make that buffalo squeal

For a decade’s worth of Tuesdays, my grandmother has volunteered at her church to provide meals for homeless people in her community. In the past, she did a lot of the cooking, but lately, she spends most of her time talking with the people who come to eat. “Don’t let anyone ever put you down,” she tells them, “you are a good person.” Some of the food, most of which is donated by local grocery stores, can’t legally be served at these lunches. In California, state law prohibits the church kitchen from using any canned goods that don’t have labels.

Therefore, Grandma has an entire cupboard full of label-less canned foods, each with a small yellow post-it note attached. Because no one on that side of the family can bear to see good food go to waste, she brings the cans home, stacks them on her kitchen table, and from the 28 digit code on the bottom of the can, parses them into beets and beef broth, corn and corned beef hash. Then into the cupboard they go, teetering lego towers of gleaming steel. She can’t eat them as fast as they accumulate, so they are filling her attic, too.

One summer the overstock of unlabeled canned goods grew to a point where even Grandma acknowledged that some of them had to go. All those cans were weighing on her, making her feel guilty for spending money at the grocery store when she already had so much free food to eat. We packed hundreds of cans ( “No – not the pickled beets”!) into brown paper bags, locked them into the trunk of my rental car, then surreptitiously unloaded them in Marin near where the anchor-outs come ashore, and fled like criminals from the scene of a crime.

A few years back, grandma and I went to see Fahrenheit 9/11. Whenever I’m in Mill Valley, it’s our habit to see what’s playing at the Sequoia — usually something very political or something very gay (Quinceanera, Brokeback Mountain, etc.). Whatever the film, it’s guaranteed that her catholic church friends will have been talking against it for weeks. In this case, the secret transgression of seeing Michael Moore’s much-maligned film had grandma feeling very extravagant indeed, and after we were seated, she handed me a $20 for popcorn and drinks. I went out to the lobby, where after a brief paralysis ($15 for popcorn and two drinks?), I walked right out the theater doors and across the street to the Mill Valley Market, where I bought popcorn and drinks for $4.

Not so noteworthy, right? Who among us isn’t outraged by movie concession prices? But from my grandmother’s perspective, this is the very best thing I have ever done. Better than when I first said ‘gra-ma wa-wa’ or got educated or any of the other grandchild milestones you can think up. This act was evidence of my legacy, a pure expression of her bloodline. She tells the story whenever my name comes up. She even tells it to me. “You’re a real Cuevas”, she laughs, “You can really pinch a penny – you know how to make that buffalo squeal!”

In honor of my hereditary cheap gene, I offer you one of the cheapest, easiest and best things that I ever cook, which also makes very good use of canned food. Its appeal is nearly universal. The story of how I landed on its culinary map is a lesbo-kitchen story for another day, but lest you question my culinary credentials for this dish, suffice it to say that I learned to love it during my childhood in Puerto Rico, that I learned to make it from my Puerto Rican vegetarian stepmother who didn’t have time to cook from scratch, and that I have cooked it hundreds, perhaps thousands of times in my life, including almost every single night when I was in college.

Arroz y habichuelas

Arroz con Habichuelas
Puertorican Rice and Beans

Most puertoricans eat this as a side dish to some kind of meat, but I think it’s great as a main course. I like to serve it with a salad of sliced tomatoes and avocados drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

olive oil
1 1/2 cups medium or short-grain white rice
3 tablespoons alcaparrado (a mix of olives, capers and pimientos)
3 tablespoons recaito (a paste of garlic, onions, cilantro and sweet peppers)
1/2 envelope of Sazon con culantro y achiote (make sure you get the kind with annato and coriander)
1-2 tablespoons tomato sauce
1 small peeled and cubed potato (optional)
1 can Goya beans, undrained (I like gandules, garbanzos, and pink beans the best)

In a medium pot, combine the rice with several tablespoons of olive oil. The more olive oil you add, the tastier the rice will be. ‘Fry’ the raw rice for a few minutes over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Don’t allow it to brown. Add 3/4 teaspoon salt and 3 cups water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid, and cook until done, about 15 minutes.

While the rice is cooking, heat another 2-3 tablespoons olive oil in a medium saucepan. Add the recaito, alcaparrado, tomato sauce and Sazon. Saute for 2-3 minutes.

If you are using the potato, add it now, along with about 1/2 cup water, then cover and cook over medium heat until the potato is almost done, about 7-10 minutes. Add more water to the pan if it dries out.

Add the can of beans, including its juices. Stir, cover, and simmer gently over low heat until the rice is done.

Note: The recaito, alcaparrado, Goya beans and Sazon are generally available at markets that carry mexican and latin american foods. If you live in Albuquerque, all of these ingredients are available at Ta Lin market, but they can also be found at many of the mexican markets around town. While you can use any canned beans for this recipe, I do suggest that you try the Goya brand for their excellent texture and flavor.

lesbo-warning: The Sazon contains MSG. If you think that you are sensitive to it, leave it out and add a little salt to the beans. The dish won’t have it’s signature orangey hue, but it will still taste good. If you really want the beans to be orange and are feeling ambitious, you can buy achiote (annato) seeds, simmer them in olive oil, and then use this achiote oil in place of the olive oil in the beans.


15 Responses to “make that buffalo squeal”

  1. 1 Miriam April 1, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    Wonderful writing, food and photos….so great, Jam!
    Even though I know the gramma stories, I love reading how you write about them. Your added personal touch makes even food I might not want to eat, like Kale, feel tempting….you know that is saying something for me!

    I love that you are doing this. Warm and nurturing for us all. Thanks for the effort.

