The Family Table: In My Father’s Rice and Beans, a Celebration of Home, Family, and ‘A Love That Remains’

Readers share their treasured recipes
April 9, 2021 Updated: April 14, 2021

Submitted by Cara Colon-McLauchlan, Raleigh, North Carolina

Rice and beans meant home to my dad. No matter the occasion, they were his way of celebrating the place he knew and longed for always.

As a child, I grew up listening to the stories of tenacity from his homeland of Puerto Rico. His memories of losing everything during the Great Depression and selling food in the streets were hard to imagine as an ordinary American kid. For him, banding together as a family wasn’t simply a nice idea, it meant survival. Each sibling before him worked hard, saved money to go to college, then found a job in order to send money home for the next one to do the same. This pattern repeated over and over until it was his turn, the youngest child of nine children.

My dad left Puerto Rico in the 1950s to attend medical school in Philadelphia. Going against his family’s wishes and the politics of the country, my father gave up all he fiercely loved—family and home.

Epoch Times Photo
The author’s father, Cesar Colon-Bonet, as a medical student at Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, winter of 1954. (Courtesy of Cara Colon-McLauchlan)

But even when my father was dying and in his late 80s, his understanding of family held an unfathomable depth. No matter his state of health, he always mustered the energy to make rice and beans for my visits home. It was the buoyant remnant of a far-flung place and the hope he carried with him always. It was his way of sharing something with us that was more than food, but a love that only lately have I fully understood.

On the surface, rice and beans is a truly humble dish, yet deeply personal. Even among my four siblings, we cannot agree on the subtleties. In fact, as I was composing this recipe with them, they all vehemently chimed in with their own absolutes. Rice and beans are a vast legacy and taken seriously by all of us.

It starts with a sofrito—the basic preparation of foundational elements in Latin American cooking. This typically includes a combination of onion, garlic, tomato, and salt pork or bacon. My dad’s favorite way to make Puerto Rican rice was by cooking it to the point of forming an extra crispy, almost burnt layer on the bottom for texture. This was achieved by adding a generous amount of oil at the end, and cooking it undisturbed for an additional 30 minutes on low heat. This crispy bottom layer is called “pegao,” meaning “stuck” in Spanish. This was the best part and always fought over in our family.

Epoch Times Photo
The author’s father, Cesar Colon-Bonet, and sister, Denise Colon-Bonet, preparing the family feast together in the spring of 1979. (Courtesy of Cara Colon-McLauchlan)

My dad passed away in April 2020, during the peak of COVID, at age 90. I find it ironic and tragic that a small-town doctor who saved countless lives was unable to have a moment to celebrate his one incredible life. But in many ways, he was just like the dish he loved to share. Humble. Deeply personal. Passing away in a pandemic would have been exactly his style, preferring to quietly tuck away and not make a fuss.

Now, each time I make rice and beans, I celebrate him. My hands fall into a satisfying rhythm of chopping and assembling the ingredients. I take my time; it is a dish best prepared in a slow, puttering state. By not rushing things, the ingredients are given proper time to bloom and fully ripen together. For my father, he wasn’t just giving us a meal; he was showing us home. He was reliving the beauty of a faraway island and he wanted us to see it at its very best. This meal deserved preparation with a sense of sacredness and care.

As I make it now, I’m reminded of his deep love of home and family. I make this dish partly because it connects me to a place and a culture, but more to honor a love that remains. It remains despite living far from my childhood home, despite my own family looking vastly different than his from Puerto Rico, and despite my father no longer cooking on this side of heaven. I make this dish and I honor him. In this way, I am reminded of his ability to demonstrate family and love as always what you make it. In this way, home is never far away.

Rice and Beans
The author’s father’s rice and beans, along with her favorite photo of her father. It includes a sweet inscription to his parents, sent with letters home in 1955. (Courtesy of Cara Colon-McLauchlan)

My Father’s Puerto Rican Rice and Beans

This recipe is dedicated to my father, Dr. Cesar Colon-Bonet, and the Colon siblings, who provided extensive input—Denise Colon-Bonet, Ivan Colon, Glenn Colon-Bonet, William Colon, and Cara Colon-McLauchlan.

Like all good recipes, it serves as a reflection of the deeply personal nature of family and should be adapted to your own personal family tastes and style.

Serves 8 to 10

For the Puerto Rican Beans 

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 6 strips bacon, diced
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/8 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 tomato, roughly chopped
  • 2 cans kidney, pinto, or pink beans, 15.5 ounces each, rinsed
  • Additional liquid for moisture: 1/2 cup broth, 1/2 cup water, or 1/2 can unsweetened coconut milk, in true Caribbean tradition
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

For the Puerto Rican Rice 

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus optional 1/4 cup
  • 6 strips bacon, diced
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/8 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 tomato, roughly chopped
  • 2 to 3 sazón seasoning packets, to taste
  • 3 cups medium- to short-grain rice, rinsed
  • 3 cups water
  • 1/4 cup sliced Spanish olives stuffed with pimentos, rinsed (optional)
  • Salt, to taste
  • Cilantro for garnish (optional)

For the Puerto Rican Beans

Start with making the sofrito by frying the bacon in the 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat in a deep saucepan until brown. Drain off excess oil, leaving 2 to 3 tablespoons in the pan.

Reduce heat to medium, add onion and garlic, and cook gently until soft and translucent. Add oregano.

Remove from heat and stir in tomatoes. Return the pan to the stove over medium heat for an additional minute, until combined.

Rinse beans and add to pan. Simmer gently for 20 minutes over low-medium heat, stirring occasionally. As beans simmer, add liquid to keep moist.

Check seasonings. Serve with Puerto Rican rice.

For the Puerto Rican Rice

Heat the olive oil on medium-high heat in a deep pot. Start by making the sofrito by cooking the bacon over medium-high heat until lightly browned. Drain off excess oil, leaving 2 to 3 tablespoons in the pot.

Add the onion, garlic, and oregano and sauté until soft and onion is translucent.

Add tomato and continue cooking for an additional minute until combined.

Add one sazón packet for seasoning. Add the rice and stir to coat, 1 to 2 minutes.

Add the water and bring to a boil. Once boiling, cover and reduce the heat to low, and cook for 30 minutes or until liquid is absorbed and rice has become fluffy.

Optional: If you like an extra-crispy bottom layer for the rice, or “pegao,” which means “stuck,” add an extra 1/4 cup olive oil or bacon drippings and continue cooking over low, covered and undisturbed, for 15 to 20 minutes, until a lightly browned and crispy layer forms.

Remove from heat, fluff rice with fork, and check seasonings. Adjust seasoning by adding additional sazón packets or salt as needed. Add rinsed Spanish olives, if using, and any other personal touches.

Leave lid half-covered until ready to serve or re-heat. Garnish with cilantro.

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