“It doesn’t matter if you call the party for tomorrow at noon; everyone’s on island time,” Jose Enrique says about throwing a party on his home island of Puerto Rico.
Enrique is the chef and owner of his self-titled restaurant in San Juan, where he has brought the world of Puerto Rican cuisine to the limelight of the American food scene. Puerto Rican food may not be something you’re all too familiar with, but it embodies the spirit of island cuisine, focusing on fresh fish, tropical produce and large family style meals surrounding the grill. A family dinner, for instance, might include roasting pork for eight to 10 hours, butchering it on a huge table and serving it with avocado salad, pickled red onions, local cheeses, bread and tons of hot sauce. Oh, and keep in mind that it’s not a meal if plantains aren’t served. So basically, Puerto Rican food is everything we want to eat this summer, which is why we’ve tapped the chef to come up with an outdoor party menu.
“It’s hard to make a menu three months in advance, since I don’t know how I’m gonna feel,” Enrique jokes, as he sits down with us in our Test Kitchen to plan out the perfect cookout menu, adding that at the restaurant, his menu is on a chalkboard, so he can adjust it daily based on what’s available at the markets. But what he comes up with is a menu filled with island flavors—and a couple of tricks we’ll be stealing for our own backyard parties.
Enrique explains that traditionally, as guests arrive, they’re greeted with a glass of Bilí (see the recipe), a popular infused rum from Vieques, a small island off of the coast of Puerto Rico. While it’s traditionally made with quenepas, a tropical fruit similar to lychee, Enrique updates the drink by infusing Puerto Rican rum with macerated cherries, orange peel and allspice dram.
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We’re not going to lie, the Bilí packs a punch. However, Enrique offers this sweet spirit as the perfect digestif to a heavy meal. “After eating so much, I can’t have a beer,” he explains. “It feels good to have a glass of Bilí.” Next, Enrique says he’d serve shooters of chilled avocado soup, a cold, bright blend topped with sweet seasoned watermelon and salty queso fresco (see the recipe).
As for the main attraction, the whole show surrounds the grill. Pork belly is cooked low and slow until tender with crispy bubbling skin to be served alongside a vibrant peach salsa (see the recipe)—a dish Enrique came up with on the beach, no less. Because of a holiday, his restaurant closed, though the local butcher still had to make the pork delivery. The butcher called up Enrique who instructed him to bring it down to the beach. While typically Enrique would brine, confit and fry the pork belly at the restaurant, he found inspiration to throw it on the grill to see how it would fare—deliciously crisp, it turns out. Its ideal side is a platter of grilled plantains (essential to any Puerto Rican meal) and eggplants, though the eggplants are treated like baked potatoes, slit open and filled with crème fraîche and chives (see the recipe).
Altogether, these recipes make for a meal that will easily transport you to the Caribbean. Though if you want to make it a truly island-style party, do as Enrique does and don’t rush. “This is what would happen: We would go to the beach and start drinking at noon. A few hours later, you head to your backyard to barbecue. You’d start the grill, drink some more and play dominoes. By the time the meal came around, it would be 11.”
Sounds like our kind of party.
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