- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2006

NEW YORK — A recipe for good regional food could include abundant fresh local ingredients; centuries of influence from a variety of other cuisines; a basis of good home-style cooking; and professional chefs inspired to meld these ingredients to tasty effect.

Sounds like Puerto Rico.

Backing for that conclusion comes handsomely packaged in a solidly researched coffee-table cookbook, “Puerto Rico: Grand Cuisine of the Caribbean” by Jose Luis Diaz de Villegas (University of Puerto Rico Press), first published in Spanish in 2004 and now available in English.

Mr. Diaz de Villegas’ decades of experience and reputation give his assembled evidence its authority. He writes the gourmet column for the Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Dia, for which he was editor in chief for 30 years. He has taught cooking and wine classes for 15 years, created a TV food show, has written a previous cookbook, and is also an acclaimed artist, illustrator and designer.

Cuban-born and living in Miami at the time, Mr. Diaz de Villegas first went on vacation with his wife to Puerto Rico in 1966. He says he immediately discovered a whole new gastronomic world even then reflected in “a mosaic of eateries” in the capital, offering criollo food, so-called “international” fare; Spanish, Italian, Chinese and Cuban food.

Two years later, he and his wife moved to Puerto Rico, where he went on to witness what he calls an incredible transformation in the island’s food. The change, he says, was helped by the increasing influence of cookbooks and magazines, food and wine reviewing and cooking classes, along with the growth of air-cargo food delivery and a greater variety of local ingredients.

Now, after these past five decades of development, he says Puerto Rico has “a culinary spectrum unrivaled in the rest of the Caribbean.”

“Our music is polyrhythmic, with its origins in west Africa and Arab Spain, in Cuba, Santo Domingo and the Southern United States. So is our cooking.”

You can feast on stewed tongue with a cold beer in the market square, or foie gras with tropical fruit sauce at a fine restaurant, he says. Menus offer good Chinese food, or a cassoulet reminiscent of French cuisine, along with local chefs’ contemporary tropical creations.

After a historical survey in his book’s introduction — “a journey through five centuries of flavors” — and an illustrated summary of the main homegrown foods, Mr. Diaz de Villegas introduces nine chefs. Each gets a chapter, with his personal story and insight on how he cooks, and recipes for key dishes.

It would be impossible for him to pick a favorite chef, Mr. Diaz de Villegas tells guests at the recent New York City launching of his book’s English-language edition.

“They are all great chefs … . They are a sort of league of nations, people who have made Puerto Rico their home and have incorporated Puerto Rican cooking into their own cooking.”

Mario Pagan, the Puerto Rican-born chef-owner of the restaurant Chayote in San Juan, is among the book’s starred chefs. He came with Mr. Diaz de Villegas to New York for the launching.

“The stereotype of Puerto Rican cooking is rice and beans and plantain,” he says. “We want to show what the new generation does.”

Recipes he contributes to the book range from salmon tartare with sesame seeds and green plantain tostones, to curried cassava and crab pasteles with piquillo red pepper sauce and papaya and mango chutney — with coconut creme brulee for dessert.

Another of the chefs featured in the book, Mark French, is from Baltimore, where he began his career working as a baker. Now he’s chef-owner of Mark’s at the Melia in Ponce, Puerto Rico, focusing on forging a cooking style that draws as much as possible from local ingredients.

He starts one of his dishes with lamb chops, coats them with softened goat cheese and serves them with a colorful medley of fresh vegetables.

The large-format book is designed by Jose Luis Diaz de Villegas Freyre, the author’s son. Many of the dishes featured in the book are shown in color photographs by Jochi Melero Munoz.

“We didn’t use food stylists,” said Mr. Diaz de Villegas, the author. “The photographs present the dishes the same way the food is presented in the restaurants.”

He describes the photographer and his assistants as true artists — they ate everything they photographed.

Lamb chops with goat cheese crust

This recipe, by Mark French, chef-owner of Mark’s at the Melia in Ponce, is from “Puerto Rico: Grand Cuisine of the Caribbean.”


4 tablespoons bread crumbs

1 tablespoon butter, softened

2 racks of lamb, cut into double chops (3 or 4 chops per person, see note)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil for sauteing

4 tablespoons powdered mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

8 ounces goat cheese at room temperature


1/4 cup olive oil

1½ cups julienned pumpkin

1½ cups sliced onion

1½ cups julienned green bell pepper

1½ cups julienned zucchini

1½ cups julienned celery stalks

1½ cups julienned carrots

1½ cups sliced mushrooms

1½ cups diced tomatoes

1½ cups purple potatoes cut into batons, blanched and fried in vegetable oil

2 tablespoons butter, unsalted

Salt and pepper, to taste

For the glaze:

1 cup lamb broth, reduced to one third, strained

Watercress leaves, as garnish

To prepare the lamb: Place the bread crumbs and the butter in a bowl and mix well.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Season lamb chops with salt and pepper.

Pour the olive oil into a very hot skillet and sear each portion on either side.

Brush mustard onto lamb chop, using a spatula, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cover with a light coating of goat cheese and finish by coating lightly with bread crumbs and butter.

Oven roast for 10 to 15 minutes. The lamb should be pink in the center.

Remove from oven, place on a serving platter and keep hot.

Heat the glaze.

To prepare the potatoes and vegetables: Place olive oil and all vegetables in a saucepan and saute over medium heat, until slightly browned.

Add the fried potatoes. Season to taste with butter, salt and pepper.

To serve: Place the vegetables and the fried potatoes in the center of each plate and top with lamb chops. Pour glaze over the lamb. Decorate with watercress.

Makes 4 servings.

Note: Racks of lamb can be trimmed, or frenched, by your butcher.

Coconut creme brulee

This recipe by Mario Pagan, chef-owner of Chayote in San Juan, is from “Puerto Rico: Grand Cuisine of the Caribbean.”

4 egg yolks

1½ cups whipping cream

2 teaspoons rum or coconut liqueur

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 tablespoons grated coconut

2 vanilla beans or ½ teaspoon vanilla extract


Grated coconut

Toasted grated coconut

8 strawberries

Hierbabuena (mint) sprigs

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. In a mixing bowl, mix the egg yolks, cream, rum or coconut liqueur, brown sugar and grated coconut. Slit the vanilla beans and scrape the inside into the batter; or stir in vanilla extract.

Mix thoroughly with a wire whisk and pour into 4 individual ramekins or ceramic molds.

Place ramekins in a baking pan with about 1 inch of water and bake in this water bath (bain-marie style) until the custards are set, about 45 minutes.

Take the ramekins from the oven. Let cool in the water. Refrigerate until very cold.

Preheat the broiler in the oven. Take ramekins from the refrigerator; sprinkle brown sugar over the custard, removing excess sugar.

Place the ramekins on a baking pan and caramelize under the broiler, being very careful not to burn them.

To serve: Sprinkle grated and toasted coconut over the custards.

Place the ramekins in the center of serving plates.

Garnish with 2 strawberries on one side of the ramekins and a sprig of mint over the custard.

Makes 4 servings.



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