LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
What do you get when you marry Puerto Rican spice with Southern comfort food? "Coconuts And Collards" is Von Diaz's new cookbook, which combines the flavors of her childhood in the American South with her Puerto Rican heritage. And she says the idea began with her grandmother's 1962 copy of "Cocina Criolla."
VON DIAZ: "Cocina Criolla" in Puerto Rico is considered by a lot of people to be kind of the Puerto Rican "Joy Of Cooking."
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how did you use it?
DIAZ: This book really came as a result of a project that I started four years ago - kind of "Julie & Julia" style to cook my way through that cookbook. It was, as you said, my grandmother's copy. I really wanted to use kind of this quest through the book as a way to connect to her and the way that she had learned to cook. And I found fairly quickly that while the dishes that I was making out of the book were, you know, really rife with nostalgia, and they were certainly delicious, they felt really outdated and sort of very heavy, very greasy preparations. And so I started to instead use it as a guide for evolving cooking techniques and dishes that were kind of similar to those dishes but a little bit more upgraded and also included some fusion, for lack of a better term, of the places that I had grown up and lived.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like you to take me back to your grandmother's kitchen. She seemed like someone who loved cooking and loved reading about food.
DIAZ: Absolutely. I mean, my grandmother, who, in many ways, is my culinary muse, was an incredible cook. I mean, she was the kind of cook that people would coincidentally show up at her house. They were sort of just passing through the neighborhood and would walk in her front door, kind of sniffing the air to see what was going on. And so when I was a little kid, my mom several times sent me to Puerto Rico to spend the entire summer with her. And during those trips, I would inevitably end up in her kitchen, watching her cook. And so she started to give me little tasks.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You had a very different experience, though, in the United States when you were living in Georgia. You describe having food insecurity in the United States. As a child, you sort of cared for your younger sister. It was just a very different experience.
DIAZ: Yeah, definitely. I feel like in many ways, you know, my grandmother was this very sophisticated, very gourmet cook in her own right. And my mother is a very good cook, but because of the circumstances of our life working as a single mom and also having some real financial hardships off and on, we ended up just having really limited ingredients in our household. And my mom is an incredible innovator when it comes to the kitchen. And so she was always figuring out these little ways to make very little food super delicious.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mix these two legacies of the southern United States and Puerto Rico. I want you to talk me through your Brussels sprout recipe, which is not something that we normally eat down south, you know, in the Caribbean.
DIAZ: So my grandmother, for whatever reason - she had a really interesting, really unusual taste for vegetables.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we should say that Puerto Rican food, Cuban food doesn't - not a lot of vegetables there.
DIAZ: Exactly - my grandmother - all she had access to, at least when my mom was a kid, were frozen Brussels sprouts, which she was forever trying to get my mom and my uncle and my aunt to eat. She would put sofrito on them. She would put olive oil and garlic. And they didn't like them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should say sofrito is the staple...
DIAZ: Exactly. Sofrito is the flavor base of almost all Puerto Rican food. So it's typically garlic, onion, pepper, culantro or cilantro. And you blend it into a spice paste. And so ultimately, what I did was combine what is a really traditional way of preparing Brussels sprouts in the South, which is to either saute them or roast them with some kind of pork fat and instead use chorizo, which is more traditionally used in Puerto Rico and also references that Spanish root to Puerto Rican food. And so I combined all of those ingredients as a way to say, you know, Tata (ph) if you had had access to these ingredients in this way, you might have come up with this yourself.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to talk a little bit about what Puerto Rico has been going through recently. You've been in touch with many people in Puerto Rico's food world. What have they been telling you about how the island is coping now and how that's really affecting the way people are eating there?
DIAZ: You know, I think it's really been a struggle. In the fourth chapter of "Coconuts And Collards," I talk a lot about an incredible chef named Berto (ph). And his entire community has actually been without power since Hurricane Irma. My cousin who's on the island has told me that, interestingly, because of the lack of power and also lack of access to things like meat, a lot of people have kind of gone vegan. So they're eating more of the fresh produce that grows naturally on the island and innovating.
And I know that for me, when I cook Puerto Rican food lately, I do it a little bit differently. I was making a stock the other day and realized that I had an entire container of rock salt from Cabo Rojo, which is on the southwest tip of the island. And when I put that salt into my stock, it felt different than it had before. It felt like I was honoring my island and continuing to celebrate its cuisines and to hope for recovery and that people would make it through.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Von Diaz is a writer and a radio producer based in New York. Her new cookbook is "Coconuts And Collards." (Speaking Spanish).
DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.