“Diaz grew up shuttled between Puerto Rico and Atlanta, and her appreciation for both cultures and their rich culinary histories is showcased in this delightful collection of Puerto Rican comfort food recipes. . . . Alongside the recipes, Diaz also shares stories from her family history, an often tumultuous one grounded by memories of food prepared by and for loved ones. . . . The recipes are solid and imaginative, but it’s Diaz’s gift for storytelling that shines.”—Publishers Weekly
“Diaz stirs together the right amount of memoir with a hefty sprinkling of delightful recipes. She evokes powerful memories and conjures the spirits of the women who taught her to find strength and perseverance through food. A delicious read that will both touch you deeply and inspire you all the way to your kitchen.”—Sandra A. Gutierrez, author of The New Southern-Latino Table
“A moving, touching, and deeply personal culinary journey weaving family stories and insights from a multicultural angle, the one many Latinos share in very unique ways. From classic Puerto Rican flavors adapted to the Deep South and vice versa, to clever inventiveness out of necessity, this book offers a fresh perspective into Boricua cooking and the individual role food plays in the life of every American-Latino living in the U.S. yearning for their roots.”—Amalia Moreno-Damgaard, author of Amalia’s Guatemalan Kitchen
“Diaz takes you on her journey from her family kitchen in Atlanta to her grandmother’s kitchen in Puerto Rico. A deeply personal and moving story of family, heartbreak, sacrifice, and love.” —Cynthia Nelson, author of Tastes Like Home: My Caribbean Cookbook
“As much a memoir as a cookbook. Von Diaz takes us on a soul-baring journey through her kitchen. You’ll finish with a deeper understanding of Puerto Rican food and a hunger for more.” —Ana Sofía Peláez, author of The Cuban Table: A Celebration of Food, Flavors, and History
“So many of Von’s stories are so vivid and detail-rich that they transported me to my childhood in Puerto Rico.”—Wilo Benet, chef-owner, Pikayo
“Diaz tells heartbreaking, funny, and edifying stories about food, family, and the island that she loves.”—Luis Jaramillo, author of The Doctor’s Wife
“A culinary tale richly woven with sofrito and a side of Southern grits.”—Janet Keeler, former food and travel editor, Tampa Bay Times
When her family moved from Puerto Rico to Atlanta, Von Diaz traded plantains, roast pork, and malta for grits, fried chicken, and sweet tea. Brimming with humor and nostalgia, Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South is a recipe-packed memoir of growing up Latina in the Deep South.
The stories center on the women in Diaz’s family who have used food to nourish and care for one another. When her mother—newly single and with two young daughters—took a second job to make ends meet, Diaz taught herself to cook, preparing meals for her sister after school, feeding her mother when she came home late from work. During summer visits to Puerto Rico, her grandmother guided her rediscovery of the island’s flavors and showed her traditional cooking techniques. Years later the island called her back to its warm and tropical embrace to be comforted by its familiar flavors.
Inspired by her grandmother’s 1962 copy of Cocina Criolla—the Puerto Rican equivalent of the Joy of Cooking—Coconuts and Collards celebrates traditional recipes while fusing them with Diaz’s own family history and a contemporary Southern flair. Diaz discovers the connections between the food she grew up eating in Atlanta and the African and indigenous influences in so many Puerto Rican dishes. The funche recipe is grits kicked up with coconut milk. White beans make the catfish corn chowder creamy and give it a Spanish feel. The pinchos de pollo—chicken skewers—feature guava BBQ sauce, which doubles as the sauce for adobo-coated ribs. The pastelón is shepherd’s pie . . . with sweet plantains. And the quingombo recipe would be recognized as stewed okra in any Southern kitchen, even if it is laced with warm and aromatic sofrito.
Diaz innovates for modern palates, updating and lightening recipes and offering vegetarian alternatives. For the chayotes rellenos (stuffed squash), she suggests replacing the picadillo (sautéed ground beef) with seitan or tofu. She offers alternatives for difficult-to-find ingredients, like substituting potatoes for yucca and yautía—root vegetables typically paired with a meat to make sancocho. Diaz’s version of this hearty stew features chicken and lean pork.
