MAYBE WHEN? you think of Puerto Rican food, you think of staples like rice and beans or lechón (roast pork). But according to chef Wilo Benet, a certain flavor combination defines his island’s cuisine: “The fusion of sweet and savory reveals itself more often than has been officially recognized or discussed.” For example, a traditional piñon combines beef and sweet plantains in a tasty casserole. A popular breakfast sandwich piles eggs, ham and cheese on sweet Mallorcan bread dusted with powdered sugar. In the new book by Mr. Benet, “Salty Sweet” (May 18, New Hills), the chef explores this irresistible combination in Puerto Rican cuisine and places it in the context of other world cuisines.
Over four decades, Mr. Benet guided him from Le Bernardin in New York City to the governor’s mansion in San Juan and his own Pikayo, one of the island’s best reserves for 28 years. His current restaurant, Wilo Eatery & Bar in Guaynabo, a suburb of San Juan, became a pandemic hit with a combination of grab-and-go and alfresco dining, as well as a spacious modern dining room and innovative craft cocktail bar. There Mr. Benet fully expresses his penchant for what he calls “the most satisfying and complete flavor profile.” He recently welcomed us into his home kitchen to get a glimpse of how he finds that salty-sweet balance every day.
The first thing people notice in my kitchen at home is: the very large stainless steel kitchen table in the center of the room. There’s every gadget under that table that we need — or don’t — like blenders, spice grinders, food processors, bamboo steamers, and plates.
One food I could happily eat every day of my life is: a sandwich. It’s my favorite way to eat and what I feel is the most complete food. When designed well, you get all the good stuff in one bite. Something like a Katz’s Deli corned beef sandwich, which I always say would be my last meal, advocates good, casual, relaxed, and enjoyable food.
The cookbooks I keep coming back to are:the Time-Life “Foods of the World” cookbook series. The recipes are on the money, with good, sound advice on technique.
My pantry is always stocked with: olive oil, salt, all kinds of vinegar and, most importantly, Spanish sherry. I always use it for extinguishing, and I usually use it as a substitute for white wine. I just like to cook with it. Add a little sprinkle to some shallots in a pan, let it reduce until it evaporates and you have some really nice flavours.
The ingredients I’m most excited about right now are: radishes and radish sprouts. I love that they’re a pungent element, but if you bite into them, they’re not necessarily spicy. I also love fish from Veta de Palma, a fish farm in southern Spain, which I believe is the most important sustainable farm on the planet. They produce daurade and lubina [sea bass] of the highest quality. Oh, and I love all the high-end conservas from Spain, like mussels or razor clams in a can. They are out of sight!
I love it when dinner guests bring: a recipe they are proud to share. I like the element of sharing. I’m a professional cook, but I can also dig things that aren’t professionally made, things that are just delicious, period. Love and care are transferable emotions. Everyone wants to be cared for by someone. So if some of those emotions are conveyed into my house with the recipes you brought with you, that’s fantastic.
When I’m not in my kitchen I’m: off road motorcycling. I also do target practice and spend a lot of time in my photo studio. Bird photography is very important to me. I take off-road trips in places like Colorado and Iceland and the Skagit Valley in Washington State, and I take pictures of eagles, owls, and all the different birds I see.
I would say my favorite mixed drink is: gin and tonic, especially in Spain. I like the acidity of this drink, the fruitiness, the sugar in the tonic water. A well-made gin has a lot of complexity. I would have a gin and tonic with my Katz’s Deli sandwich as my last meal before I die.
—Adapted from an interview by Kathleen Squires
Mr. Benet’s son, Gonzalo, was the inspiration for this salty-sweet recipe when he said he would enjoy a pepperoni pizza with honey. Mr. Benet decided to turn that flavor combination into his favorite type of food: a sandwich.
- 1¼ cup basil leaves
- 1 cup pine nuts
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled
- ½ cup olive oil
- 8 ounces grated Parmigiano Reggiano plus 8 ounces shredded Parmigiano Reggiano
- 4 (10-inch) flour tortillas
- 8 ounces thinly sliced pepperoni
- 8 ounces fontina cheese, shredded
- 2 tablespoons butter, melted
- Honey to drizzle
- Make the pesto: Combine basil, pine nuts and garlic in a food processor and grind until finely chopped. With the engine running, slowly add olive oil and process until smooth. Add 8 ounces grated Parmigiano Reggiano and pulse until evenly blended.
- Assemble the panini: Cut round edges off tortillas to make 4 large, square tortillas. Place a tortilla on a flat surface. Imagine the tortilla divided into quarters. Place 1 ounce of pepperoni in the top right corner. Top with 1 ounce fontina and 1 ounce grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Spread 1 tablespoon of pesto on the top left corner.
- Fold the bottom half of the tortilla over the top half to form a rectangle. Repeat layers of pepperoni and cheese on one half and pesto on the other.
- Fold the pesto side over the pepperoni and cheese to close, forming a square panino with four layers. Repeat with remaining tortillas, pepperoni, cheese and pesto.
- Brush all paninis with melted butter. Place a frying pan on medium heat. Place 1 panino in the pan, press with a spatula and roast for 2 minutes. Turn over and roast for a further 2 minutes. (Alternatively, place the tortillas in a panini press for 4 minutes.) Transfer to a platter and repeat with the remaining panini.
- Cut the panini in half. Spread additional pesto on each pesto, drizzle with honey and serve.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
Share your experience with this recipe. Have you made any adjustments? How did you serve it? Join the conversation below.
Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8