Spanish colonists on Puerto Rico had planted fields of sugar cane and were very busy building up a sugar export business. Columbus's introduction of sugar cane to Puerto Rico has had a longstanding impact on the island's economy.  The actual production of sugar for export has come and gone, but a byproduct of sugar refining has become a permanent and important part of the island's economy. It was actually during the early 1500's that the owners of the sugar plantations noticed that when they were taking sugar out of the sugar cane, the molasses that was left over had a natural tendency to ferment into a kind of wine. Yeast in the air would turn the sugar in the molasses into alcohol.  The Spanish would distill the molasses and produce rum.

For decades rum was the single most important distilled spirit in the American colonies.  Not only did we import it from the Caribbean but we actually had our own distilleries all over New England. We only began to reduce our consumption of rum when the English government introduced an outrageous tax on sugar and molasses.  We stopped drinking it as part of the American Revolution but things are changing; our taste for rum is coming back. Over the years, the federal government has passed a series of laws to encourage the production of rum in Puerto Rico. As a result, Puerto Rico is now home to the largest distiller of rum. 


For almost five hundred years, rum has been the most important distilled alcoholic drink in Puerto Rico. It's been a major item of export from the very beginning of its manufacture in the 1500's.  As a drink it's fame is legendary, but it is also a basic part of many recipes -- especially in the area of desserts.  Chef John Carey of the El San Juan Hotel uses rum to make a rum and banana sauce that he pours over ice cream to make a fabulous dessert. Two cups of sugar are heated in a pan.  The heat causes the moisture in the sugar to come out and turns the sugar into a liquid sauce.  Stir the mixture as it starts to brown.  The process is called caramelizing and that's perfectly descriptive.  The sugar develops a caramel flavor. Next add in two tablespoons of butter and a quarter cup of Puerto Rican rum. Quarter cup of heavy cream and a few sliced bananas; mix that together for a few minutes. Pour the sauce over vanilla ice cream. Sugar, rum, bananas... that's about Puerto Rican as it gets.

WOLF:  The first people to arrive on the island of Puerto Rico showed up about forty-five hundred years ago.  They may have come down from Florida or over from Mexico. No one's quite sure.  Second group to arrive, however, clearly came from the Orinoco Valley of Venezuela in South America.  They took up residence here about three hundred A.D., settling along the coasts and rivers and developing a rather advanced culture.

The basis of their agriculture was the cassava plant, also known as yucca.  It's a starchy vegetable that grows as a root plant, usually about two inches in diameter and ten inches long.  They used it to make a bread and a wine -- very much the way the people in Asia use rice, or farmers many years ago in Europe used wheat to make their bread and a beer. It comes in two forms. One is sweet.  One is bitter.  The sweet form is edible all the time.  The bitter form is poisonous until you cook it. 

The Tibes Indian Ceremonial Park is situated just outside the Puerto Rican city of Ponce. The ancient native inhabitants of this island lived on this site until some time in the 1100's, when flooding from a series of hurricanes forced them to move to higher ground. Their village remained covered with earth for over six hundred years until 1975, when another hurricane came through, flooded the area again and this time uncovered the site.

A team of archeologists, historians, engineers and geologists moved in and started studying the tract. Carmen Martinez is the resident archeologist.

CARMEN MARTINEZ:  And... as you can see there are two different types of... huts. The round one was made for the... common Indian and the casique or the chief, he lived in the rec... rectangular one.

WOLF:  Why is that?

MARTINEZ:  Number one, status symbol. Also he was allowed to have more than one wife. So he needed a bigger space.

WOLF:  For more kids, more wives, it gets longer.

MARTINEZ:  Um hmm.

WOLF:  (LAUGHS) Okay.  It's building an extension. Carmen, what's planted over there?

MARTINEZ:  That's yucca. That was the main staple of the Indian diet and it's very interesting to point out that when the Spanish arrived they used it also as their diet and it was called pan de las indias.

WOLF:  Bread of the Indians.

MARTINEZ:  Um hmm.

WOLF:  Was the translation of that.


WOLF:  I gather that when the Spanish got here they had a lot of trouble getting there regular staples from Spain.

MARTINEZ:  Um hmm.

WOLF:  There was no Federal Express at the time and they adapted a lot of their eating pattern to the foods that we available from the Indians.

MARTINEZ:  Yeah.That's correct.

WOLF:  What's happening here?

