Hail to the chief’s wife

If I gotten into a different line, it wouldn’t have happened.

If I’d waited for that sample of Costco ice cream in the frozen foods aisle, it wouldn’t have happened.

If I’d even put on one more coat of mascara, it wouldn’t have happened.

Yup, I always do my makeup in the fifties.

But it did, and I ended up getting a tutorial in Puerto Rican food, eating my weight in said food, and getting to know one of the most adorable couples in Durham.

Last week I stopped at Costco.  At the checkout, the lady in line in front of me was very friendly.  Then I noticed her husband.

He looked really familiar, but it took me a second to place him.  It was the chief of the Durham police department, Jose Lopez.  We began chatting.  I told him about my column, and he told me two things that got me very excited.

He told me that both he and his wife Becky are Puerto Rican and she is the best cook in the world.  I lived in Puerto Rico as a child, it’s my favorite cuisine, and I’ve long wanted instruction in it.

One thought came to me—Food chat!

I asked them about it, they agreed to one, and I could get a cooking lesson.


Becky and the chief

When I arrived at their home, the meal preparation was well underway.  The menu for the day consisted of habichuelas blancas (white beans), rice, stewed chicken, fried ripe plantains, and bacalaito (a fritter made from bacalao; dried and salted cod).  The fritter was crispy and delicious, with absolutely no fishiness.

Setting up the visit, Chief Lopez had asked me what I wanted Becky to teach me.  I requested the foundation of almost every savory Puerto Rican dish.  Sofrito is a mixture of aromatic vegetables, similar to the French mirepoix, or the holy trinity of Creole cooking.

First I learned it’s not always called sofrito.  In its raw state it’s recaito.  Once it’s been lightly cooked in annatto oil, then it’s sofrito.  And mixed into a dish it becomes guisado.  When making it, fresh herbs are a must.  Culantro is not the same thing as cilantro; it’s an herb used in a variety of Hispanic food.  It has tall spiky leaves, and can be found in Latin American grocery stores, like Compare.



Big handful of culantro, including stems

Big handful of cilantro, including stems

¼ large green bell pepper

¼ large red bell pepper

½ yellow onion

2-3 garlic cloves, peeled

Small bunch fresh oregano

Roughly tear herbs, roughly chop veggies.  Place everything into blender or food processor, and blend until it’s fully chopped and looks like pesto.

Makes 1-1 ½ cups.  Store in fridge.  May be made into much larger batches and frozen until needed.

Annatto oil

Don’t limit yourself to sofrito.  This oil brings color, depth of flavor and a unique piquancy to anything in which it’s used.

32 ounces lard (yes lard, if you’re averse, use 4 cups olive oil)

10 ounces annatto seed  

Place lard and seeds into a large, very heavy pot.  Turn on low.  Let lard melt. The seeds will color the fat.  Once the oil’s warmed, remove from heat and strain into container.  Don’t let it get very hot or let the seeds turn dark—it will become bitter and inedible.  Stored in airtight container in fridge, it lasts almost indefinitely.  Makes 4 cups.


Batch of recaito

1-2 tablespoons annatto oil

Melt oil in skillet.  Add recaito.  Cook on medium low until warmed and fragrant.  If desired, you can add ½ small can tomato sauce for “sofrito tomate”.

Use as base for almost all savory dishes.

There are so many other things I learned from what has become one of my favorite food chat/playdates.  In future columns I will share more of the day, along with additional delicious recipes.

Petey and The Kid constantly caution me against talking to strangers.  But Chief Lopez and his wife Becky were warm, generous, and hospitable (and so cute together).  That’s why I think that when Petey was stuffing himself with the massive plate Becky sent home with me, he was extremely happy I had talked to those particular strangers.

And so am I.

But maybe there are some strangers to whom one shouldn’t speak…

Thanks for your time.

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