Cookbooks & History: Pollo guisado al gusto del país

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the seventh essay in this series, written by Lyrsa Torres-Velez. 

As a Puerto Rican living in the diaspora, I feel the need to share my culture whenever possible. That’s one of the main reasons I always select Puerto Rican dishes to present in class projects. I feel the closest to my culture and the island while cooking. It’s a way to stay connected and pass the word about us as a group. For this class project, I chose the recipe “Pollo guisado al gusto del país” from El Cocinero Puerto-riqueño (1859: 77 ). El Cocinero Puerto-riqueño was the first published cookbook from Puerto Rico. I have been working on this book for about 2 years and was always compelled to recreate a recipe, so this was a great opportunity to observe if the culinary ways of Puerto Rico today still have any similarity with the ways of the mid 19th century.

Aside from choosing a recipe that could easily represent my culture, I also chose one that was doable, and that was people friendly. Many of the recipes in the book call for the use of pork or by-products, so I knew I had to find something that my classmates would enjoy. I had 3 different recipes that involved chicken, and a similar list of ingredients, but I thought this one would be hard to mess up. One of my favorite Puerto Rican dishes is Carne Guisada o Pollo Guisado, which is something very similar to this recipe (a stew), but using beef instead of chicken, and adding carrots and potatoes. One of my goals was to see how similar in taste and appearance this dish would be to what we currently know as Carne o Pollo Guisado.

The recipe goes as follows:

Desplumados y limpios, se cortan en cuartos y se ponen en una cazuela al fuego con 2 onzas de manteca , tres cebollas partidas en cuartos, cinco dientes de ajo machacados, un poco de orégano, un poco de vinagre, especias finas, un poco de vino seco y sal, cuando esté medio cocido se le echa ajíes encurtidos, y se deja a fuego lento, hasta que esté blando, y entonces se puede servir.

(Defeathered and clean, cut in quarts and put them in a pot with 2 ounces of lard, 3 onions cut in quarts, 5 cloves of garlic smashed, a little of oregano, a little of vinegar, fine spices, a little of dry wine and salt, when it’s half done add peppers, and lower heat, until soft, and then it can be served). (1859: 77 )

The first challenge and the biggest one was to find fresh live chickens to de-feather. I decided to substitute the live chickens with some great Nature’s Promises Chicken Thighs, and used butter instead of the lard . The rest of the ingredients I had available at home since they are basic ingredients in everyday recipes I cook at home. The instructions were simple to me because that’s the way I learned how to cook. That’s what we call “a ojo,” which means that you more or less play with the quantity of ingredients, until you reach the flavor or consistency of whatever dish you are making, but for a person that has no experience in the kitchen, the recipe can be vague because it does not give a time frame. It doesn’t specify how many chickens the recipe calls for. So I calculated the amount of chicken, based on the quantity of onions and garlic that the recipe called for. The fine spices are not identified. What are “fine spices”? Are those spices that only the people with a social status could afford? So I decided that my fine spices were fresh Thyme, Rosemary, and Saffron.

During the process of cooking, I think the most difficult part was that the chicken was colorless. So I added a little bit of tomato sauce because I thought it was too pale. Most of our national food is colorful: habichuelas guisadas, mofongos, arroz mamposteao. The color of the chicken made me a little bit sad.  Call me crazy, but I could not just bring chicken to class. Where have you heard about eating just chicken? Not in Puerto Rico. So I also did a little bit of rice and beans to serve with the chicken.

I really enjoyed this project because it gave me the opportunity to have the hands-on experience with the dishes that the past people of Puerto Rico ate, with the limited technology available at the time. It was also a way not just to connect me with my people in this difficult time for the island, but also a way to present my culture to my fellow classmates.

Bibliographical Reference:

“El Cocinero Puerto-riqueño O Formulario Para Confeccionar Toda Clase De …” Google Books. Accessed October 17, 2017.


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