MARTINEZ:  This is a ball court we call the horsubate [?]  and it was used by the Indians to play a ballgame which was like a volleyball...but there were not allowed...allowed to use their hands. They played with a ball that sometimes weighed forty pounds and it was made from grass... roots and leaves and the purpose of the game was to keep the ball in the air without hitting the ground.

WOLF:  The Taino tribes that came to Puerto Rico from South America were skilled farmers who had developed a series of planting methods that were ideal for their environment.  They planted a number of different crops in the same mound of earth.  Those that required lots of water went on the bottom, those that needed great drainage went up on top. They actually grew quite a series of different vegetables. They had yams and corn, a whole bunch of different squashes and beans. They gathered fruits and nuts from the trees.  They made nets and fished the waters around the island and they used bows and arrows to hunt for small game.

One of the old Taino recipes calls for the frying of fish in corn oil. John Carey is going to prepare this red snapper dish much as it was done a thousand years ago. Snapper goes into a pan containing a quarter cup of heated corn oil and cooks on each side for five minutes. While it's cooking, a black bean salsa is made.  The salsa goes on to the plate and the fish goes right on top. 

The Museo De Artes in Ponce is clearly the finest classical museum of art on any Caribbean island. Louis Ferre, a former Governor of Puerto Rico, is responsible for the museum's coming into existence and it was his own collection of paintings that became the basis for the original exhibitions.  Today the museum contains an amazing collection of  works by outstanding Dutch and English artists, and of course the finest collection of classic Puerto Rican artists.  For me, however, there is one central question about a work of art that makes it truly interesting:what are they eating in that painting? Doctor Carmen Ruiz Fischler is the museum's director.

WOLF: This one's one of your favorites.

CARMEN RUIZ FISCHLER:  Of course. It's from...a Ponce artist from Puerto Rico named Miguel Poe. I think he could not have...paid a much gallant homage to...young peasant girl in the...60's when he painted this work.

WOLF:  He was from Ponce and the young woman was from Ponce too.

FISCHLER:  Yes she was, because he always would look for specific characters of the countryside, of the town, people everybody knew and they immediately recognized 'em in the paintings.

WOLF:  Oh, interesting... and those are mangoes in the  bowl.

FISCHLER:  Yes they are, and they're delicious -- especially the ones he's showing there. These... they're very important in this area, in the south and western part of Puerto Rico.  This is a  still life of the Spanish School. It was painted at the end of the sixteenth century by Alonso Vasquez and he's very interesting... for me because of the many textures and feeling for different materials, that you almost feel like you can touch each one of them and feel in your own hands how they are.

WOLF:  The painting scares me a little. It's filled with saturated fats, and that chicken in the top corner there that's dead, it may be a warning to have more complex carbohydrates in our diet and less saturated fat.

FISCHLER:  That would be very interesting for the sixteenth century. (LAUGHS)

WOLF:  The mango is celebrated in the art of Puerto Rico but it is also an important part of the gastronomy.  Chef Ramon Rosario of the Sands Hotel has a favorite recipe for chicken breasts in a mango sauce.

A mango that had been peeled and sliced into small cubes goes into a saucepan.  Then in goes a quarter cup of rum, two cups of pureed mango and two tablespoons of sugar.  That's heated and stirred for a few moments and left to simmer over a very low flame. While that's simmering, a skinless boneless chicken breast is lightly floured. A little vegetable oil is heated in the saute pan. Chicken goes in to the pan, cooks for three minutes on one side and then cooks for three minutes on the second side.  It's very important to make sure that the chicken is fully cooked all the way through. It's the only way to be sure that the chicken is safe to eat. Professional restaurant chefs are aware of the problem and make a real effort to protect the public.  At home be careful. Make sure your chicken is fully cooked. When it is, it goes onto a serving plate and the mango sauce goes on top. 

Well, the mango is known as the “apple of the tropics” and it is certainly as popular in the warm parts of our planet at the apple is in the colder areas. People have been growing mangoes for so long that we've actually forgotten where they got started, but the general consensus is that it began somewhere in Asia -- probably in the most eastern provinces of India.

