When Von Diaz was growing up, her mother sent her away from her home outside Atlanta to spend summers in Puerto Rico. Diaz was born on the island in Rio Piedras, but she found the trips back disorienting. She didn't speak Spanish well. She lay awake at night, pestered by mosquitoes and wilting heat. In her grandmother's kitchen, she found relief in grilled cheese loaded with ground beef picadillo, aromatic olive oil infused with garlic and oregano, and fried cinnamon donuts.
Back in Georgia, Diaz was tasked with cooking for her younger sister and their cash-strapped single mom. She says her grandmother inspired her to add complexity to their meager home fare of spaghetti, boxed potato flakes and frozen chicken nuggets. And Diaz learned to appreciate Southern food — like the grits and fried okra that had once repelled her — from the kindly mother of a classmate.
Diaz has woven these three culinary threads — her grandmother's legendary kitchen, the food of the American South and her own cooking journey — into her debut cookbook, Coconuts and Collards.
She tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro that the book was born as a self-imposed culinary challenge: cooking every recipe from her grandmother's 1962 copy of Carmen Aboy Valldejuli's Cocina Criolla, a classic basic manual ubiquitous in most Puerto Rican kitchens. (Cocina criolla means Creole cuisine, or the cuisine of Spanish background, and books with the same title have formed the bedrock of Cuban and other Latino cooking traditions.)
"I found fairly quickly that while the dishes that I was making out of the book were really rife with nostalgia and they were certainly delicious, they felt really outdated," Diaz tells NPR. "A lot of deep frying, a lot of laborious processes that sometimes would take an entire day of cooking. It just felt to me like it didn't match the way that I actually cook."
Coconuts and Collards offers lighter, more vegetable-forward takes on Puerto Rican classics, as well as some clever hybrids of Diaz's different worlds.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
About her grandmother
My grandmother — who in many ways is my culinary muse — was an incredible cook. I mean, she was the kind of cook that people would coincidentally show up at her house. They were sort of just passing through the neighborhood and would walk in her front door, kind of sniffing the air to see what was going on.
About Brussels sprouts:
My grandmother, for whatever reason, she had a really interesting, really unusual taste for vegetables. ... All she had access to, at least when my mom was a kid, were frozen Brussels sprouts, which she was forever trying to get my mom and my uncle and my aunt to eat. She would put sofrito on them, she would put olive oil and garlic and they didn't like them. ...
What I did was kind of combine what is a really traditional way of preparing Brussels sprouts in the South, which is to either sauté them or roast them with some kind of a pork fat — either bacon or fatback — and instead use chorizo, which is more traditionally used in Puerto Rico and also references that Spanish root to Puerto Rican food. And so I sort of combined all those ingredients almost as an homage to her.
About Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria
My cousin who is on the island has told me that, interestingly, because of the lack of power and also lack of access to things like meat, a lot of people have kind of gone vegan. So they're eating more of the fresh produce that grows naturally on the island, and innovating.
And I know that for me, when I cook Puerto Rican food lately, I do it a little bit differently. I was making a stock the other day, and realized that I had an entire container of rock salt from Cabo Rojo, which is on the southwest tip on the island. It's a natural salt flat that's been there. And when I put that salt into that stock, it felt like I was honoring my island.
Brussels Sprouts with Chorizo Sofrito
Yield: 4 servings as a side dish
1½ tablespoons olive oil
3⁄4 cup Sofrito
½ cup finely minced Spanish chorizo
1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed and thinly sliced
½ cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
½ teaspoon salt, plus more if needed
Cracked black pepper
Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add the sofrito and chorizo and cook, stirring frequently, for 7 minutes, or until the mixture is browned and the liquid is mostly evaporated.
Lower the heat to medium and add the Brussels sprouts and stock. Bring to a simmer and cook for 7 to 10 minutes, until the Brussels sprouts are tender.
Turn off the heat, add the lime juice and salt, and season with pepper. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper if needed.
What I'm calling sofrito is sometimes referred to as recaito, the distinction being whether or not it includes tomato. But the basic ingredients are the same. It is the number one backbone of Puerto Rican cooking and can be adapted in a number of ways depending on the dish.
Abuelitas and tias alike often keep sofrito in the freezer stored in repurposed plastic margarine containers or frozen into cubes and saved in zip-top bags. It's best used within a week if kept in the refrigerator but can be frozen for up to six months. Plop it in the pan straight out of the freezer to save time defrosting it.
Yield: 3 cups
1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and quartered
3 ají dulce chiles, seeded and roughly chopped
6 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped
6 fresh culantro leaves
6 fresh cilantro leaves and stems, coarsely chopped
Put the bell pepper, ají dulce chiles, and garlic cloves in the bowl of a food processor and blend into a smooth puree, scraping the sides halfway through to incorporate fully.
