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A chat with cookbook author Von Diaz, who blends Puerto Rican and Southern cooking in 'Coconuts and Collards'

Von Diaz, author of "Coconuts and Collards". Photo by Ella Coley.
Von Diaz, author of "Coconuts and Collards". Photo by Ella Coley.
Published Mar. 30, 2018

When her family moved from Puerto Rico to Atlanta, writer and radio producer Von Diaz traded plantains, roast pork and malta for grits, fried chicken and sweet tea. In her debut cookbook, Coconuts and Collards, published in March, Diaz, who now lives in New York, tells a tale of straddling two worlds, of sleepless summer nights in hot Puerto Rico and sleepy days at daycare in Atlanta, where she had grits for the first time when she was 6.

Since Diaz, 36, has not lived in Puerto Rico for a while, the country's food became her lifeline to the island and its culture. The first time she made her own sofrito, she says, the smell coming from the pan was like a time machine.

Influenced by her grandmother, the recipes in her book are wide and varied, from staples like adobo and sofrito to dishes like quingombos guisados (stewed okra), funche de coco (coconut grits), coconut braised collards, Brussels sprouts with chorizo and rum cake.

But creating authentic Puerto Rican food, especially in New York, isn't always easy. Diaz shares stories of carting a Puerto Rican-style turkey, stuffed with mofongo and chicharron, 40 blocks to a friend's apartment because her oven wasn't big enough to roast it, and using a power drill to crack open a coconut in her 9-by-9-foot Manhattan kitchen. Her recipes, she says, are an attempt to harness her favorite Puerto Rican flavors in ways that are more practical for modern home cooks. We talked to her by phone recently about that and more.

What is it about Southern food and Puerto Rican food that makes them go together so well?

In many ways, what I hoped would come through with the recipes and the stories is that there are just so many of these amazing similarities between Puerto Rican and Southern food that just exist on their own. The recipes that are in the second chapter, to me, are really a reflection of those already existing similarities between the cuisines that, I would argue, come from their African roots.

As I was thinking about this project, I did, in true journalist form, a ton of research, and what I found was that there were all of these dishes in both places that looked nearly identical. In this old version of Cocina Criolla (the Puerto Rican version of The Joy of Cooking), there's a recipe for quingombos guisados, and it is straight-up Southern, sauteed okra. The coconut funche recipe (in Coconuts and Collards) — that is certainly a hybrid, a fusion dish — came as a result of me learning that funche was eaten in Puerto Rico by enslaved people who brought that process and that dish there. I just became super fascinated by this shared heritage.

You began working on this cookbook when you cooked your way through Cocina Criolla. Did you learn anything different about Puerto Rican food through that experience?

It was a way for me to feel connected to my grandmother, who was still alive at the time but experiencing some pretty severe dementia. I talk about this in the book, but one of the toughest things about losing her to dementia, in addition to losing her personality, which was so vibrant, was losing her cooking, which was a loss for the entire family. I kind of wanted to conjure her through the process of cooking from her book and looking at her notes and the sauce-splattered pages. A part of that project was about finding my voice as a food writer. I didn't have a voice yet, and I wanted to find it.

I started cooking my way through the book, and I think there are well over 300 recipes in that book. … I was going to cook everything. There's a section in my grandmother's version that has instructions for how to kill and pluck a chicken properly, and I was going to go do that. I was just being a total reporter about it. And I got through about 20 recipes and I was like, "I can't cook like this." ... I started to think critically about the recipes as I worked my way through the book, and I would look really closely at the amount of oil that was recommended for a dish, amount of salt, the addition of different pork fats.

Little by little I started to rewrite the recipes. And then I started to make my own recipes, using some of the techniques and ingredients that I had found in these classic recipes, and sort of flipping them on their head.

I love this line: "I am not, and I have no desire to be, a 1960s Puerto Rican housewife. I do not own a machete, nor do I have a big patio where I can whack dried coconuts." How do you navigate being a modern woman, and home cook, while still creating authentic Puerto Rican food?

Food, in general, and cooking, is such a wide open space. As I started to swim around in these recipes, and learn more about my family and take trips back to the island to do research, I found that I learned a lot about my culture as a result of exploring these recipes. I learned a lot about ingredients, I learned a lot about what grows on the island. I also, over time, was trying to figure out, "How do I incorporate these flavors that I associate with this very laborious, unhealthy kind of cuisine? How do I get to keep the flavor and live the life that I live?" I have a full-time job, and if I'm going to cook something on a weekday, it can't be a four-hour braise that I start at 6:30 or 7 p.m. when I get home from the crazy subway travel.

I found that there were these little ways that I could have the flavor profiles that I wanted, that I loved, without having to spend a tremendous amount of time or eating a really high-calorie meal. And sometimes, to be specific, that's as simple as my own recipe for sazon (Puerto Rican seasoned salt). Every Puerto Rican I've ever known has a box of sazon in the pantry at all times, and my family is no exception. It's very salty, and I was like, "Why don't I make my own?" and then I can add sazon to everything. And sofrito is good in just about anything. It's such a beautiful foundation, kind of the Puerto Rican equivalent to a mirepoix, and it's just delicious. It's great in every kind of bean, every kind soup, every kind of stew.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Contact Carlynn Crosby at carlynncrosby@yahoo.com.

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