    PS I couldn’t help but laugh and think of Kiley when I see your photo stream has over 3700 uploads. I looked at and enjoyed each and every one of them.

    • 2 jami April 21, 2009 at 12:10 am

      miriam, you’d better watch what you say, or I might get inspired to come over and cook you some actual kale! thanks for your nice comments…I’m enjoying writing and sharing these stories.

  2. 3 Rich April 1, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    sounds delish.. Loved the story.

  3. 5 elissa April 1, 2009 at 3:23 pm


    The first time we really hung out, at Hadar’s bday party in Taos, you made this for all of us! I loved it then, and I’ve loved it every other time you’ve made it. I think I may even have some frozen in my freezer from you, awaiting some desperate night soon, when we don’t know what to have for dinner.

    Don’t let the simple, “cheap” nature of this meal fool you into thinking it’s anything but delicious.

    I’m glad you have a record of all of these writings, recipes, as this seems like the perfect springboard for your first cookbook–Lesbo Kitchen (nice name for a cookbook don’t you think?).

    xoo elis

    • 6 jami April 20, 2009 at 11:54 pm

      hey elis, I’m amazed at how these rice and beans have made such a lasting impression on so many… memories with places and dates and everything! it’s fun to be starting a record of all this cooking and eating, which is as much about sharing with friends as it is about anything. xo, j

  4. 7 agnesinspace April 5, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Cool! I have been cooking one of your bean recipes for 20 years! Love the look of the blog too.

  5. 8 linda April 9, 2009 at 4:00 am

    Okay Jami,
    This was just about the sweetest recipe i’ve ever read. Now I love your grandma and i’ve never met her. But i have met this recipe on a river trip on the San Juan and that was my favorite dinner of all those great dinners. This is the kind of meal i could eat every day if i lived by myself. It makes me want to take on the challenge of finding the ingredients to compile into the ingredients that aren’t available to us here in our ethnically challenged little town.
    YAY to beans and rice. I’m sending your link to my college kid.
    Now, we should both just step away from the computer.

    • 9 jami April 20, 2009 at 11:42 pm

      hey linda, one of these days, very soon, I’m going to post the from-scratch version of this recipe, so that between your fresh small town ingredients, and a few big-city ones with long shelf life, you’ll be able to make this any time you want. and then foncy will be able to eat it too!

  6. 10 Kelly April 11, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    I love this recipe and I love this story! Puerto Rican rice and beans will always remind me of you and of winter. It must have been winter time when I first ate this dish.

    Your Grandma and my Grandma could have been best friends. My Grandma, called Tommy, grew up in Southern New Mexico during the 1930s, but she always claimed that the Great Depression never had much of an affect on the folks in Monticello because they were already poor! She used to buy all of the dented and label-less cans at the grocery store. We had a huge stockpile of canned food in the pantry but still, every time we went to the store she would make tracks to the discount shelf. She never knew about a code on the bottom of the can so for us it was always hit or miss with the mystery can contents. We mostly used a ‘shake method’. My Grandma could identify everything from black olives to creamed corn just by shaking the can!

    • 11 jami April 21, 2009 at 12:20 am

      your grandma and *I* could have been best friends! we would have been fighting each other for the contents of the dinged-up dollar basket at the co-op. did I mention that the delicious pears I served you in last week’s salad were from the verysame scratch-and-dent basket?

      I forgot to say in my story that my grandmother employed the shake test too. shaking was the first level of triage – then she’d move onto the fancy decoding!

  7. 12 Kathy April 20, 2009 at 11:44 pm

    Despite Jami’s efforts to cure me of “bean favoritism”, I still maintain that gandules are the only bean…so meaty and nutty and just plain yummy. Don’t settle for anything less in this dish.

  8. 13 kdodgebrown April 21, 2009 at 12:45 am

    The first time Jami made this for me was about 11 years ago when I was operating under the embarrassing and youthfully naive idea that because I had traveled the world a fair amount in my 20s, that I had “pretty much tasted all the tastes that there are (yes, I meant in the world)”. It was probably the same day of that ridiculous comment when Jami first made me the now infamous Puertorican Beans and Rice to which I humbly exclaimed “Uuumm, Yummm, Uummm, Wow, Yummm…this is like nothing Ive ever had before”. Of course, that was just the beginning and while I obviously don’t claim to have “tasted everything” anymore, I am still surprised and delighted every time I eat this dish. These beans make an impact and you may be surprised to find, as I was, that there is a bean that can blow your world view.

  9. 14 Aunt Cathy December 12, 2009 at 6:57 pm


    I love the story,which I know is true… I could just see Grandma’s face light up and say out loud in her quiet loud voice, how proud she was of you… Her quiet loud voice in the show ~~

    I have a story, true but just wasn’t as much fun, without Grandma, my Mom.
    I’ve been clipping coupons, had 14, and was in line at the store. The grocery store clerks used to hate to see Grandma and me coming (as Cherif named us, the coupon ladies). We would always hold up the line with our coupons, it never failed.

    Well, here I am in line and as this inexperienced young man clerk was moving my groceries. I in my loud voice as I was taught, would say 2 for 1, or 1.00 off… Remember, I had 14 coupons…the line was long, and I felt great that I had saved all that money on coupons. BUT my echo wasn’t there. When you went with Grandma, both of us would call out the items and with out realizing it, drive the b-gees out of the clerk…

    One coupon, when I was with Grandma, the clerk had to call the manager. He said just give them the money!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It was a 1.00 coupon…I miss that…

    Love, Aunt Cathy

  1. 1 waste not want not « lesbo-kitchen Trackback on November 24, 2009 at 6:37 pm

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