Colors of the Caribbean and a recipe for Arroz con Gandules

Bright blue skies, sunny days, pristine beaches and breathtakingly clear blue water.  That is the Caribbean.  Each island has its own characteristics and languages.  Each has a unique and rich history dating back to the early 1500’s when the Spaniards came to colonize the Caribbean.  What is it that makes the islands so enchanting?  Perhaps it is the people and their culture.  Maybe it is the casual feel and relaxed way of life and a little bit of that calypso music that gets in your head and stays with you.  It could also be the stunning scenery that surrounds you wherever you go.

The ports of call on the Celebrity Eclipse during our Savor Your Destination cruise included San Juan, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Saint-Martin (the French spelling) which is both a Dutch and French island.

Coming in to port in San Juan

San Juan was the first port of call and is in many ways the most photogenic.  We chose to spend the afternoon walking through Old San Juan to capture some of the stunning tropical colors of the buildings and the beautiful old architecture.

Even government buildings are colorful in San Juan

Two doors

We love these tropical colors

One of the most impressive structures in San Juan is the fort situated on the northwestern-most point of the islet.  Castillo San Felipe del Morro was completed in the mid-1500‘s in honor of King Philip II of Spain.  It was built to guard the entrance to the San Juan Bay, and defend the city of Old San Juan from enemies approaching by sea.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Cats were everywhere

Streets in San Juan and the cemetery at the base of Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Locals gather to chat on the sidewalks

Puerto Rico, also known as the “Island of Enchantment”, has a very strong food culture that combines influences of Spanish, African and Taíno cuisines.  The Taínos were some of the original Caribbean and Central American settlers.  Some of the better known dishes from the island are are Mofongo (mashed plantain mixed with a variety of other ingredients like seafood, meat or vegetables) and Arroz con Gandules (Rice with Pidgeon Peas).

Colors of Old San Juan

Two windows

Capilla de Cristo at Parque de las Palomas

The next port of call was Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas.  We did take a brief guided tour of the island by bus so that we could get to Mountain Top, which is the highest point of the island.  It is from here that you get stunning views of Magens Bay, one of the world’s 10 most beautiful beaches (as voted by both National Geographic and Condé Nast Traveler).

Magens Bay is stunning

The Celebrity Eclipse docked in the distance

We were interested in finding foods that St. Thomas is known for.  Fresh fish is certainly one of them and our lunch at a local spot was quite good with chicken and fish dishes served with a bit of a Caribbean flair.

Overlooking Charlotte Amalie Harbor

St. John, St. Croix and Water Island are very close to St. Thomas

Our last port of call was Philipsburg, Saint-Martin (the French spelling) or Sint Maarten (the Dutch spelling).  This beautiful island, approximately 190 miles east of Puerto Rice, is owned and divided approximately 60/40 percent between the French and the Dutch.  Each half of the country has its own government, utilities, schools, etc.  It has been governed this way since 1648.

The beach in Philipsburg

The town of Marigot on the French side

Agriculture was at one time a very important part of the island’s economy.  They grew tobacco, sugar cane and other crops and most of their own food.  However, once slavery was abolished, the islanders associated these crops with slavery and refused to plant and harvest anything afterward.  To this day, Saint-Martin does not grow anything and they must import everything they eat and consume.  Their only industry is tourism.

Church in Philipsburg

The sail away from the last port of call is always a day filled with mixed emotions as you know that your cruise is coming to an end.  The Caribbean is a beautiful and fun place to visit and you can almost always count on that warm, tropical sun and calypso music to brighten your spirits and your day.

Looks like Dr. No’s island of Crab Key!

Wanting to bring a bit of the Caribbean home with me, I decided to prepare Arroz con Gandules.  This recipe from Daisy Martinez is excellent and we really enjoyed the combination of flavors in this dish.  Sofrito, the aromatic base for many Puerto Rican dishes, is easy to make and was the first step in creating this dish.  The recipe made quite a bit of Sofrito, but you can freeze it for later use and in other recipes and I will definitely make this dish again.

Making Sofrito and Achiote Oil

There are several components to the dish including making the Sofrito and Achiote Oil (made from olive oil and annatto seeds), but it is well worth the steps to create this meal at home.  Daisy’s recipe calls for smoked turkey wings or ham, which you can purchase.  We decided to smoke our own turkey wings and legs since we prefer to smoke our own meats.  Next time, we would smoke halved turkey breasts because we would like to have more turkey meat with the rice and peas to make it a main dish rather than a side dish.

We smoked our own turkey legs and wings

Steps in creating Arroz con Gandules

A bowl of Arroz con Gandules and maybe a Mojito or a Caribbean beer or two…and you may just feel like you are in the Caribbean, too!

