Oh, Thanksgiving. So much potential to expand our foodie horizons with friends and family. Unfortunately, a lot of holiday menus sound like tired notes on the same theme. While I’m all for bringing back old-timey favorites, I also really love shaking up traditions and trying something completely new. If you’ve ever felt the same way, consider Arroz con Gandules your next “something new” for the holidays. A Puerto Rican treasure that will stand out on the table, it quietly compliments other dishes while still exuding an exotic flair.
Puerto Rico has a special place in my heart, and especially so around this time of year. When I first moved to Phoenix in 2013, I didn’t know anyone in town. So when my first Thanksgiving here rolled around, I didn’t have any elaborate plans. I suppose I was just going to make a casserole at home for my son and me.
My acquaintance at work had other plans for us. Zoe and I had worked together in the same outpatient hospital office for the better part of that year. A doctor in a first-year fellowship, she was hardworking, outspoken, and incredibly busy. She and her husband adopted us for Thanksgiving dinner nonetheless and cooked us a meal I will never forget.
This was a Thanksgiving dinner unlike anything I had ever seen, smelled or tasted. It was downright tropical- crispy plantains, fancy coconut cocktails, fried corn fritters, and the most flavorful turkey and gravy I think I’ve ever had. Arroz con gandules (seasoned rice with pigeon peas) was one of the most addictive, and Zoe was gracious enough to teach me her method so I could make it anytime the craving hit.
Perhaps the best part? It was super filling, cheap, and easy to make- a perfect combo while I was single momming it.
Sofrito y Sazón
Goya is the name of the game in Puerto Rican home cooking. Anything you can’t make from scratch has been rounded up and packaged by this food manufacturer, including savory sofrito. Sofrito is the flavor foundation of a wide variety of Puerto Rican dishes. Containing aromatics like onion, garlic, peppers, and tomatoes, many boricuan recipes will start by sauteing sofrito to release its fragrant components. There are even memes about how good this stuff smells- it’s no exaggeration! Until I can find some cubanelle peppers here in town (or learn to grow them), the jarred stuff will suffice!
Sazón is another must-have ingredient. A humble little seasoning packet that’s full of island flavor, sazón will help give the rice a beautiful rich color too. There are different varieties available, but look for the one with culantro y achiote (coriander and annatto).
Once you’ve got your Goya ingredients, it’s time to start cooking. Traditional Arroz con Gandules is made in an aluminum caldero. But I’ve had great luck with hard anodized non-stick sauté pans like this one. Apparently, crisped up rice on the bottom is not a fan favorite in Zoe’s household (even though I didn’t mind it a bit! Right Chef Samin?). I’ve found that the non-stick pan gives me very even cooking with no crispy edges. I guess you could say I’m sticking with non-stick.
No matter how you cook Arroz con Gandules, your holiday side dishes will never be the same. From when I arrived in Phoenix, right up until I got engaged, every Thanksgiving was at Zoe’s place and every Thanksgiving was a party, Puerto Rican-style. So if you’re feeling festive this year, bring a little island fun to your menu.
Puerto Rico is home to both Zoe’s and her husbands’ family, who were all very kind and gracious to host my son and me when we visited the island back in 2016. Yes, the food is that good we made a special two-week trip to eat our way around the island! Unfortunately, much of the island is still recuperating from the devastation of Hurricane Maria and help is still needed. Here’s how you can contribute.
- 3 Tablespoons vegetable oil divided
- 1 slice bacon chopped into small pieces
- 2 Tablespoons sofrito
- 1/2 cup tomato sauce
- 6 green olives pits removed
- 1 Tablespoon capers
- 1 Tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 packet sazon seasoning
- 1 15 ounce can gandules verdes (green pigeon peas) reserve the liquid
- 2 cups water
- 2 1/2 cups white long-grain rice
- 2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
- Heat caldero or another non-stick sauté pan on medium-high heat with 1 tablespoon vegetable oil.
- Add bacon pieces, sofrito, tomato sauce, olives, capers, oregano, and sazon, and let cook a few minutes until fragrant.
- Add the gandules (including the canning liquid), rice, water, salt, and remaining vegetable oil.
- Stir occasionally while bringing the rice to a slight boil. Place the lid on, turn the heat to medium-low, and simmer 15 minutes. Keeping the lid on, move off the heat and allow to continue cooking another 15 minutes.
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