Add the onion and pulse 5 to 7 times, until the mixture is again blended into a smooth puree.
Add the culantro and cilantro and pulse 5 or 6 more times, until the stems and leaves are minced and you have a loose paste.
From Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South by Von Diaz. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018. Reprinted by permission of the University Press of Florida.
Sophia Schmidt produced this interview for broadcast.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
What do you get when you marry Puerto Rican spice with Southern comfort food? "Coconuts And Collards" is Von Diaz's new cookbook, which combines the flavors of her childhood in the American South with her Puerto Rican heritage. And she says the idea began with her grandmother's 1962 copy of "Cocina Criolla."
VON DIAZ: "Cocina Criolla" in Puerto Rico is considered by a lot of people to be kind of the Puerto Rican "Joy Of Cooking."
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how did you use it?
DIAZ: This book really came as a result of a project that I started four years ago - kind of "Julie & Julia" style to cook my way through that cookbook. It was, as you said, my grandmother's copy. I really wanted to use kind of this quest through the book as a way to connect to her and the way that she had learned to cook. And I found fairly quickly that while the dishes that I was making out of the book were, you know, really rife with nostalgia, and they were certainly delicious, they felt really outdated and sort of very heavy, very greasy preparations. And so I started to instead use it as a guide for evolving cooking techniques and dishes that were kind of similar to those dishes but a little bit more upgraded and also included some fusion, for lack of a better term, of the places that I had grown up and lived.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like you to take me back to your grandmother's kitchen. She seemed like someone who loved cooking and loved reading about food.
DIAZ: Absolutely. I mean, my grandmother, who, in many ways, is my culinary muse, was an incredible cook. I mean, she was the kind of cook that people would coincidentally show up at her house. They were sort of just passing through the neighborhood and would walk in her front door, kind of sniffing the air to see what was going on. And so when I was a little kid, my mom several times sent me to Puerto Rico to spend the entire summer with her. And during those trips, I would inevitably end up in her kitchen, watching her cook. And so she started to give me little tasks.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You had a very different experience, though, in the United States when you were living in Georgia. You describe having food insecurity in the United States. As a child, you sort of cared for your younger sister. It was just a very different experience.
DIAZ: Yeah, definitely. I feel like in many ways, you know, my grandmother was this very sophisticated, very gourmet cook in her own right. And my mother is a very good cook, but because of the circumstances of our life working as a single mom and also having some real financial hardships off and on, we ended up just having really limited ingredients in our household. And my mom is an incredible innovator when it comes to the kitchen. And so she was always figuring out these little ways to make very little food super delicious.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mix these two legacies of the southern United States and Puerto Rico. I want you to talk me through your Brussels sprout recipe, which is not something that we normally eat down south, you know, in the Caribbean.
DIAZ: So my grandmother, for whatever reason - she had a really interesting, really unusual taste for vegetables.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we should say that Puerto Rican food, Cuban food doesn't - not a lot of vegetables there.
DIAZ: Exactly - my grandmother - all she had access to, at least when my mom was a kid, were frozen Brussels sprouts, which she was forever trying to get my mom and my uncle and my aunt to eat. She would put sofrito on them. She would put olive oil and garlic. And they didn't like them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should say sofrito is the staple...
DIAZ: Exactly. Sofrito is the flavor base of almost all Puerto Rican food. So it's typically garlic, onion, pepper, culantro or cilantro. And you blend it into a spice paste. And so ultimately, what I did was combine what is a really traditional way of preparing Brussels sprouts in the South, which is to either saute them or roast them with some kind of pork fat and instead use chorizo, which is more traditionally used in Puerto Rico and also references that Spanish root to Puerto Rican food. And so I combined all of those ingredients as a way to say, you know, Tata (ph) if you had had access to these ingredients in this way, you might have come up with this yourself.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to talk a little bit about what Puerto Rico has been going through recently. You've been in touch with many people in Puerto Rico's food world. What have they been telling you about how the island is coping now and how that's really affecting the way people are eating there?
DIAZ: You know, I think it's really been a struggle. In the fourth chapter of "Coconuts And Collards," I talk a lot about an incredible chef named Berto (ph). And his entire community has actually been without power since Hurricane Irma. My cousin who's on the island has told me that, interestingly, because of the lack of power and also lack of access to things like meat, a lot of people have kind of gone vegan. So they're eating more of the fresh produce that grows naturally on the island and innovating.
And I know that for me, when I cook Puerto Rican food lately, I do it a little bit differently. I was making a stock the other day and realized that I had an entire container of rock salt from Cabo Rojo, which is on the southwest tip of the island. And when I put that salt into my stock, it felt different than it had before. It felt like I was honoring my island and continuing to celebrate its cuisines and to hope for recovery and that people would make it through.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Von Diaz is a writer and a radio producer based in New York. Her new cookbook is "Coconuts And Collards." (Speaking Spanish).
DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.