We Puerto Ricans have a love affair with rice. It is the main standby dish in our culture. There’s a reason why rice became so ubiquitous in our cooking. Rice was introduced to Puerto Rico by the Spaniards. It became the main meal during the Spanish occupation simply because it was relatively cheap to buy. That, plus ease of cooking, endeared it to our cuisine. From the lowly side dish to the main course as featured in a seafood and meat laden paella, the love affair has evolved and deepened.
Nuyoricans as well as islanders cannot do without this grain, be it plain boiled rice, saffron rice, yellow rice, whatever. To some of us, a meal without rice would be incomplete. Almost like that old tune about love and marriage. What’s interesting about all this is that, in our family, the best part of the meal is what we call the pegoa, or that crust at the bottom of the rice pot. This is something that is traditional to our cooking, as least with the older generation. In fact, in some cases, the pegao (peh-gah-oh) is reserved for an honored guest. The rice is be cooked long and slow, so that when it’s served, that crispy crust at the bottom of the pan remains for a fortunate one to savor.
Then I discovered that our culture is not the only one that has this penchant for the rice crust. Persian cuisine also has a version of it, which they call tah dig (pronounced “tah-deeg”). This pegao thing is universal. There is something about that crunchy, even slightly burnt residue at the bottom of the pot that is irresistible to some. And almost every Latino household has a pan in which they make rice. It’s usually cast aluminum or stainless steel. To me, the best pagao is from a cast-iron pan. Again, this is a matter of opinion. One more thing, it won’t work with a non-stick pan.
- Wash 2 cups rice in cold water at least three times and drain to rid it of starch. What is in Pennsylvania Dutch country is known as “washing in several waters.”
- Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy kettle or pot. Add rice and stir until grains are opaque, about 1-2 minutes.
- Add water to cover rice by ¼ to ½ inch. Some folks us the first knuckle of their index finger as measure for the water. Either way method is okay. Add salt to taste.
- Bring water to a boil. Cover and simmer on low heat for 40 minutes. By that time the liquid should all be absorbed, and the pegao formed. The longer it cooks, the more crusty the pegao. Serve the rice as you would with any meal, and then fight over who gets the pegoa.
Yield: 4-6 servings.
Note: You can add saffron threads (1/4 teaspoon) or turmeric (1 teaspoon) to the water for yellow rice. Or, for a deeper color, tomato sauce (1/4 cup). This will make the pagao even tastier.