The spirit and passion of Puerto Rico and its people are alive at this raucous Latin eatery. Situated in Manhattan’s trendy TriBeCa neighborhood, this colorful restaurant is headed up by “Empanada King” Frank Maldonado, a Puerto Rican native who was born in the kitchen! This flute-playing, bongo-bashing chef is the driving force behind Sazon’s authentic Puerto Rican fare.
Color is your background canvas at Sazon for gorging on a myriad of Latin flavor. There are pink walls, white chairs, and gaudy chandeliers evoking a kitsch and vivacious atmosphere. After dinner, retire downstairs for some salsa dancing and cocktails at the lounge. If you’re lucky, the Empanada King will shed his toque for a bank of bongos to rock out till the wee hours! Much of the fare is Caribbean, with Puerto Rican influences dolled up. With busy, hurried servers, diners dancing, and yoo-hooing around the room, Sazon is loud. If you’re into a quiet dinner, this is not your locale.
Set aside from all that whooping and hollering is some great home-style Puerto Ri can food. To start, try the camarones con rum, crusty grilled shrimp with a sugary rum glaze or the arepas di Vieques — a coconut corn pillow with crab meat escabeche. Carne Frito, also known as fried marinated pork chunks, doesn’t disappoint either! In fact, the appetizer menu shines with so many tasty Puerto Rican morsels that you may want to just skip the main courses and try many of these tasty treats! Definitely do not leave Sazon without trying Maldonado’s signature empanadas — plump, crusty dough filled with a delectable filling of shrimp, chicken, beef, or vegetable — very addictive!
If there’s anything left in your tank after an onslaught of fine apps, the hits keep on coming! Sazon's menu reads like a who’s who of Puerto Rico's dishes — for the plantain-lover there are three picks: the mofongo al pilon, mashed green plantains with beef or shrimp are wonderful, the pernil, a wad of slow cooked pork that melts in the mouth. There is also a roasted Cornish hen that’s delicious, stuffed with sweet plantains, and slathered with guava sauce. There’s really something for everybody at Sazon! You’ll be entertained and fed to the ultimate surrounded by Puerto Rican culture, music, and flavor.
A staple ingredient in Latin American cooking, sazón is known for its distinctive savory taste and the red-brown hue that it adds to food. This popular garlicky spice blend is traditionally of achiote (annatto), salt, cumin, coriander, garlic, oregano, and pepper. It adds color and flavor to your meats, fish, poultry, soups, and stews without spiciness. This homemade version is made sans chemicals, preservatives, artificial coloring, or additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), unlike many mass-produced, premade sazón blends from big brands.
Sweet and peppery achiote gives the spice blend its deep pigment. Cumin, onion, and garlic powders create savory umami. Coriander brings forward a light and mellow citrusy note and oregano adds depth, pungency, and mild astringency. It's a seemingly complex spice blend that's in fact very versatile for flavoring all kinds of dishes and simple to make at home.
Sazón, which means seasoning in Spanish, is commonly rubbed on steaks, pork, chicken, and fish as a marinade before grilling, frying, or baking, sprinkled in soups and stews, added to beans and rice, or used as a taco seasoning. It's also the prime flavor in popular Latin American dishes such as ropa vieja, arroz con pollo, and arroz amarillo.
Our Latino Foods: A Chef Shows Us How To Make Perfect Mofongo
In search of that particular comfort, I spent a morning in the lively kitchen of Chef Frank Maldonado, the executive chef of Sazón, an upscale Puerto Rican restaurant in New York City. Wearing a stylish custom-made hat and matching chef coat, he commands his kitchen with a joyful spirit that comes through in his dishes. Asked about his connection to mofongo, the stories race out of him as he excitedly beckons us around the kitchen, pointing out the different ingredients and tools they use to prepare the dish.
At Sazón, Maldonado and his team turn out multiple variations of mofongo, using both classic green plantains, and other vegetables, like yuca (cassava), and sweeter yellow plantains. A popular version called “tri-fongo” combines the three, for a sweet and savory mix that works surprisingly well.
“We do it every way. With yuca. With steak and shrimp and fish on top. For the [vegetarians] we take out the pork and use butter.”
“But the pork is better,” he adds with a sly smile.
Mofongo is traditionally made with pork cracklings, and at Sofrito, they make it from scratch, frying the pork skin until it’s crispy with just the tiniest bit of meat still clinging on. Maldonado explains that at home you can use store-bought pork rinds or rendered bacon for similar effect.