And because every good Puerto Rican meal ends with drinks, desserts, and dancing, Diaz includes recipes for besitos de coco (coconut kisses), rum cake, sofrito bloody marys, and anticuado, an old-fashioned made with rum.
With stunning photographs that showcase the geographic diversity of the island and the vibrant ingredients that make up Puerto Rican cuisine, this cookbook is a moving story about discovering our roots through the foods that comfort us. It is about the foods that remind us of family and help us bridge childhood and adulthood, island and mainland, birthplace and adopted home.
Von Diaz is a writer and radio producer based in New York. Her work has been featured on NPR, American Public Media, StoryCorps, WNYC, The Splendid Table, PRI’s The World, The Kitchn, and BuzzFeed.
In this interview Von Diaz talks about her new book and her relationship with food growing up.
Your mom often worked very long hours to provide for you and your sister. Out of necessity, you took over the cooking responsibilities of the household. How did this environment influence your cooking style later on in life?
In my house, we always had enough to eat. But the ingredients we had ebbed and flowed depending on our weekly budget. On the toughest weeks, we had $50 for groceries for me, Mami, and my sister, Kristina. And so I became infinitely scrappy in my cooking. I experimented with spices, which were sometimes great (garlic mashed box-potatoes), and sometimes not so great (spaghetti with mustard and Italian seasoning). I definitely learned to make do with limited ingredients, but I also learned about basic food pairings and how to layer flavors.
All throughout the book you highlight the women who have given you and others comfort by cooking for them. Why do you think food is inherently something that comforts us when we need it most?
For most people, being fed by your mothers is among your first experiences.
Food is one of the most universal ways that people care for one another, and
thereby becomes layered with memories of those who prepare our meals. The connection I feel to food and eating is intimately connected to my family and to the island we came from.
What is your fondest memory of cooking?
One of my fondest memories was cooking with my grandmother in Puerto Rico when I was eleven. That summer, she started teaching me how to cook well. I had some basics under my belt, but she took me on a journey full of new discoveries. First, she let me make mojo caliente, a warm sauce made by mashing garlic and salt in a pilón, or wooden mortar and pestle. Together we brought olive oil to a low simmer and she showed me how to carefully pour the oil into the pilón; garlic sizzled, filling the air with its smell and that of seasoned wood. We added lime juice and black pepper and saved it for dinner when we’d pour it over yucca or dip in some bread. I still prepare this sauce the same way.
What is the hardest part about merging Puerto Rican and Southern cuisines together?
Caribbean food and Southern food are incredibly easy to merge because of their shared African culinary roots. In many ways, the Southern/Puerto Rican recipes I include in Coconuts and Collards are recipes that happen to be nearly identical in both cultures. Funche de coco (coconut grits), quingombo guisado (stewed okra), fried chicken — all have nearly identical preparations in both cultures, switched up with subtle shifts in seasoning.
Your grandmother played an important role in your love for cooking. Which of her dishes has been your favorite to recreate?
Boliche—a beef eye of round stuffed with chorizo and vegetables—was one
of Tata’s classics and among my mother’s favorites as a child. I never had the opportunity to try her version, so I adapted my recipes based on my mom’s memory of how it tasted. It’s fairly difficult to prepare—definitely a dish for special occasions, but the one I was proudest to get right.
Do you have a go-to dish you crave whenever you go back to Puerto Rico?
Deep-fried snacks such as alcapurrias (stuffed with picadillo) and bacalaítos (salt cod fritters) from roadside kioskos near the beach. I never learned to cook these foods, because it would be too dangerous to have them in my home…
How did you decide which recipes to include in your book?
The recipes in this cookbook are all ones that I deeply enjoy cooking, and include variations on traditional dishes I grew up eating alongside new ones inspired by those same flavors and techniques. I also wanted to ensure that the recipes were approachable for people with varied levels of cooking experience.
What is the most important piece of advice you have when it comes to cooking?
Start by learning to cook dishes you really love to eat.
Which recipes from this book would you suggest starting with for those new to cooking?
Coconut braised collards, picadillo, and tembleque (the variation with canned coconut milk).
What project are you working on next?
I plan to dedicate time this summer to contributing to rebuilding efforts on the island and finding ways to tell the stories of Puerto Ricans who’ve had to relocate to the U.S. mainland.