I hadn’t been back home in months, but I owed my parents a visit. In the pre-coronavirus times, these semi-frequent visits were often a last minute, overdue, guilt-ridden decision to spend time with faraway family. Now, I sit home guilt-ridden that I didn’t visit enough, lying awake contemplating their well-being and what, if anything, I can do to ensure they are safe.
Unlike most other drives back home to the Hudson Valley, this one was a nearly four hours from South Philly — even with the shortcuts, the traffic in north Jersey heading onto Interstate 87 wouldn’t let up. As I pulled into the driveway, I was relieved to stretch my legs but anxiously wondered what family drama or bad news I’d be updated on. The front door, as always, was unlocked and propped open.
“Hello?” I shouted.
I don’t know where Mami is. I wonder if my younger sister Ashley is working another late night shift at the hotel restaurant in Midtown. I can hear the whistle of the pressure cooker. “Rice probably,” I think to myself. I spot her in the kitchen. At 4’11” she’s on her tippy toes overseeing the stove tops, one hand covered in marinade while the other holds a machete-sized knife.
Downstairs the radio is blasting, which means Papi’s in the garage working on the car or cleaning the car or fixing the car.
“How was the drive? Was there a lot of traffic? Did you eat? Where’s Philippe?” The usual, just-arrived questions about my partner’s whereabouts and my appetite. I nod along and swiftly answer in routine: “Long. Traffic on the Thruway as always. I ate before I left. He’s got band practice this weekend.”
I survey the kitchen and begin to figure out the menu: white rice, a can of kidney beans, and slabs of steak swimming in garlic, oil, herbs, and large, sliced white onions on the counter.
Bistec Encebollado. Or simply, steak and onions. My favorite dish.
“It’ll be done in 15 minutes if you wanna relax,” she says.
“Where’s Ash?” I asked.
“Working,” she responds, her head down focused on the ingredients. I turned on the TV as she cooked.
I know better than to bother my mother in the kitchen. It is her sacred space, closed off to others, including my sister and me. Instead, she insists that you eat everything she offers. Volunteers for helping are accepted only during cleanup.
I think about these moments from my South Philly rowhome kitchen under quarantine, as I long to recreate my favorite meals on my own. The FaceTime calls I make to quiz my mom on her recipes is also a way to sneak in a health status update, making sure everyone is OK.
I think about how we used to drive to the Bronx almost every month when I was a kid. My sister and I would be dragged to Western Beef, with its endless maze of grocery items that reflected and catered to Hispanic cultures. We’d shiver as my parents lumbered down value. We’d thaw out later over lunch at El Bohio on East Tremont Ave.
The small Puerto Rican lechonera was always full, always loud — a vocal example of being smothered with love by your Puerto Rican family through heaping plates of comfort food. Waiters behind the counter would shout the day’s specials to customers in crowded diner seats. The front door would swing open and closed a dozen or so times every couple of minutes as regulars flocked in to pick up food, snag open spots with their families, or just stop by to gossip about the neighborhood.
My order was the same, every time: Bistec Encebollado, with tostones (fried green plantains) smothered in the signature pungent garlic mojo sauce plus a hefty serving of yellow rice and red kidney beans.
While everyone on social media seems to be elbow deep in sourdough, I’m enveloped by cookbooks, travel guides, and Google searches on traditional Puerto Rican food searching for my next #quarantinecooking project. Bistec Encebollado became a dish within my reach. I opened my freezer and found a large plastic tub of pork fat that I saved it from my leftover Three Kings Day pernil. Another call to my mom helped to confirm the recipe details that I remember from home, and in that diner.
At El Bohio, the plate featured a pile of long, medium-thick slabs of brown-grey steaks seared and cooked down in rendered fat, with large rings of soft onions smothered in juices from the pan. A perfect mound of yellow rice and a small stew of plump red beans, cubed potatoes, and cured ham on the side. Two fried plantains so flat and crispy and golden they could be cracked in half. A little mojo spooned on top later added with a swirl of ketchup, my controversial choice.
At our tiny dining table plating my partner’s meal, I felt overwhelmed with pride and gratitude in bringing comfort to my family near and far through our food.
— Alisha Miranda is a Philly-based freelance food and travel writer.
You can find all these ingredients at any Hispanic-owned bodega or the Goya aisle in your local supermarket (Western Beef will definitely have everything you need).
Makes 2 servings
⅔ cups medium-grain white or yellow rice
1 (8-ounce) can red kidney beans
1 pound thinly sliced sirloin steak (similar to cheesesteak cuts)
½ large Spanish onion, sliced
¼ cup rendered pork fat, lard or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
½ (1.4-oz.) packet of Goya Sazón
2 ½ tablespoons seasoned salt, such as adobo
¼ cup white vinegar
½ cup beef stock
Pinch of dried oregano
1 ½ cups water
½ tablespoon tomato paste, such as Goya Sofrito
1 green plantain
In a large bowl, mix together vinegar, adobo, ground black pepper, and oregano. Trim sirloin steak and excess fat (your preference) and cut lengthwise in half so that you have two large pieces. Pound out steaks to 1/4 inch. Add steak and onions to bowl and toss to combine. Cover marinade bowl; transfer to the refrigerator. Marinate at least an hour or overnight.
Rinse rice until water runs clear. Drain canned kidney beans, reserving juice. Rinse kidney beans with water, until clear.
Rinse plantains with cold water. Slit plantains lengthwise, then rinse again to remove excess dirt, then dice into 1-inch pieces and set aside.
RICE AND BEANS:
Spoon in a small amount of rendered pork fat (or lard or oil) into a cast-iron skillet, large pot, or Dutch oven over low to medium heat. Add rice and stir to coat the grains. Fold in rice and the half of Sazon packet, mixing well. Gently add water. Cover the rice and cook on medium heat until boiling. Reduce heat to a simmer, stir and cook rice until glistening and soft.
While rice is cooking, use a small pot to cook the kidney beans. Add tomato paste, oil fat/oil/lard or beef stock and reserved bean juice for stewy results. Leave on a low temperature while rice (and steaks) finish cooking.
When rice is done, fluff with a spoon and lightly stir.
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add beef and marinade to the pan, and brown steaks on each side, 2 to 3 minutes. Add water or beef broth to submerge the steaks, then reduce heat to simmer. Cook about 35 to 40 minutes, then add onions. Add more water or broth as needed. Continue cooking until onions are soft and translucent, about 20 minutes.
Mash each of the 1-inch cubes of plantains until flat. Using a frying pan, heat vegetable oil to 350 degrees. Fry mashed plantains, one by one, until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove plantains to a plate and drain on paper towels. Season to taste with salt.