Photo by Marisa Zanganeh
The exact origins of the asopao are not quite clear. The slow cooking of rice in stock is present in infinite variety of traditional dishes and each country has its own. But the asopao with pigeon peas is as Puerto Rican as our beloved native frog the coquí.
To the traditional fish stock recipe (can also be made with meat, chicken or vegetables), Puerto Rico added its distinctive touch in the gandules, or pigeon peas, a basic ingredient of our island cuisine.
Our version of asopao has many ingredients, such as ham, squash, pigeon peas and shrimp. Each goes in the pot at just the precise moment. Many people think, erroneously, that in an asopao you toss in everything at once. Not so. Each ingredient has a purpose and each a different cooking time.
Ham, for example, provides consistency in flavor to the sofrito, or cooking base we prepare. That’s why it’s accompanied by oregano, tomato and tomato sauce.
The squash, on the other hand, takes a bit longer to cook and soften. The cooking time of the squash depends on the size of the cubes. Remember that in this dish, the squash’s main role is to provide body to the stock. It’s not a main player. If the pigeon peas you use are not frozen, they will take a bit longer to cook, but this recipe uses frozen ones. They cook faster and are just as nutritious. The gandules go with the sofrito so they can acquire flavor with the heat.
When the stock reaches its perfection, add the rice. It’s important that it be short-grain rice because it absorbs the most water. Asopao means “watery” or “soupy.”
The final ingredient of this wonderful stew is the shrimp, since they cook the fastest of all. Overcooked shrimp get gummy so it’s key to not overcook them. The rice should be al dente, the squash should enrich the stock, the pigeon peas the color and the shrimp a singular distinction.
In Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Caribbean, asopao is languidly enjoyed with family. If it’s raining, there’s nothing like an asopao. This dish of contrasts gives us wonderful colors when the days are gray and we wait for sunshine.
Yields 4–6 servings
1 cup short-grain white rice
4 cups fish stock, warmed
14-ounce bag frozen pigeon peas (may substitute green peas)
1½ pounds medium shrimp, tail off, cut in half
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
Caribbean squash (calabaza), cut in big chunks
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon Bijol spice
1 medium Spanish onion, diced
½ red pepper, julienned
3 garlic cloves, diced
½ pound cooked ham, cut into medium pieces
2 plum tomatoes, seeded and cored, diced
3 small sweet peppers or ½ Cubannelle sweet pepper, seeded and cored, diced
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
1/3 cup Spanish tomato sauce
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Mix shrimp and Old Bay seasoning, place in a container, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
2. Pour olive oil into a medium-sized pot and heat over medium flame. Add Bijol and mix well. Add onion, cook 3-4 minutes until light golden. Add red peppers and garlic and cook 2 additional minutes, until shrimp lose their raw taste.
3. Add ham, squash, tomatoes, cilantro, tomato sauce, capers and oregano; simmer for another 5-6 minutes.
4. Add pigeon peas. Cook for another 5 minutes. Add rice and stir.
5. Add fish stock and season with salt and pepper to taste.
6. Cover rice and cook for approximately 20 minutes.
7. Add shrimp, stir and cook 2 additional minutes, until they turn pink. Serve.
To learn more about me or my recipes, visit me at DenisseOller.com and at AARP, where I am a chef and nutrition expert.