locally grown produce in puerto rico
“Man, I’m am seriously craving some kale!” I couldn’t believe the words I just heard spontaneously emerging from my mouth. Two weeks of eating out before we received our appliances had finally pushed me to the breaking point. I felt like an addict getting his fix after taking my first bite of the imported kale that Holly found at Edwards Food Mart in Rincón. (It was Holly’s delicious creamed kale by the way)
Traditional Puerto Rican food is notable for it’s lack of green vegetables. There are plenty of starchy vegetables, legumes and fruit, but very little in the way of green leafies and other non-starchy vegetables. Often the only non-starchy vegetable you’ll find on the menu is a side salad, generously called ensalada “verde“, usually featuring wilted lettuce and pale, flavorless tomatoes. When we do happen to find non-starchy vegetables available, often the quality and freshness is not what Holly and I were generally used to in the states. For example, a popular and somewhat expensive restaurant near our condo serves frozen mixed vegetables(!) with an otherwise excellent main course.
Holly and I knew we wanted to eat locally grown produce as much as possible. Not only is it usually cheaper because the food doesn’t have to travel as far, but it’s also generally more nutritious because it’s fresher. However, doing this meant we would have to make changes to the foods we were used to eating and try to find suitable locally grown replacements.
With fruit this was easy. There is a plentiful and delicious selection of tropical fruits that we now eat in place of the apples and fresh berries that were a mainstay for us back in the states. With vegetables this has been a bit more challenging. Below I go through how we’ve approached this, organized by the major vegetable types. Obviously, this is not a comprehensive list.
Roots and Tubers
One of the first things I noticed upon entering a produce section here is a lot of unusual looking root vegetables I’d never seen before. Cassava (yuca), tropical sweet potato (batata), taro (malanga or yautia), and yams (ñame) are popular here and it’s fairly easy to find some that are locally grown for sale at one of the many roadside stands. Despite these choices, we have so far tended to use green plantains and breadfruit as our primary source of starches in lieu of imported potatoes and sweet potatoes. Of the other major root veggies, we’ve seen locally grown ginger, but have not seen locally grown carrots, radishes, turnips or beets. Therefore, aside from the occasional bag of carrots, we pretty much don’t eat these any more.
The locally grown “florida” type avocados are the real star here. They are awesome. You can also find locally grown eggplant, cucumbers, zucchini, and pumpkin. Instead of the imported bell peppers we are used to from the states, we generally use the locally grown fresh cubanelle peppers which work fine as a replacement even though they are smaller and thinner. You can usually find fresh tomatoes at one of the many farmer’s markets or roadside stands. We are also having better success growing them in pots on our balcony. As I’ve written about before, the biggest disappointment for me with this type of vegetable, is the dearth of locally grown hot peppers. Thankfully, our jalapeño and habanero pepper plants are doing better and better for us. We even have a small serrano pepper plant that is fruiting!
You can find locally grown pigeon peas, okra and even green beans occasionally. Unfortunately, the local green beans are stringy so we still rely on the imported ones from Sam’s Club. We don’t eat a lot of other legumes, so the canned or dried ones that are available are fine if we feel like having some delicious Puerto Rican style beans.
Bulbs and Stems
Other than onions we haven’t found much else of this type grown here. We have had a little success replanting imported scallions to get a second or third batch out of them. We rely on imported garlic and occasionally treat ourselves to imported asparagus, celery and/or leeks if they look decent.
These are pretty much nonexistent overall but broccoli in particular is a big disappointment for us. We used to eat quite a lot of it in the states. Unfortunately, I doubt it can grow here so we have to rely on imported broccoli which often doesn’t look that fresh. (probably because it isn’t!) We actually eat frozen broccoli now which I couldn’t imagine us doing with any regularity before! In the states we also used to use cauliflower as a starch replacement, but have pretty much given up on that because the cauliflower available is here is imported, pricier and usually looks rather unappetizing.
This is another area where what’s available locally really falls short and you are pretty much forced to rely on imports to fill the void. The only locally grown vegetable in this category that is widely available is hydroponically grown lettuce. We did see someone selling some bitter greens at the farmer’s market in Rincón and we’ve had some limited success growing a heat tolerant variety of lettuce in our garden. Other than that, we have to buy imported spinach, kale, cabbage and brussels sprouts usually from Sam’s Club or Edwards Food Mart.
Overall, I feel that Puerto Rico is a healthy place to live with all the fresh tropical fruits, sunshine, and ample opportunity for activity. The lack of locally grown green vegetables is the biggest deficiency that I see (and sometimes feel). I am thankful that imports are available, but green veggies don’t stay fresh as long as other produce. Over time I am hopeful that we will see more and more of these veggies start to be grown here on the island. In the meantime, we are growing what we can.
Holly and I heard a rumor that someone in Rincón is having success growing kale which I think is surprising, because I thought kale required a cold climate. Nevertheless, Holly went ahead and got a seedling going in a pot. Who knows, maybe we can grow enough to at least keep my rare but powerful kale withdrawals at bay. ;)