Thanksgiving at my house means waking up to Latin music blasting through the speakers as mom starts the day's cleaning and of course, the smell of the pork shoulder seasoned in adobo, minced garlic, salt and pepper, and sazón, coming from the kitchen. My grandma, Teresa Rodriguez, who has always been just "Abu" to me, starts the cooking early in the morning.
The pork shoulder sat in the oven at 350 degrees for six hours. And Abu told me, the secret to getting a crispy skin, what we call, el cuero, is done by spreading salt over the top.
Mom is the repostera- the baker in charge of sweets and my grandma cooks the main dishes. For Thanksgiving, the menu typically consists of your usual oven-baked turkey and mashed potatoes, but also a pork shoulder, rice, a potato salad, and for desserts- flan and tembleque. Tembleque is a coconut-flavored pudding specific to the Puerto Rican culture.
Now, that may all sound scrumptious, but the most important part of the meal is the rice. No other rice has ever tasted like my grandmother's. And it's the most trouble I have in making, when I try to duplicate her cooking.
She started by rinsing the rice in water. In a separate pot, or caldero, she pours cooking oil, just enough to cover the bottom of it. She put the stove temperature on low and threw in some tocino- that is the word for bacon but in the Caribbean, it's made from pork fatback rather than pork belly. Since this is a large amount of rice for a big meal, it was used here, to keep the rice from burning.
Abu then added about a tablespoon of minced garlic and two tablespoons of sofrito- it's a concoction of seasonings including oregano, pepper and culantro. This one we're using is homemade, but you can find an already-made version in the frozen section of the grocery store. She adds a packet of sazón seasoning, freely spreads some adobo seasoning into the caldero, she adds a can of tomato sauce and a few green olives with the accompanying liquid.
If you’re like me, by no means an expert in the kitchen you might be wondering, what are the precise measurements to these ingredients?!
Abu said she has been cooking for so long, she already knows how much to put into the caldero without having to measure. "Es cuestión de experiencia," she said.
She told me she has been cooking since she was ten years old. She cooked with her grandma and her mom, making all sorts of dishes. And she said, "y desde chiquita se empieza."
She remembers I used to help her in the kitchen when I was little. "Que todavia es la hora que no se me olvida." She hasn't forgotten that.
I have to be honest, I didn't take good notes during those times I helped Abu in the kitchen because years later, I still can't get my rice to taste as good as hers. She told me, it's important I learn how to cook because I should follow her tradition of being in the kitchen cooking rice, beans and other Latin foods.
She told me food is an important part of my life. Even my first word was about food- it was arroz- the word for rice. "Yo te decía 'no, arroz, arroz' y así fue, tú empezaste diciendo arroz," she said.
Everybody wanted me to say the words for 'mom' or 'dad' but Abu was a little mischievous and had me say 'arroz' instead.
As she reminded me of my childhood memories, she added into the caldero: a batch of homegrown gandules- or pigeon peas, pieces of sausage, and already-sautéed pork chunks. Then, she added the 10 or so cups of medium-grained rice. She added enough water to the rice until it was covered. Finally, it sat on the stove on low heat for about half an hour with minimum mixing intervals.
This recipe is not written down anywhere. Cooking isn't something we write down, but just something we do.
"Me gusta, me siento feliz," Abu said, "me gusta que la familia venga y coma."
Abu said she feels happy cooking. She likes it. She enjoys it when the family comes together to eat.
We all sat down after filling up our plates with a little bit of everything. I took the fork to my mouth and it all simply tasted, like home.