For Mildred Yantin, cooking is her connection to family.
"Everyone’s laughing and joking … just hearing all that commotion going on in the kitchen, smelling all that you're about to eat — that’s the part that I enjoy," she says.
Yantin is now a Milwaukee resident, but her roots are in New York. Her parents are Puerto Rican. She was born in Spanish Harlem and raised in the Bronx. A self-described “New York Rican,” Yantin vividly recalls the outdoor markets she frequented as a child.
“That’s where we used to go. It’s called La Marqueta. The food was all outside. The vendor’s fruits and vegetables and their meat, sometimes, are sitting on ice right there on display," she explains.
Rice and beans are the foundation of Yantin’s food memories.
"My mom was a housewife, so by the time I came home from school dinner was done … it was the rice, beans, and," she recalls. "Even our friends used to always make fun of us like, 'What are you eating? Rice, beans, and? What’s the and today?' Cause they knew we were having rice and beans."
In addition to rice and beans, Yantin says green bananas play an integral role in Puerto Rican cuisine.
“The green banana is not sweet so it has to be cooked in order to eat it. And if you ever have pastelillos (Puerto Rican meat pies) that’s the main ingredient," she explains.
Yantin pairs green bananas with fish or meat. She says it’s also her go-to seasoning for a delicious chicken soup.
“If you made a chicken noodle soup and you take and you grind this and put some seasoning on it, garlic powder or onion powder, it’ll taste like pastelillos in your soup," she says.
For Family Recipes, Yantin shares her version of viandas con bacalao (root vegetables with salt cod). Yantin adds tomatoes and generous amounts of garlic and olive oil to her version of viandas con bacalao. It’s a dish that’s rooted in her culture, her family, and her own personal history.
“I didn’t like it as a child, but I’ve grown to love it, to miss it, and I keep perfecting it as I go on," she says.
Mildred Yantin's Viandas con Bacalao (Root vegetables with salt cod)
Step 1: In a pot, boil an assortment of your favorite prepared root vegetables such as yuca, malanga, potatoes, and squash with plantains and green bananas in salted water until soft.
Step 2: Rinse, then boil the dried salt cod. Drain the boiled cod to remove excess salt and then boil again.
Set aside the twice boiled cod while you sauté the following in a little bit of olive oil:
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 4 cloves roasted garlic, minced
- 4 sliced tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon achiote oil (Heat some achiote seeds in oil or bacon fat until the seeds pop and the oil turns a beautiful dark orange color. Any leftover oil can also be used to garnish the final completed dish.)
- 1 tablespoon homemade sofrito (Sofrito is a sauce that's used as a base for cooking in many cultures. The most common ingredients for Puerto Rican sofrito include bell peppers, onion, garlic, culando, and ají dulce, which is a variety of sweet peppers. You can also buy it at the store.)
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
Step 3: Add the twice-boiled salt cod and cook until hot. Mix in 3 scrambled eggs. Once the eggs are cooked, pour in a generous amount of olive oil and then garnish with chopped avocado. Serve on top of the viandas.
Editor's note: Family Recipes is produced by Lucien Jung, a long time contributor to Lake Effect. In Family Recipes, Lucien visits the kitchens of Milwaukee-area residents as they prepare special family dishes they remember from childhood.