Latinos in the US are blessed with a choice of comfort food dishes from each of our native countries. Whether that means a spicy bowl of pozole with all the fixings, a rich feijoada after a long night out, or a hot pandebono (or two!) fresh out of the oven, they’re the dishes which may not necessarily form part of our everyday diet, but which we turn to again and again when craving that connection to home.
For many Puerto Ricans—including this one—that dish is mofongo, the decadent combination of fried green plantains mashed with garlic, pork and seasonings. Served on its own as a side, or topped with rich proteins like shrimp in a tomato-based salsa criolla [creole sauce] or thin and crispy bites of churrasco [grilled skirt steak], it’s a rich dish that remains unmatched for many of us who grew up eating it.
In search of that particular comfort, I spent a morning in the lively kitchen of Chef Frank Maldonado, the executive chef of Sazón, an upscale Puerto Rican restaurant in New York City. Wearing a stylish custom-made hat and matching chef coat, he commands his kitchen with a joyful spirit that comes through in his dishes. Asked about his connection to mofongo, the stories race out of him as he excitedly beckons us around the kitchen, pointing out the different ingredients and tools they use to prepare the dish.
At Sazón, Maldonado and his team turn out multiple variations of mofongo, using both classic green plantains, and other vegetables, like yuca (cassava), and sweeter yellow plantains. A popular version called “tri-fongo” combines the three, for a sweet and savory mix that works surprisingly well.
“We do it every way. With yuca. With steak and shrimp and fish on top. For the [vegetarians] we take out the pork and use butter.”
“But the pork is better,” he adds with a sly smile.
Mofongo is traditionally made with pork cracklings, and at Sofrito, they make it from scratch, frying the pork skin until it’s crispy with just the tiniest bit of meat still clinging on. Maldonado explains that at home you can use store-bought pork rinds or rendered bacon for similar effect.
The ingredients are smashed by hand each time in a large wooden pilón [mortar and pestle], molded into a bowl-like shape, and finished with the diner’s choice of filling. Though the restaurant serves up a full menu classic and updated Puerto Rican dishes, the mofongo is an undisputed crowd favorite.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Maldonado has been around the classic recipes of the island since birth [quite literally—his mother went into labor while working in his family’s restaurant] and has traveled and studied cuisine throughout the world, but is still quick to turn to mofongo when not feeling well.
He explains, “[In Puerto Rico] when you are sick, they give you a bowl of homemade chicken broth with mofongo on the side. Because if you don’t feel good, a plain broth is not enough to make you feel better. You need something stronger...like mofongo.”
In a world where others might be quick to recommend juice cleanses or ascetic kale salads for those who are sick, it’s a statement that illustrates a lot about the way Puerto Ricans enjoy food. There is no room for deprivation, and the love and tradition is just as important as the dish itself.
“To me, there is nothing better than Puerto Rican food," says Maldonado. "It’s beautiful. It’s sexy. It’s full of so much love and history. So much color. As a chef in New York City, I respect cultures and traditions from everywhere. And I enjoy food from everywhere, but Puerto Rican food is what is home for me. To me, it is the best!”