The flavor of island life infuses these Puerto Rican recipes

Learn to make Coconut Grits and Coconut-Braised Collards and other classics with a twist
Coconut Grits with Coconut-Braised Collards; Pastelon de Plantano (the casserole); and Mami’s Bizcocho de Ron (Rum Cake). Styling by CW Cameron. CHRIS HUNT/SPECIAL

Coconut Grits with Coconut-Braised Collards; Pastelon de Plantano (the casserole); and Mami’s Bizcocho de Ron (Rum Cake). Styling by CW Cameron. CHRIS HUNT/SPECIAL

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.

When I got my hands on a copy of Von Diaz' "Coconuts & Collards" ($28, University Press of Florida), I read it in one fell swoop. In her book, she tells the story of her family and their path to Atlanta from Puerto Rico and what it meant to grow up as a Latina in the American South, what it means to be Puerto Rican.

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.

Pastelon de Plantano. Styling by CW Cameron. CHRIS HUNT/SPECIAL

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Pastelón de Plátano (Sweet Plantain Shepherd's Pie)

There are as many ways to prepare this dish as there are cooks. Some thinly slice the plantains and fry them, then layer them with the picadillo. In this recipe, the plantains are boiled, then mashed and the result is similar to a shepherd’s pie, but with the wonderful flavor of sweet plantain to contrast with the savory filling.

<<Click here to see the full recipe on mobile

<<Click here to see the full recipe on mobile


This recipe makes more than you will need for your Picadillo, but it’s a key component of Puerto Rican cooking. Freeze what you don’t need now in 1/2-cup portions and use for future batches of Picadillo, or to add when cooking beans, rice and vegetables. It’s a great all-purpose seasoning.

Aji dulce chiles are small, thin-skinned peppers that are traditional in Caribbean cooking. Substitute another red bell pepper if you cannot find them available fresh. Culantro is a broad-leafed herb also traditional in Caribbean cooking. I found mine at the Buford Highway Farmers Market. It has a flavor similar to cilantro, but a little stronger and a bit bitter. If you don’t have it, the sofrito will still be delicious. Just double the amount of cilantro and add a little fresh parsley.

<<Click here to see the full recipe on mobile


The Hispanic section of your grocery store will have boxes of Goya Sazón. You can use that if you like, but this recipe leaves out the MSG and includes lots less salt. It will store in your pantry indefinitely.

Achiote molido is ground annatto seed, used primarily for coloring. Sweet paprika makes a good substitute.

<<Click here to see the full recipe on mobile

— Recipes adapted from “Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South” by Von Diaz ($28, University Press of Florida)

Coconut Grits with Coconut-Braised Collards CYBELLE CODISH

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Coconut Grits and Coconut-Braised Collards

The coconut is a ubiquitous tree for almost any island nation, and every part gets used. If you have a coconut tree, you’d probably make your own coconut milk. The rest of us would resort to canned.

Coconut Grits

These grits will taste primarily of coconut. If you want to scale that back a bit, use more chicken stock and less coconut milk.

<<Click here to see the full recipe on mobile

Coconut-Braised Collards

The sweet, rich taste of coconut is a perfect foil for collards.

<<Click here to see the full recipe on mobile

— Recipes adapted from “Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South” by Von Diaz ($28, University Press of Florida)

Mami s Bizcocho de Ron (Mami s Rum Cake) CYBELLE CODISH

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Mami's Bizcocho de Ron (Mami's Rum Cake)

This rum cake is serious. Rum in the batter, rum in the soaking syrup, there’s no question what this cake is about. The method of making the cake is a little unusual but results in a texture that holds up perfectly to absorbing all that rum syrup.

The recipe calls for walnuts, but we substituted Georgia pecans. Baking them in the bottom of the cake allows them to toast while they’re baking, adding a nice crunch to the cake.

— Recipe adapted from “Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South” by Von Diaz ($28, University Press of Florida)


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