All mangoes start out green, but as they ripen they change color. A ripe mango can range in color from green to rose to red.  The best way to tell if a mango is ripe is to press the outside skin. It should yield to a gentle pressure. Mangoes range in weight from about ten ounces to over four pounds, and considering the fact that they are not the easiest fruit in the world to peel, bigger is better.  A ripe mango is eaten as a fresh fruit. It also goes into pies and drinks and ice creams, uncooked relishes and salsa.  An unripe mango can be used in a cooked chutney.  The people of Puerto Rico often refer to the mango as the “king of fruits” and I think it certainly deserves its royal reputation.

WOLF:  The people of Puerto Rico also extend royal treatment to their favorite entertainers, including Nydia Caro, who is a superstar of  Puerto Rican music and television. 

WOLF:  Tell me a little bit about yourself.

NYDIA CARO:  I was born in New York City. I was raised in the Bronx.  When I was... seventeen my dad passed away and my mom wanted to come back to Puerto Rico.  What I thought I'd do was come here, get her settled, become twenty-one and  go back to New York.  I wanted to be an actress.  The funny thing is that... t's very dif... difficult to be indifferent in Puerto Rico. People... stay here. I said I was going to leave when I was twenty-one and I wound up staying and I never went back.

WOLF:  What kind of work did you do?

CARO:  I came to Puerto Rico and I started working on television...on a teenaged show that was  called “The Coca-Cola Show” and I would sing rock and roll in English... and two years after that I had my own show.


CARO:  The show was called “The Nydia Caro Show” and it was a variety show, and since we had very little money to do it what we would do would be, you know, kind of be as creative as we could about getting... getting things to present on television that looked like a million bucks and maybe cost... you know, ten dollars. (LAUGHS)

CARO:  I think that that's really the best way to work.  It certainly saves... a lot of time and it makes you not be lazy about things, you know. You're... you're always exploring.  You're always....

WOLF:  You have to.

CARO:  ...looking, you know, where...the next piece of serendipity is going to come from.

WOLF:  What's special about Puerto Rico?

CARO:  I used to say to myself why... do  Puerto Ricans in New York wear... bright purple and bright green together for example... until I came here and I realized that that's Puerto Rico, that's the nature.  You know, when you're filming here it's... it's really hard to film during the day  when the sun is up because everything is so bright. You know, you see it. You go into the island, you see these... beautiful red anabolla flowers next to very rich green... anything that you plant grows here, and the color of the ocean.  I mean it's very rich... and it's also very passionate. It's a very passionate place to be.

WOLF:  If this was my first visit to Puerto Rico, what should I eat?

CARO:  Well, the rice and beans probably comes from our Indian heritage... and it's something that we eat every day almost.  For example, my son... needs to eat rice and beans every... you might serve him pasta and you might serve him anything else... they eat very well but... what they do like is to have that.  Which is great because it's very... nutritious and it's got a lot of protein and... it's a complex carbohydrate.  So actually it's... it's something good to have.

WOLF:  And Nydia's going to let us have her favorite recipe for it too.  Pot goes on.

CARO:  Pot goes on.

WOLF:  Pour the water in.

CARO:  Water goes in.

WOLF:  A few cups of water go into a sauce pan to heat up.

CARO:  Okay.

WOLF:  Some chicken broth.  Some pre-cooked beans.

CARO:  Oh.

WOLF:  And some sofrito. Sofrito is one of the traditional seasoning agents of Puerto Rico.

WOLF:  I love it.

CARO:  Sofrito are tomatoes, onion and garlic...green peppers and red peppers.

WOLF:  And they've been sauteed together in a little olive oil.

CARO:  They've been sauteed.  Right. And then we put salt and pepper in.

WOLF:  Right and they’re pureed...

CARO:  And then we...and we...puree them.

WOLF:   Right.

CARO:  Then we take...then we do...one... two. Okay. That's for two cups of beans.

WOLF:  Okay. And your mother made the soafrito for you today.

CARO:  My mother makes the sofrito.  She's wonderful with this.  What I do is I have her make a... a lot of it and then I freeze it.  And I take out a little bit at a time.

WOLF:  Time.

CARO:  Because in...my children eat this every day. Whatever else we make we have to have ri... a little portion of rice and beans. I guess it's like the Italians do with pasta,you know.

WOLF:  Oh you have to have pasta.

CARO:  Then we'll take a little bit... here of the... tomato paste... that's a big spoon, Burt.

WOLF:  Yeah, you can use a small spoon.

CARO:  That's a better one.  Why don't we just rub it off there. What that does is thicken it. Okay.

WOLF:  All right.

