When my friend Maria suggested we get together to make this seafood asopao, a soupy, savory rice-thickened stew from Puerto Rico, I jumped at the chance. I am forever trying to pry family and/or cultural heritage recipes from my friends, and since Maria’s one of the few people I am willing to share kitchen space with anyway, making this favorite from her familial recipe box seemed like a win-win.

Maria says “This recipe is from Cocina Criolla, Puerto Rico’s answer to The Joy of Cooking. Authored by the doyenne of Puerto Rican cookery, Carmen Aboy Valdejulli, the first edition was published in 1954 and it has been reprinted, translated into English, and updated repeatedly. It’s given to every new bride and dispatched with every adult child braving the culinary desert that is the mainland. My family has at least four dog eared, food-splattered copies ranging from the first edition to the 59th.”

Of course, the very traditional will note that we’re subbing in prepared sofrito for homemade, and an off-the-shelf seasoning blend for homemade annatto. Handing the mic back to Maria: “Mrs. Valdejulli makes everything from scratch, but honestly that’s just not feasible, as making a Puerto Rican-style sofrito would require a trip to a specialty Asian market just to find the greens required. This dish is something that should be simple and easy enough for a weeknight, so shortcuts are acceptable.”

We actually made this months ago, but I was holding out to make a homemade sofrito myself, then do a side-by-side comparison. Mmyeah… that’s not happened as yet and I’ve stopped holding my breath. Someday. Given that Maria’s almost as persnickety as I am, we’re just going to go ahead and assume that her approved shortcuts should in fact be approved. Game on.

Of course, for a gringo like myself, this “shortcut” version still requires a special trip to the bodega (that closed months ago, sigh) or big national chain grocery store, which is probably only a challenge for inveterate urbanites like myself. In any event, hie thee forth to Giant’s Latin foods aisle and you’ll be good to go.

While we elected to make the seafood version, asopao can be made with chicken, pork, ham, sausage or even gandules (pigeon peas). I quite liked the combination of shrimp and langoustines we used. The latter in particular were lovely and added a really nice, briny depth that would have been lacking if we’d just used shrimp alone. We found them frozen at Trader Joes, I think. Shelled crawfish would work well too.

I thought our version was just a bit too salty, but that’s cultural differences for you. Maria thought it was fine. I did, however, fiddle with the seasonings in the below recipe. So there.

Asopao de Mariscos (Puerto Rican Seafood Rice Stew)
Adapted from Maria and Carmen Aboy Valdejulli
Yield: 6 servings

2 cups short grain rice (e.g., Arborio or Sello Rojo)
4 tbsp sofrito*
2 tomatoes diced
3 tsp capers
1 cup tomato sauce (salt free if possible)
12 pimento olives or green olives
1 4 oz can of roasted red peppers with liquid
2 tsp regular adobo seasoning (use any major Latin brand but make sure it does not have lemon in it)
1 packet Sazon with annato
8 cups hot water or (low/no sodium) stock*
2 1/2 lb shrimp, langoustines, or a combination thereof*
1 to 1 1/2 cup peas
freshly ground black pepper
Cilantro, lime wedges, & diced avocado (optional) for serving

In a large bowl, soak the rice in hot water for at least an hour. This will help it cook quickly and will prevent it from absorbing all the water in the pot.

While the rice is soaking, core and dice the tomatoes and roughly chop the olives. Set aside. Put a large saucepan or Dutch oven (~ 6qt) over medium-high heat. Add the sofrito and fry for a minute or so and then add the tomatoes, capers, tomato sauce, olives, red pepper, and seasonings. Sautee for a few minutes till fragrantly combined. (If you are using a non-seafood protein like sausage or ham, add it now.)

Add the stock to pot and cook at medium high until it comes to a rolling boil and cook for 15 to 20 minutes.

Drain rice and add to pot, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 15 to 20 minutes or until the rice is cooked through and the desired consistency is achieved. In the last few minutes, add the peas. Generally, the consistency should be that of a very wet risotto, but some prefer it to be a bit more like soup, so have a little extra stock or water on hand to adjust once the rice is cooked. Adjust seasoning to taste, with black pepper and maybe a bit of lime.

Ladle into bowls, top with cilantro and diced avocado, and serve immediately with lime wedges along side.

Notes and Variations (Courtesy of the Divine Ms. M.)
On sofrito & shopping: “If you know someone who makes their own sofrito, ask them for some, they will most likely be happy to oblige and it is superior to the frozen kind. I’m basing this adaptation on ingredients you can find at the local Safeway. I am partial to Goya products since it’s what I grew up with, but there are several reputable Latin brands on the market and all are comparable.

On variations: “The great thing about this recipe is its adaptibility, you can swap in chicken, sausage, ham, or any other protein for the seafood, or add more or less of all the ingredients based on your own personal preference.

On the broth: “For the seafood version, if you have time it’s best to buy shrimp or crayfish with the shells. Remove the shells, set the meat aside, and boil the shells with a bit of onion and a bay leaf for a quick shellfish stock. It’ll give a better flavor. For chicken, feel free to use a boullion cube or your favorite chicken broth.  I don’t recommend any of the commercial beef or seafood cubes or broths. At worst just use water.”

Valdejulli, Carmen Aboy. Cocina Criolla, Nueva Edición Revisada. (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing) 2001.