Every time she cooks, Maria Morales adds Puerto Rican flair to the meal.
"It might be the rice, the meats, the spices, the sides," she said.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Maria said the cooking is similar to Creole with a tropical flair using a variety of meats, vegetables and seasonings.
Maria moved to the Chicago area six years ago and now lives in Mount Prospect where she lives with her wife, Farah, and their 10-year-old twins. One of her biggest fans is Farah.
"If you have never tried a full Puerto Rican spread, it is magic in your mouth and belly," Farah said. "The food is delightfully filled with flavor and an abundance of love. Any family will enjoy it and the recipes are easy enough for anyone to follow. You can also add your own flavor and pizazz to each dish."
One food Maria grew up eating with every meal was rice, she said adding, "even at school lunch, we were served rice and beans." Thankfully she learned to make it perfectly watching her mother and grandmother. "You know it's a Puerto Rican household because we serve rice with everything," she said.
A staple now is arroz con gandules or rice with pigeon peas, which is considered Puerto Rico's national dish. The rice and peas are combined with sofrito, an aromatic purée of tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, onions and garlic. Maria also likes to add olives and piquillo peppers.
Because rice is frequently on the table, Maria remembers the tips her mother gave her to make perfect rice. Always add one extra cup of liquid. The other half to the secret, she said, is to cook the rice on high heat until all the liquid is absorbed and then reduce the heat to low and cover it.
"I don't mess with the recipe. It's always stayed the same. My friends come over and they say they know it's going to be good every time. They will enjoy the same taste," she said.
The rice once started a friendly competition between Maria and her sister at a party as to who could cook the dish better. Both of them made a batch of rice to serve to the guests.
"I kept peeking in the kitchen and seeing the rice in my bowl go down faster than hers all the way to the bottom. I think people even scraped the bottom of the pan actually," she said.
Like the abstract graffiti-style art Maria paints and adorns her home, her cooking is freestyle. One dish she decided to make her own is chicken fricassee, a French stew which she started preparing with wine and has experimented with beer, vodka and rum. Sometimes her inspiration strays from Puerto Rican into Italian. A desire for chicken Alfredo with spaghetti turned into a chicken Alfredo lasagna mixed with broccoli.
"My family has never complained. They always eat everything up," she said.
To add a kick to steak, Maria makes her own barbecue sauce. While reluctant to share too much information, she gives up her secret with a chuckle: the sauce is ketchup and Coca Cola.
"You can add a little more ketchup or add some garlic, however you like to spice up your food," she said.
Just as it was when Maria grew up with her mother and grandmother, Maria loves to create a kitchen full of flavor and love when she cooks whether it's for Farah's co-workers or her family.
"It's always a party in the kitchen," she said.
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