The ingredients are smashed by hand each time in a large wooden pilón [mortar and pestle], molded into a bowl-like shape, and finished with the diner’s choice of filling. Though the restaurant serves up a full menu classic and updated Puerto Rican dishes, the mofongo is an undisputed crowd favorite.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Maldonado has been around the classic recipes of the island since birth [quite literally—his mother went into labor while working in his family’s restaurant] and has traveled and studied cuisine throughout the world, but is still quick to turn to mofongo when not feeling well.
He explains, “[In Puerto Rico] when you are sick, they give you a bowl of homemade chicken broth with mofongo on the side. Because if you don’t feel good, a plain broth is not enough to make you feel better. You need something stronger. like mofongo.”
In a world where others might be quick to recommend juice cleanses or ascetic kale salads for those who are sick, it’s a statement that illustrates a lot about the way Puerto Ricans enjoy food. There is no room for deprivation, and the love and tradition is just as important as the dish itself.
“To me, there is nothing better than Puerto Rican food," says Maldonado. "It’s beautiful. It’s sexy. It’s full of so much love and history. So much color. As a chef in New York City, I respect cultures and traditions from everywhere. And I enjoy food from everywhere, but Puerto Rican food is what is home for me. To me, it is the best!”
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Pescado Frito (Fried Red Snapper)
Christopher Simpson for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews. Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks.
Fishing is an extraordinarily complex issue in Puerto Rico. Much of the seafood eaten doesn’t come from the island’s own waters, in part because of arcane legislation that controls fishing rights. And yet, whole deep-fried fish is a staple on the island, particularly along the west and southwest coast. There, you’ll find red snapper, simply marinated in adobo, fried and served with tostones, avocado salad and white rice. It is, in my opinion, the absolute best way to enjoy a whole fish. The frying turns the head and the tail into a crunchy fish chicharrón, and the skin and flesh cook evenly, keeping the flesh moist and the skin crisp. While bones are often a concern for those uncomfortable eating whole fish, there’s a simple solution: Eat it with your hands. Your fingers will do a much better job of finding bones than your fork will, and the experience is more visceral, and delicious.
Von Diaz’s Puerto Rican Recipes
Good morning. The journalist, historian and cookbook author Von Diaz brought together her essential Puerto Rican recipes for us this week, dishes that she calls foundational to her understanding of flavor, “a culinary mejunje, or mix, of Indigenous, African, Spanish and American ingredients and techniques.”
Her essay on the subject is itself essential reading, and I think you’ll want to get into the recipes in your kitchen this week, building on her sazón and sofrito to make all manner of deliciousness.
You might start with pollo en fricasé, braised chicken thighs in a rich, oniony, tomato-based sauce with garlic, white wine and vinegar, set off by briny olives and capers. Or sancocho, the rustic stew you can make with root vegetables and just about any meat. Or, if you’re feeling celebratory, you might try your hand at pernil (above), the crackly-tender roast pork that is probably the best-known dish of the Puerto Rican diaspora.
Von has a beautiful recipe for pescado frito, whole red snapper marinated in adobo, then fried and served with tostones, avocado salad and white rice. And another one for yuca con mojo, boiled yuca doused in a garlic-and-citrus mojo dressing, her grandmother’s recipe.
There’s the stewed beef known as carne guisada as well as arroz mamposteao, mixed rice with beans, and a marvelous vegetarian situation with gandules con bolitos de plátano, pigeon peas with plantain dumplings. Alcapurrias de jueyes, crab-stuffed fritters? Them, too — with pastelillos de guayaba, guava cheese pastries, for dessert.
If you’re planning for Passover, we’ve got you covered with dozens of recipes, including ones for vegetarian main dishes, for matzo-centric cooking, for desserts and sweets.
There are thousands and thousands more recipes waiting for you on NYT Cooking. Go see what you can find. As always: Save the recipes you want to cook and rate the ones you’ve made. You can leave notes on recipes, too, if you want to keep track of hacks or substitutions you’ve made or want to tell your fellow subscribers about them.
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Now, it has nothing to do with saucepans or the scent of thyme, but I liked Ben Libman’s essay in The Times arguing that 1925 may have been modernist literature’s most important year. (That year’s in the spotlight because books published then have just emerged from under copyright.)
Tacking in another direction, here are 15 cooking tips our Food team swears by, on YouTube.
Robert Travers has a poem, “Geese,” in The Yale Review.
Finally, here’s Spoon covering Tom Petty, “Breakdown,” and you ought to listen to that very loud. I’ll be back on Friday.
