Over the coming weeks Von Diaz will be cooking and blogging her way through the iconic Puerto Rican cookbook, Cocina Criolla as part of our Food in 2 Worlds™ series.
I don’t fry.
I don’t own a splatter guard, even though I could get one at any dollar store. I cook with olive oil and butter – coconut oil if I’m feeling fancy. But I don’t fry.
I’m a Puerto Rican who can’t dance salsa and loves vegetables. Despite these ethnic shortcomings, I feel deeply connected to Puerto Rican culture, and to the foods that help keep me in touch with my Puerto Rican identity.
I didn’t realize just how deep the connection was until I found a copy of Cocina Criolla at a local bookstore. Memories of my grandmother in her kitchen in Hato Rey, peeling yucca in her flip-flops with her hair in rollers, came flooding back as I held the book in my hands, charmed by its ugly front cover with bad drawings of tropical fruit.
First published in 1954 and currently in its 65th edition, this culinary bible written in Spanish still occupies a special place on every Boricua mama and abuela’s bookshelf, it’s pages stained with olive oil and tomato, recipes scribbled over with notes and additions. Its author, Carmen Aboy Valldejuli, from one of the island’s aristocratic families, has been called the Puerto Rican Julia Child.
I’ve decided to cook my way through Cocina Criolla, exploring Puerto Rican culture as I go along. My grandmother lived by it, my mother worshiped it, and now I’m starting a journey through its pages.
Food and culture go hand-in-hand, and through this adventure I want to better understand the nostalgia I feel when I encounter Puerto Rican foods, but I also want to build new relationships with those familiar tastes and feelings.
What better place to start than by confronting my fear of frying, the basis of so much Puerto Rican cooking?
I’ll admit, I’m worried I will gain 20 pounds through this project. I’m also worried that I may just have to eat tripe, even though I’m pretty sure it will always be gross. Mostly, I’m worried that I’ve outgrown Puerto Rican food, that because it’s so heavy, so incredibly unhealthy, so lacking in beta carotene and healthy amino acids, that there’s no place for it in my adult life as a transplanted Puerto Rican living in New York. But as the Julie in this Puerto Rican Julie/ Julia scenario, I’m hoping to conjure Carmen Valledejuli through her recipes, and find a new home for these dated dishes in my own repertoire.
Cocina Criolla is terribly written. The index is wholly unreliable, and there are no photos – only charming illustrations of Puerto Rican peasants or jíbaros, plated dishes, and utensils. The recipes themselves are mostly guides, with vague instructions such as “cook until done.” The recipes use every part of an animal from tip to tail, and rely heavily on labor-intensive processes. At a time when processed foods are becoming increasingly suspect, I want to explore whether all that added work makes things more delicious. If I buy a machete and crack my own coconuts, will the resulting dessert be the best ever?
But before breaking out the machete, I’ve decided to start with a simple fried dish.
Surillitos, or sorullitos, are cigar-shaped fritters that are basically deep-fried grits or polenta, made delightfully porky by cooking in lard. They are one of the most popular Puerto Rican snacks. Deep-frying crisps the outside but keeps the inside soft, and the salty strong cheese in the base adds a smooth, rich flavor.
When I was a little girl, my mother used to wrap me in a blanket and tell me I was a surullito, then would tickle me with nibbles like I was a fried treat. I thought of my mom as I made my own surullitos, tightly rolling each one the way she used to wrap me.
Surullitos are only complete when paired with the simplest of condiments: mayo-ketchup, or mayoketchoo as it’s commonly pronounced. It’s exactly what it sounds like – equal parts mayonnaise and ketchup, but ‘Ricanized with fresh garlic and a little hot sauce. It’s basically Russian dressing – substitute garlic for relish – but in many ways the kind of condiment you’d blend on your plate of french fries, and a fitting metaphor for Puerto Rican/American hybridity.
I conquered my fear of frying with Carmen as my guide and a bit of science. I poured what seemed like an excessive amount of oil into a standard deep saucepan, and, using a candy thermometer, brought the oil to exactly 375° F. The result was perfection—the surullitos fried evenly, with no oil splatter, and came out crisp and golden brown.
My close friends were the guinea pigs in my Julie/Julia/Von/Carmen experiment, and I even put them to work. The surullitos were a hit – we quickly devoured all 50 – and I learned a few important lessons on my path to Cocina Criolla enlightenment.
- It’s totally okay to make a deep-fried appetizer, particularly if you’re serving a healthier meal, or at least have something green on your plate.
- Don’t stress about using a ridiculous amount of oil to deep-fry. You need it.
- Sometimes, it’s totally worth it to fry. Fried things are delicious.
Oh, and I should buy a splatter guard, because it looks like I’ll be doing a lot more frying in the future.
Surullitos de Maiz
Make the mayo-ketchup first and refrigerate. Then heat the oil while you make the batter for the surullitos. Makes about 50 pieces.
- 2 cups of water
- 1 ¼ tsp salt
- 1 ½ cup fine corn meal
- 1 cup edam or gouda cheese, grated
- Vegetable or corn oil
- Lard (you may substitute a combination of half corn oil and half lard)
Bring water and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan. Once boiling, remove from heat and quickly whisk in the cornmeal. Return to the stove and cook for 3 – 5 minutes over moderate heat until the mixture completely separates from the pot.
Remove from heat and add the grated cheese. Immediately start scooping out tablespoons of the mixture. (The mixture becomes very unruly once it’s cooled, so work quickly.) Form a tablespoon of the mixture first into a ball, then roll into a cigar shape approximately 3 inches long.
Heat the oil to 375° F. Working in small batches so you don’t crowd the pan, fry the surullitos for approximately 4 minutes, or until they are light brown. Remove from oil and drain on absorbent paper. Keep in a warm oven until ready to serve.
- ½ cup mayonnaise
- ½ cup ketchup
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- Hot sauce to taste (Frank’s Louisiana Hot Sauce, Sriracha, or Tabasco are all good choices)
- Salt to taste
- Mix all ingredients together in a bowl with a fork. Add salt and hot sauce to taste. Chill before serving.
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