CARO:  And then we put some potatoes in.

WOLF:  Okay.

CARO:  Not so many, just a little bit, about one-fourth. Right.  And the potato also thickens.

WOLF:  Okay. The heat comes up and everything simmers together for twenty minutes.

CARO:  What this is served with is rice... white rice.

WOLF:  On top of it or the rice goes in...

CARO:  Just on the side of it. In other words you have the rice here and you have the...red beans is here and then you mix it as you eat it.  Okay.

WOLF:  Portion by portion as you...

CARO:  Portion by portion.

WOLF:  And...and is that just a polite...thing or is there a reason for that?

CARO:   Well it's usually the way it's done. I mean if you...you don't want to eat it that way you don't have to.  (LAUGHS) You can mix it up altogether. And then...that kind of accompanies every thing.You can accompany it with...with meat or with chicken... with fish.

WOLF:  What's really wonderful about it is that between the rice and the beans.....

CARO:  Um hmm.

WOLF:  ...you have all the amino acids that  you would find in a piece of meat or fish or poultry and none of the....

CARO:  And proteins.

WOLF:  ...saturated fat. Right.

CARO:  And then there's another ingredient that you have to put in it.

WOLF:  What is that?

CARO:  The most important one, you have to be happy when you cook it.


WOLF:  Well, I was so happy cooking the rice and beans that I asked Nydia to show me another one of her favorites.

CARO:  This is gazpacho.  Gazpacho comes to us... from Spain actually.  But Puerto Ricans like it a lot.  They serve it... before the rice and beans some times or you can serve it with anything you like and it's really easy to make.

WOLF:  Okay, let's make it.

CARO:  What we do... is in the blender we take some olive oil.

WOLF:  Okay, that's my job.

CARO:  Let's make some for four okay?

WOLF:  Okay.

CARO:  Which would be about...two big tablespoons, a little more.  Okay.  Okay.  Then we'll take... a little bit... tomato sauce.

WOLF:  All right.

CARO:  And then we'll take... four... tomatoes that we have boiled for one minute and peeled. Okay.  And then...what we do, we put this in the blender as well as the tomatoes. This makes a great first dish. Okay.  Then we'll put... green and red peppers... okay.  Then we'll put... a little bit onion, say we'll put... two of these in... then we'll put a little garlic in it.

WOLF:  Ummm.

CARO:  For taste...you like garlic, huh?

WOLF:  Ummm.

CARO:  Then we'll put...(LAUGHS)...a little pinch of oregano.  Like that.  A little bit of salt. There about half a spoon of that.  Then a little bit of pepper to taste.  Okay. 

WOLF:  That's it?

CARO:  That's it.

WOLF:  Okay. Top on.

CARO:  And then...we blend that.

WOLF:  Make sure that's secure so we don't wear any of it.  Okay.  Ready.

CARO:  Ready.


WOLF:  I can do that.

CARO:  Anybody can do that.  This is the easiest thing and it's very tasty. And what you do is you chill it. You put it in the refrigerator for about an hour.

WOLF:  Right.

CARO:  And... or if you... if you want to do it right now, let's say you want to eat it right now,you can put some ice in it and... then you put it... in this... in... in the blender again and chill it.

WOLF:  Oh so just drop ice in and thin it out a little and chill it.

CARO:  Exactly.

WOLF:  The same time.  Great idea.

CARO:  And then what you do is to take the ingredients that you've put in.... and... you chop it up real fine and then you...put a little tablespoon of that on top of the soup.

WOLF:  Garnish on... top of the soup.

CARO:  Exactly.

WOLF:  Great.

CARO:  And it's delicious.

WOLF:  Okay.

CARO:  And easy.

WOLF:  So what have we seen here out on the island of  Puerto Rico in terms of good food for good health?  Rice, low in fat, no cholesterol, no salt, a good source of complex carbohydrates. The native tribes had a diet that gave them more than half their daily calories in complex carbohydrates in the form of fruits, vegetables, grains and cereals; good idea.  The cooks of Puerto Rico are updating their traditional recipes to reduce the amount of saturated fat, very important. The lower your intake of saturated fat, the better off you are. 

Well that's what's happening in Ponce, Puerto Rico and out on the island when it comes to good food.   They're preserving their classic and traditional recipes and making it a real pleasure to eat here.  Please join us next time as we travel around the  world looking for taste good. I'm Burt Wolf.