The flavor of island life infuses these Puerto Rican recipes
As we come to the end of the 2018 hurricane season, Puerto Rico is on my mind. Still a long way from recovering from last year's hurricanes, Irma and then Maria. Still repairing the damage and mourning the loss of so many.
I was drawn into her story and wanted to make every recipe in the book.
I wondered how it would read to someone from Puerto Rico so I shared my copy with a friend, Belsie González, who was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and came to the United States about 20 years ago.
She was as enchanted as I was. “Between poignant stories and savory recipes, (Diaz) takes the reader through the experience of living between two worlds, an experience that many of us coming from a different culture have to maneuver every minute of the day, and it is in the kitchen with the smells and flavors of our land and our mothers that we are home,” González emailed me after she read the book.
When I questioned her about the recipes and whether they reminded her of home, she told me she felt Diaz represented a new generation of Puerto Rican cuisine, one with rich influences that do not dilute the original, but respectfully enrich it. Together we read through the recipes and she told me the stories they brought to mind of her mother’s cooking, of childhood meals, of the food of home.
“Coconuts & Collards is part novella, part cooking book. Not being a foodie, I never thought I would be so captivated reading a cook book. I could identify with the stories and dream with cooking those delicious recipes to warm my tummy and the heart of others.”
Atlanta is no stranger to Puerto Rican cuisine. Puerto Rican chefs like Hector Santiago and Andre Gomez have been part of the Atlanta culinary scene for many years. The area's newest Puerto Rican restaurant is actually a mashup of Louisiana meets Puerto Rico. Talk about hurricanes: Louisiana and Katrina, Puerto Rico and Maria. Those winds blow food to distant shores.
2 Sistas Soul Food is tucked into the food court of the Nam Dae Mun Farmers Market on South Cobb Drive in Smyrna. The cafe is a collaboration between Allyson Lewis and JoAnn Fuentes with Lewis preparing dishes she learned in her native New Orleans and Fuentes cooking the dishes she remembers from growing up in New York City in a Puerto Rican family.
The women met through jobs, bonded over potlucks and food and decided they were ready to leave the corporate world and cook for a living.
“We spent months planning and looking around for the right spot,” said Fuentes. They had scouted the location at the farmers market, but it was being leased to someone else. Then they got a call, the planned tenant had fallen through, were they still interested? Yes, they were, and they opened their cafe in August.
The hot line features one Creole and one Puerto Rican dish each day. When I visited, it was shrimp and crab in garlic butter and pastelon, a lasagna-type dish of plantains and picadillo. “We’ve found there are so many similarities in our food because of our background and culture. The Spanish had Louisiana, the Spaniards had Puerto Rico, and of course there were other influences. We try to stick to down-home food. On Monday I fix rice and pigeon peas and roast pork. For Allyson, it’s red beans and rice because on Monday in New Orleans it’s laundry day and that’s what you have cooking on the stove. That’s something we share with Creole and Puerto Rican food. We’ve got to have beans.”
For those who want to delve further into Caribbean cuisine, look for “Provisions: The Roots of Caribbean Cooking” by Michelle Rousseau and Suzanne Rousseau ($30, Da Capo Lifelong Books), full of recipes using traditional Caribbean ingredients such as cassava, ackee, plantains, guava and mango, scheduled for publication October 30.
Von Diaz, author of “Coconuts & Collards” ($28, University Press of Florida) writes, “It’s Puerto Rican because I made it.” She’s referring to how she’s adapted traditional recipes, but also uses traditional Caribbean ingredients in the dishes she learned when her family moved from Puerto Rico to Atlanta. Cooking these dishes won’t make you Puerto Rican, but they will bring you close to the people of Puerto Rico and their delicious cuisine.
A New York Night in Puerto Rico at Sazon - Recipes
Wash the pernil in cold water. Make stabs (about 1 inch wide) so you can put the paste like mixture in them.
Sprinkle adobo to your taste and set aside. (For a better flavor, season the night before.)
Peel all the garlic, dust off your pilón (ha ha) and mash the garlic
to make a paste.
Add the orégano and pepper, (Achoo. Salud- Bless you)
After the garlic, orégano and pepper are well mixed, add the olive oil and stir with a spoon to make a paste like mixture. FUAAAAAAAAAA, It's ready to roll.
Place 1 teaspoon of the paste mixture into each hole of the pernil.
Cover the bottom of the baking pan with aluminum foil and place the pernil on top.
Cover the pernil well with aluminum foil so it will come out juicy, not dry.
Bake for 4 to 5 hours at 350º, depending on your oven.
Uncover for the last 15-20 minutes on a high setting for some crunchy "chicharrón" skin.
