The road to the mountain town of Ciales, near the center of Puerto Rico, snakes upward as it cuts through lush green forest. Casa Vieja appears, almost suddenly, like a bright blue beacon of roadside dining on a sharp bend when you thought you might have passed the last remaining restaurant miles ago. Overlooking the verdant Toro Negro Forest, Casa Vieja couldn’t be in a more perfect setting.
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Within minutes of opening, the outdoor deck is so full that we grab the last available table inside as a line begins to form under the awning. Manager Gerardo Mena and his waitstaff offer a variety of fresh tropical fruit juices, cocktails, and frosted bottles of beer to those waiting to stave off their thirst and keep their hunger at bay.
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Casa Vieja is owned by Gerardo’s mother, Blanca Ayala, and was built to mimic the house that she grew up in. The interior walls are whitewashed horizontal wood slats with faded black-and-white photos hanging in antique frames. Dusty milk bottles, a pair of worn leather chairs, and a rusted sewing machine offer focal points throughout the restaurant, but the idyllic mountain views through the wide, breezy, open windows are what captivate everyone.
The menu at Casa Vieja is inspired by Gerardo’s grandmother’s cooking. She taught his mother and her siblings to cook when they were as young as 6 years old. “Once one of my uncles got to that age, my grandmother and grandfather stopped cooking. It was definitely a thing that was taught at a young age, these recipes, and using the cheapest ingredients available because my family didn’t come from a lot of resources. My oldest uncles and aunts raised the younger children. It was their task,” Gerardo says.
Gerardo describes the menu at Casa Vieja as “mountain food,” by which he means it’s based on ingredients that grow naturally in the mountains and items that are shelf-stable. This means lots of pig parts—fried sausages and stewed meat; salt cod, the only seafood on the menu; and simple stews, such as their signature pastel al caldero. The menu at Casa Vieja hasn’t changed since it opened in May 2015.
The restaurant has always been a sentimental endeavor for the family. “It’s [my mother’s] gem. But we put the ideas of the entire family and the recollections of my uncles and aunts into re-creating the home for people to enjoy and for people to also enjoy the food that my family used to eat when they were living in that [original] home. It’s great that people appreciate the humbleness of it,” Gerardo says.
Guanimes con bacalao is a salt cod stew garnished with cornmeal dumplings that is popular throughout Puerto Rico. The stew combines the mild brininess of salt cod with the fruitiness of peppers in a lusciously rich sauce; the dumplings balance the bold flavors.
Gerardo’s family has eaten the dish as far back as his 97-year-old grandfather can remember, and it’s become an integral part of the menu at Casa Vieja. With limited means, the family adjusted the recipe to use what they had at their disposal and, in doing so, made their own version. “Guanimes con bacalao is something that really varies throughout the island,” Gerardo says.
The star of the stew is the bacalao: salt-cured and air-dried cod that is popular throughout the Caribbean. The salt cod is first soaked in water for 24 hours and then boiled for 10 minutes. This softens the cod and removes most of its saltiness. However, Gerardo tells me it’s important that the fish retains some of its salinity to season the stew. After boiling, the fish is shredded fine.
Guanimes con Bacalao (Cornmeal Dumplings with Salt Cod)A beautiful family tradition from the mountains of Puerto Rico.
Aromatic vegetables form the base of the stew. Onions, garlic, Cubanelle peppers, and ajíes dulces—native sweet, grassy chiles that resemble habanero chiles in appearance but contain none of their heat—are sautéed in annatto-infused oil. The annatto imparts a mild floral undertone and vibrant yellow hue. Once the vegetables are soft, the shredded cod is added and the mixture simmers to allow the flavors to meld before it’s finished with fresh cilantro or recao.
Many versions of guanimes con bacalao, Casa Vieja’s included, also add sofrito, a puree of the aforementioned vegetables and herbs. After consulting several Puerto Rican cooks and cookbooks, I decided to omit the sofrito from my recipe because I was already using all the same vegetables and aromatics for the base of the stew. While the sofrito did add a subtle flavor boost to the dish, in side-by-side comparisons its presence was easily replicated by adding more garlic and herbs to the stew.
When it comes to the guanimes, this is where the Casa Vieja version stands out. Their dumplings are made simply using cornmeal, hot water, and salt, and they’re shaped into spheres a little smaller than Ping-Pong balls. “Some people arrive at Casa Vieja and say, ‘This is not the way you do guanimes,’” Gerardo says.
He has heard of guanimes being made with all-purpose flour instead of cornmeal, with coconut milk rather than water, rolled into long cylinders instead of balls, and wrapped in plantain leaves before boiling. “There are a million ways that Puerto Ricans do guanimes. Our family recipe was just about feeding the children in the mountains. We got accustomed to doing it real simple.”
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