If you're not familiar with Puerto Rican food, you're in for a treat, and this arroz con gandules recipe is a great place to start! With a side of plantains, you'll have a plate of serious comfort food.￼
The flavors of modern Puerto Rican cuisine have African, Spanish, and native Taíno influences, and utilize local fruits and vegetables. If you like garlic, cilantro, and flavorful, savory dishes, you'll love delving into this Caribbean cuisine. While Puerto Rican food is very meat (specifically pork—watch out for stray ham and chicharrones) heavy in general, there's a slice of the cuisine that's very vegan friendly—good ol' rice and beans.
When I visit Puerto Rico, rice and beans with a side of plantains is my go-to meal unless I'm specifically going to a vegan restaurant. And in cities like San Juan, there's vegan restaurants a plenty with a wider variety of options.
Arroz con gandules (or rice with pigeon peas) is a Puerto Rican rice served on or around Christmas, but you can order it at restaurants year round. The dish is fresh and flavorful from all of the fresh herbs, garlic, and peppers in the cooking base (sofrito) that is added to the rice.
The rice gets its color from the tomato sauce and spices (in this case, a packet of Goya Sazón). Sometimes pieces of sausage or ham are added along with the pigeon peas. Since that's only an option, I kept mine vegan ham free.
What is sofrito?
Sofrito is a flavorful cooking base made from fresh herbs, garlic, various peppers, onion, and depending on the type of sofrito, tomatoes. It's a staple ingredient in many places around the world, including Spain, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Italy.
Each country has a different type of sofrito with different flavors. It's typically added to rice, soup, beans, and other dishes and is a step as essential as sautéing your garlic and onions. Sofrito is a "secret" ingredient that will take the flavor of your dish from 0 to 100 with very little effort (once you have it, of course).
Make sure to use Puerto Rican sofrito
For arroz con gandules, we want to use Puerto Rican sofrito, or recaito, which is green. Recaito is another, more specific way to describe green Puerto Rican sofrito that contains culantro (or "recao", another word for culantro) vs the red tomato-based version. So technically recaito is the correct word, but sofrito is a more familiar term, so I'm using both terms interchangeably. The color comes from the abundant amount of cilantro, culantro, and peppers in the cooking base.
I usually make this homemade Puerto Rican sofrito recipe from Latina Mom Meals, which is absolutely delicious. I make a big batch and freeze it in ice cube trays so that I can pop out a cube of sofrito whenever I need some for a dish!
What is culantro?
Culantro and cilantro belong to the same family, but they are totally different plants with different flavors. Culantro is fresh and herbal tasting, with a citrus flavor. Depending on where you live, it's not the easiest fresh herb to find. I get mine at a store called Tony's Fresh Market, but you may have success finding it at a Mexican or Asian market (I've seen it at Korean supermarket H Mart, which has locations around the US).
If you absolutely cannot find it, you can replace with cilantro, but please note the flavor will be a little different. My recipe calls for a packet of Sazón that contains culantro so you'll at least get a little bit of culantro flavor.
What are aji dulce peppers?
These tiny little multicolored peppers look like habaneros*, but as the name suggests, they are sweet and not spicy at all. This is another ingredient that may be tricky to find depending on where you live. If you can't find them, replace 8-10 aji dulce peppers with 1 green bell pepper.
*Do not accidentally use habaneros! In the quantity called for, everything will be spicy forever.
Homemade or storebought?
That's up to you! I would go for homemade if you can because homemade sofrito is always going to be fresher tasting. If you can't find the ingredients to make sofrito, buying it at the store will make the recipe super easy.
If I am using store bought sofrito, I use Goya Recaito with Culantro. Please note the salt content and flavor concentration between homemade and store bought sofrito is usually drastically different*, so adjust the amount accordingly as noted in the recipe below.
*The sofrito recipe I use from Latina Mom Meals above does not call for any salt, whereas the Goya Recaito contains 35mg sodium per teaspoon.
I know that the sofrito Q&A made the recipe sound super complicated, but once you have a big batch of sofrito (make sure to freeze some!) this recipe is SO easy to make. It requires minimal chopping (just some fresh garlic), and comes together in 30 mins flat with one pot.
Get the recipe:
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 4-5 cloves garlic, minced
- ½-1 cup sofrito, depending if using homemade or from jar (see note)
- 2 cups medium-grain white rice
- ½-1 packet Sazón with achiote and culantro, or equivalent homemade spice blend (see note)
- ⅓ cup tomato sauce
- 4 cups vegan chickenless broth
- 1 15 ounce can gandules, (green pigeon peas
- Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a caldero if you have one. If not, use a large soup pot or Dutch oven.
- Add the garlic and saute for 20-30 seconds, then pour in the sofrito. Cook, stirring frequently, for about 5-6 minutes. It will be very fragrant.
- Meanwhile, rinse your rice in a strainer or in a bowl with cool water, until the water runs clear. Set aside. This will remove some of the starch off of the rice so it will be fluffier and won’t stick or clump together as much.
- Add the Sazón and tomato sauce to the sofrito, and stir until thoroughly mixed in.
- Add your rice, stirring to coat with the sofrito mixture, then slowly pour in the water or broth. Add the pigeon peas, stirring in gently.
- Bring the rice to a simmer, then turn the heat to low, cover, and let cook for 15 minutes. Do not stir.
- Leave the top on the pot for 5 more minutes, then open and fluff with a fork before serving.
- If you are making homemade sofrito, use ¾-1 cup sofrito and 1 packet of Sazón in this recipe. If you are using store bought sofrito, only use ½ cup sofrito and ½ packet Sazón, The salt content of store bought sofrito is much higher than homemade and can make the dish too salty when combined with Sazón.
- Make sure you make or buy the right kind of sofrito. Puerto Rican sofrito (or "recaito") is a blend of onions, garlic, several types of peppers, cilantro, and culantro, and it’s green in color. There is also a tomato-based red sofrito used in Spanish cooking, but it’s not the same thing.
- Homemade sofrito tastes best, but if you don’t live in an area where you can find ingredients like culantro and ají dulce peppers, you can buy jarred or frozen sofrito. Goya Recaito with Culantro is what I use and it's pretty widely available.
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Nutrition Information:Yield: 6 Serving Size: 1 cup
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 313Total Fat: 8gSaturated Fat: 1gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 3gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 495mgCarbohydrates: 46gFiber: 7gSugar: 3gProtein: 15g
All nutritional information presented within this site are intended for informational purposes only. I am not a certified nutritionist and any nutritional information on seitanbeatsyourmeat.com should only be used as a general guideline. This information is provided as a courtesy and there is no guarantee that the information will be completely accurate. Even though I try to provide accurate nutritional information to the best of my ability, these figures should still be considered estimates.
Interested in more about Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican food?
Check out my San Juan travel blogs!