Serve with my arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) and habichuelas rosadas (pink beans).
If you are a jibara (hillbilly) like me, serve it with cooked green bananas, yucca and other Rican veggies.
May you enjoy my easy way of making pernil. Let me know how
good a cook you were.
Garlic is good for your nails and makes them hard, so enjoy the little treat while peeling the garlic.
Cover the bottom of your baking pan and save some scrubbing time.
AND MY #1 TIP FOR THIS RECIPE:
If you want to save some time, cook the pernil over night at 225º. It will be ready when you wake up and your house
will be filled with the aroma of the pernil.
Alcapurrias de Jueyes (Crab-Stuffed Fritters)
Christopher Simpson for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews. Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks.
Puerto Rico is famous for its fritters, and alcapurrias are among the most coveted. Imagine a tamale made of green banana and root vegetable masa that is stuffed with savory meat or seafood, and then deep fried. You typically get them from the kioskos, roadside stands along Puerto Rico’s beaches and highways, particularly in Loíza, a town on the northeastern coast that is the island’s African heart . At home, they’re often made over the holidays, as many hands make light work. The flavor is unmistakable: earthy green banana and taro cut by savory sofrito, briny capers and delicate crab meat. The filling, often called a salmorejo, is usually made from local land crabs, but commercially available lump crab is a fitting substitute. This recipe is adapted from one by María Dolores “Lula” de Jesús, the 84-year-old owner of El Burén de Lula in Loíza, who is considered by many to be a madrina, or godmother, of this and other dishes with African origins.
A New York Night in Puerto Rico at Sazon - Recipes
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Puerto Rican Pork Roast Recipe – Pernil al Horno
Recaito, Sazon Seasoning, and Sofrito can be found in Spanish stores or large supermarkets. Look in the spice section.
In a medium bowl, combine onion, bell pepper, oregano, green olives, garlic powder or garlic salt, basil, recaito, sazon seasoning, capers, and sofrito add just enough white vinegar to cover the ingredients mix and crush together until well blended.
Preparing the fat (cuerito): To make this roast pork shoulder recipe, you peel back the fat (skin) and make incisions in the meat, which allows the garlicky marinade to seep in.
With a sharp knife cut the fat away from the meat, leaving an edge attached and keeping it all in one piece. Start at the wide end and go to the narrow end with your knife. Do not separate it completely, but leave just enough still connected so that you can flip the fat back over to the side while you season the meat itself. The fat will be placed over the seasoned meat and will cook over the meat giving it more flavor. Season the side of the fat that goes over the meat with a bit of the seasoning.
Using a small sharp knife, cut 1-inch deep slits on all sides of the pork roast (the more cuts the more taste) . Using a spoon or your fingers, stuff the prepared seasoning mixture into each slit. Place the fat (skin) back over the roast.
Place pork roast into a large dish or pan. Pour any extra seasoning mixture over the roast, cover with aluminum foil and refrigerate overnight. You can season the perníl a couple of days ahead and refrigerate, uncooked. Some folks season and freeze it until they need it.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Place the prepared roast, fat side up, onto a rack in a baking pan (with at least 1-inch sides). Place a little water in the bottom of the pan. Mix paprika with a little olive oil rub over the roast.
NEVER cover the roast as you bake it as you will steam the fat (cuerito) to softness. This is considered a mortal sin in Puerto Rican homes.
Bake, uncovered, 4 to 5 hours or until a meat thermometer registers an internal temperature between 160 degrees F. (medium-well done)-180 degrees F.(well done). Baste with juice every 30 minutes (if roast starts to get too brown during baking, cover with aluminum foil) . Do not turn the roast while cooking.
Remove from oven and transfer onto a large cutting board. When the roast is done, the pork should be just about falling off the bone and a thing of beauty, crisp and dark.
Let stand 20 to 30 minutes tented with foil before carving (meat temperature will rise 5 to 10 degrees after it is removed from the oven). After carving, transfer onto a large serving platter.
Serves a large family gathering.
/>I get many readers asking what cooking/meat thermometer that I prefer and use in my cooking and baking. I, personally, use the Thermapen Thermometer . Originally designed for professional use, the Super-Fast Thermapen Thermometer is used by chefs all over the world. I only endorse a few products, on my web site, that I like and use regularly.
You can learn more or buy yours at: Super-Fast Thermapen Thermometer.
I tried the ButcherBox subscription and loved it! In my box I received several nice cuts of organic meat that my family enjoyed over the following weeks. Make shopping a little easier and subscribe to ButcherBox to have quality organic meat delivered directly to your door.