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A Taste Of Puerto Rico: From Fritters To Flan, We Share A Culinary Bond

By Heather McPherson
Food Editor

October 20, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- A lot has been written in this newspaper about the growing population of Puerto Rican residents. But to really appreciate this new wonderful layer of Central Florida cookery and to understand just how much we have in common in the kitchen with our new neighbors, a week of dining in the rum capital of the world is in order.

Yes. It is a tough job.

Like Florida, the Caribbean is a mirror of European conquests, says Josué Merced-Reyes, a San Juan radio personality, culinary expert and my guide. "The islands changed hands with the French, Spanish and English. As the different battles were won and lost, more diversity was added to cuisine and eating habits."

But it was the Spanish who mostly controlled and influenced the kitchens of Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, says Merced-Reyes.

The subtropical peninsula that became the state of Florida still shares a lot of Spanish heritage with the islands. Vibrant dishes that reflect the colors and flavors of the tropics are abundant. We share cookbooks dominated by pork, chicken and beef. The Spanish concept of barbacoa -- grilling on a cross-hatch or slatted framework over fire -- is the preferred cooking method in the islands and on the mainland.

We also share a love for fried fritters and chips, but in Puerto Rico the items we think of as trendy are mainstays. Fried tubers and starchy fruits of every form -- plantains, cassava, taro and potatoes -- are offered with freshly made salsas and other condiments.

Fried doughs, reminiscent of our corn fritters and hush puppies, are sold in stalls along the beaches. At Piñones, I discovered alcapurrias (fried dough plumped with unripe plantains and crab), empanadillas (baby empanadas stuffed with meat, seafood or cheese) and piononos (sweet plantain cylinders filled with meat or cheese).

Flan is the national dessert of the commonwealth. Smoother than a praline cheesecake and firmer than Key lime crème brulee, velvety flan makes pudding wonder why it's even on the table.

For someone from a state that has made boat drinks famous, Puerto Rico is Shangri-La. The island has been producing rums for more than 450 years and today is responsible for 75 percent of all rums sold in the United States, according to Rums of Puerto Rico, a trade group. It's the birthplace of the pina colada and a place where bartenders avoid silly drink names and stick to creating beverages that capture the heart and soul of the commonwealth.

Añejo rums are aged amber elixirs meant to be sipped straight or served on the rocks. It's a perfect choice for toasting the similarities and differences that make Central Florida a great blend of cultures.

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