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Meet Sofrito: The staple sauce of Puerto Rico

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Sofrito is a rich, savory tomato-based sauce. It's one of those ingredients that can be found on Latin American and Spanish menus across the old world and the new, although every country seems to tweak the recipe to suit its needs.

Naturally, Puerto Rico has its version of sofrito as well, and the key to its distinct flavor and aroma is the use of recao, or culantro (which looks altogether different from its cousin, cilantro, and offers a bolder flavor -- it also isn't eaten raw, unlike cilantro), aji dulce, or sweet peppers, and Cubanelle peppers (although green peppers make for a suitable substitute). The common ingredients of any sofrito include peppers, tomato, onions and garlic. And when you think about it, sofrito is a culinary melting pot that draws from the different cultural influences found in Puerto Rico.

You'll find sofrito in a variety of dishes around the island. It's the preferred sauce for seasoning and flavoring stews and rice dishes. Here are just a few.

1. Asopao

Photo © Zain Deane

Asopao is perhaps the most traditional dish in Puerto Rico, a delicious, hearty stew (call it the Puerto Rican gumbo) made with rice, chicken, ham and a mix of spices. Of course, it's the sofrito that gives the dish its flavor. If you haven't had asopao, you're in luck: you can find it at virtually any authentic Puerto Rican eatery. Don Tello, for example, has a delicious menu of asopao with varieties including chicken, lobster and seafood. And the one I had at the Wyndham Rio Mar Beach Resort's Marbella Restaurant was pretty darn good too.

2. Arroz con Gandules

Considered by many to be Puerto Rico's national dish, arroz con gandules, or rice with pigeon peas, is rustic soul food at its best. Simple, tasty, and hearty, it's the quintessential side at any 'Rican table. Sofrito gives it its rich seasoning and diced ham is usually added to the dish. Your trusty guide to Latin Caribbean food, Hector Rodriguez, has a great recipe if you want to make it at home.

3. Arroz con Pollo

How can you go wrong with chicken and rice? This basic dish may not wow you, but it will satisfy you, and it's about as safe a plate of food as you can order if you don't have an adventurous palate. Like most dishes on this list, arroz con pollo isn't hard to find in local restaurants, and it gets much of its flavor from sofrito.

4. Sancocho

Sancocho is a traditional stew that, like the sofrito that gives it its distinct taste, can be found all over Latin America and the Caribbean. Puerto Rican sancocho is typically made with sofrito (of course), plantain, and a variety of spices, herbs and vegetables. Sancocho can be made with chicken, beef, tripe and even chicken feet.

As for where to find it, again, you won't lack for options. You can't go wrong with the recipe at Bebo's, which is a pretty good dining destination for all the dishes on this list.

5. Salmorejo de Jueye

This delicious crabmeat stew is a popular coastal dish found at beachside restaurants and kiosks all over the island. It's essentially a combination of sofrito and crabmeat and little else, with the sofrito seasoning lending a wonderful flavor to the crab. Salmorejo is typically served over rice, as a filling in arepas (a kind of turnover), or with tostones. For a fun day out, head to Piñones and go kiosk-hopping or stop in at Soleil Beach Club for a tasty salmorejo. Another option is a pastelito stuffed with salmorejo de jueye at Casa de los Pastelillos.

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