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Behind the Recipes

These Stewed Red Kidney Beans Are One of Puerto Rico’s Most Comforting Dishes

The story behind habichuelas guisadas con calabaza.

Published Jan. 11, 2023.

Comfort comes in many forms: warm sunshine on your face, a tender hug, the smells wafting out of your family’s kitchen, the full belly that follows. Rice and beans are ubiquitous across Latin America and the Caribbean, with seemingly limitless variations. In Cuban congrí and Jamaican rice and peas, beans and rice are cooked together with aromatics in the same pot. But more often, beans are stewed separately and served atop white rice. 

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In Puerto Rico, rice and beans are sometimes referred to as a matrimonio (marriage), marking the profound harmony of these two ingredients. I grew up in a humble household, and like many similar families, we used mostly processed ingredients. 

Canned beans, jarred sofrito (a core ingredient in Puerto Rican cuisine), and packets of sazón spice blend formed the base of the beans I started preparing for my family when I was in middle school. I began by heating olive oil in a saucepan and adding the aforementioned convenience ingredients along with tomato sauce, pimento-stuffed olives, and chopped potatoes. My mother’s family preferred red kidney beans, whereas my father liked pink beans, the sauce thickened with canned pumpkin. 

Today, rice and beans remains the most comforting combination I can imagine. The shortcut ingredients are definitely convenient and have good flavor. But slow-cooking dried beans that are seasoned with homemade sofrito and sazón, studded with fresh calabaza, and served over rice is much closer to what my ancestors made and brings me more satisfaction. 

Habichuelas Guisadas con Calabaza (Stewed Red Beans with Calabaza)

Stewed red kidney beans served atop salt pork–studded rice tells a rich history of one of Puerto Rico's most comforting dishes.
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In many ways, Puerto Rican arroz con habichuelas (rice and beans) is an extension of indigenous Taíno and African foodways, with ingredients introduced by colonization that were creatively adapted. Beans and legumes thrive on the island and were an essential component of the Taíno diet. The iconic legumes for arroz con habichuelas are dark red kidney beans, which are known locally as colorá (or habichuelas coloradas). They are larger than other common varieties and have a creamy texture and rich flavor. 

While red beans are inherently delicious, sofrito is the foundation of classic habichuelas guisadas (stewed beans). Sofrito, which is European in origin, is traditionally pounded or ground into a paste in Puerto Rico, reflecting indigenous and African influence. It typically contains onions, garlic, bell pepper, and culantro (which is called chadon beni in the Caribbean and sawtooth coriander elsewhere). The sofrito is sautéed in olive oil or lard; for this recipe, I find middle ground by using olive oil and jamón de cocinar (ham steak) for extra porky oomph. 

Today, rice and beans remains the most comforting combination I can imagine.

Growing up, my family almost exclusively added potatoes to their beans, likely because they were filling and easily accessible. But I use fresh calabaza or pumpkin, or sometimes kabocha or butternut squash instead. In addition to the flavor calabaza imparts, it also adds to the rich color of habichuelas guisadas. Combined with sazón and dark red kidney beans, this dish is as pretty as it is tasty. 

These stewed beans can stand on their own (I sometimes add handfuls of spinach or kale to a portion for an improvised stew). But nothing beats beans and rice. Most Puerto Ricans I know are “arroceros”—rice lovers—who will mound their plate with white rice regardless of what they layer it with. 

Rice tells a story here too. It was brought to the island during Spanish colonization and ultimately cultivated by enslaved African workers who brought knowledge of rice cultivation from their native countries. Among the most traditional preparations is arroz con tocino, where white rice is cooked with rendered salt pork and a bit of fresh garlic, adding richness and dimension that enhances the flavor of what it’s served with. 

Arroz con habichuelas is very humble and nourishing. But even the simplest dishes become elegant and exquisite when thoughtfully prepared. The way I make beans today is as much inspired by these traditional methods and ingredients as those I came to love as a child. 

Beans cooked from dry have a firmer texture, and because they cook longer, they take on a deeper flavor from the aromatics. But I like to cook them until they’re supertender like canned beans, and I like them salty, flavorful, thick, and saucy. Briny olives pop in the beans, adding a tanginess balanced by the subtle sweetness of calabaza. 

Arroz con Tocino (Rice with Salt Pork)

Stewed red kidney beans served atop salt pork–studded rice tells a rich history of one of Puerto Rico's most comforting dishes.
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I’ve been preparing this dish for years but have never written down a recipe because it’s become so intuitive. Between the lines of the ingredients and preparation, though, is an archive of history and adaptation and above all, what tastes good to you. 

Von Diaz is a writer, documentary producer, and author of Coconuts & Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South (2018). Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, she explores the intersections of food, culture, and identity in her work. Her forthcoming narrative cookbook, Islas: Cuisines of Resilience (2023) explores the resiliency and ancestral cooking of tropical islands across the globe.

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