Thursday, October 16, 2008

Veggie Might: Sazon, Adobo, Recaito, and the Real Debate—MSG vs. Elbow Grease

Written by the fabulous Leigh, Veggie Might is a regular Thursday feature about all things Vegetarian.

Last week, I told you a tale of anniversaries, faulty plumbing, and PR beans and rice. So much has happened since. Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up: the recipe I shared was chock full of MSG, and now I feel bad about it.

I was pretty sure the sazon packets were full of the stuff, but there it was in the recaíto too. Sigh. Not having it. Plus, I figured I could make it cheaper with spices from my pantry and a few veggies.

Here’s how it all went down. To duplicate the Nuyorican bean recipe in true CHG style, I needed recipes for sazon, recaíto, and adobo (the adobo is MSG-free, but while I’m at it...): common spice mixtures in Puerto Rican and Caribbean cooking. Enter the magic of the Internet.

Via the blog Literanista, I found (along with some info about the evils of MSG) a fairly uncomplicated sazón recipe that called for roasted whole cumin seeds and black peppercorns, but offered a use-what-you have version. I used ground cumin and ground black pepper to save myself a trip to the store and wasn’t sorry.

The sazón I normally buy comes con culantro (coriander) y achiote (annatto—a pepper spice and a food coloring), so for this recipe, I replaced the oregano with coriander, let the black pepper sub for the achiote (though I’ll miss the cosmic orange glow), and cut the salt in half.

Adapted from; makes about 3/4 cup

2 tbsp black pepper
2 tbsp ground cumin
2 tbsp coriander
1/4 cup salt, coarse (kosher or sea) salt
2 tbsp garlic powder

Instructions: Mix all spices together and store in an airtight container.

Next up, Chow offered a pungent, salt-free adobo recipe. I changed nothing (except for going generic on the chili powder and oregano), and it came out smelling great. I have nothing to add (can you believe it?). So simple.

Adapted from; makes about 1 cup

1/4 cup sweet paprika
3 tbsp ground black pepper
2 tbsp onion powder
2 tbsp dried oregano
2 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tbsp garlic powder

Instructions: Mix all spices together and store in an airtight container.

The troika was complete with a recaíto recipe from Freddie. I did a little due diligence and discovered it was on target, though there are those who feel if you don’t have recao leaves, you needn’t bother. I promise, Cuca, when I find recao I’ll use it and never look back.

I used the “best” recipe with the parsley adaptation, and was able to use the two baby green peppers from my second-to-last CSA score of the season. Adorable.

Adapted from; makes about 4 oz

1/2 small green pepper (I used two tiny green peppers that equaled 1/2 cup)
1/2 medium yellow onion
2 cloves of garlic
1/4 tsp of black pepper
2 sprigs of fresh cilantro
1 sprig of parsley

Instructions: Chop up all ingredients and whir in a food processor for 1 minute or until consistency resembles oatmeal.

Once I had all my revamped ingredients, I was suddenly apprehensive. This is one of my tried-and-true recipes, and I was about to Effie it up.

I made two batches, subbing my spice combos in the same measurements (1 pkt of sazón
= 1 tsp) for the second pot of beans. It seemed to work. Both tasted good in their respective pots.

But the best way for me to judge was to eat the two dishes side-by-side the next day, after the flavors had a chance to meld. Woo! Two lunches! (Side bar: my suddenly eco-friendly office provides disposable plates made of sugarcane fiber [see pic] and recycled plastic utensils in the cafeteria. Pretty neato.)

The most noticeable difference was that the au naturale version was less orange. Not a bad change. It was also less salty, but in a bland kind of way. I added just a dash of salt and voila! It was a match. Amazing how that works. Whole, natural ingredients win over highly processed chemical compounds once again.

And it all came out cheaper too. I mostly went dollar/discount store on these spices, because that’s how I roller skate. No McCormick up in here. As Kris and Daniel have pointed out recently, the grocery-store spice trade is a scam.

The homemade sazón came out to 80 cents for about 4 oz. when a box of 8 packets (1.41 oz) runs between $1.00 and $1.49 in my neighborhood. Adobo is considerably cheaper—you can get dollar store versions for, well, a dollar, but the Goya brand is around $3.79 for 8 oz. Still, the much more flavorful Chow adaptation only cost $1.10 for 4 oz.

On the recaíto, I broke even. The last jar of Goya I bought cost $2.49 for 12 oz. Freddie’s recipe came in at exactly $2.49 when I did the math: 4 oz. x 83 cents = $2.49. A touch disappointing, but it’s so worth the cost to use fresh ingredients and to be sin the MSG.

So there you have it: cheap, healthy (for real this time), and oh so good. And I didn’t Effie up my tried-and-true; it just got better.


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