Serve with a Mojito or a Caribbean beer for a real taste of the islands!

Disclosure – We received a media package from Celebrity Cruises to experience the Savor the Destination culinary cruise.   I am not compensated in any way for any articles written about the trip and the opinions expressed are my own.

Arroz con Gandules (Rice with Pidgeon Peas)

Yield: 10 servings as a side dish

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes

This dish is served as an accompaniment to a larger meal. We liked it as a main dish and would add smoked turkey breast next time to slice and serve along with the rice and pidgeon peas.


½ cup Achiote Oil (recipe below)
1 cup Sofrito (recipe below)
3 tablespoons alcaparrado or coarsely chopped pimiento-stuffed olives
3 tablespoons fine sea or kosher salt
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1½ pounds smoked pork neck bones or smoked turkey wings or one smoked ham hock (We smoked our own turkey pieces)
One 13-ounce bag frozen pigeon peas or one 15-ounce can pigeon peas, drained
6 cups long grain rice
Beef Broth, homemade or store-bought and/or water as needed (about 8 cups)
1 banana leaf, optional

For Achiote Oil:
1 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons achiote (annatto) seeds

For Sofrito:
2 medium Spanish onions, cut into large chunks
3 to 4 Italian frying peppers or cubanelle peppers
16 to 20 cloves garlic, peeled
1 large bunch cilantro, washed
7 to 10 ajices dulces (see note below), optional
4 leaves of culantro (see note below), or another handful cilantro
3 to 4 ripe plum tomatoes, cored and cut into chunks
1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into large chunks
* If you can’t find ajices dulces or culantro, up the amount of cilantro to 1 ½ bunches


For the main dish:
1. Heat the Achiote Oil in a heavy 5-quart pot or Dutch oven over high heat until rippling. Stir in the Sofrito, alcaparrada or olives, salt, pepper and cumin. Cook until the Sofrito stops boiling and starts to sizzle, about 5 minutes.

2. Add the pork bones or smoked turkey pieces and stir until they’re coated with oil, then stir in the rice until everything is mixed together and the rice is coated with oil. Stir in the pigeon peas, then pour in enough broth and/or water to cover the rice by the width of two fingers.

3. Top with the banana leaf, folding it up as necessary to fit over the rice. Bring to a boil and boil without stirring until the level of liquid meets the rice. Take the banana leaf off, give the rice a big, healthy stir and put the leaf back on top. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and cook until the water is absorbed and the rice is tender, about 20 minutes.

4. Remove the banana leaf, give the rice a big stir and fluff it with a fork. Serve hot.

For Achiote Oil:
1. Heat the oil and annatto seeds in a small skillet over medium heat just until the seeds give off a lively, steady sizzle. Don't overheat the mixture or the seeds will turn black and the oil a nasty green. Once they're sizzling away, pull the pan from the heat and let stand until the sizzling stops. Strain as much of the oil as you are going to use right away into the pan; store the rest for up to 4 days at room temperature in a jar with a tight fitting lid.

For Sofrito:
1. Chop the onion and cubanelle or Italian peppers in the work bowl of a food processor until coarsely chopped. With the motor running, add the remaining ingredients one at a time and process until smooth. The sofrito will keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. It also freezes beautifully.

Recipes from Daisy Martinez

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19 Responses to “Colors of the Caribbean and a recipe for Arroz con Gandules”

  1. 1

    Brian @ A Thought For Food — January 13, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

    Look at those colors! So bright and bold!

  2. 2

    Lana — January 13, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

    I am entranced by those colors! We spent a week in Yucatan a year ago and I remember the houses painted in vivid colors – it matches so well the temperament of the Caribbean:)
    Your photos are spectacular – I can only imagine seeing the sights in person:)
    Where can I find these pidgeon peas?

    • Gwen replied: — January 13th, 2012 @ 12:35 pm

      Hi Lana,

      Thank you for your comment. The colors are truly spectacular there and my husband had a great time doing the photography on this trip.

      I found pidgeon peas in the frozen foods section at our International market. They also come in cans and I saw those as well. I opted for the frozen peas. I hope you make this dish. We loved the flavors and will definitely prepare it again!


  3. 3

    Lana — January 13, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

    I have never even heard of the pidgeon peas, but I have to look them up! I wish I could smoke my own meats:(
    I’ll definitely try this dish – love the flavors of the Caribbean! Have a great weekend, too1

    • Gwen replied: — January 14th, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

      Hi Lana,

      I just saw canned pidgeon peas today at Publix, so they should be easy to find.


  4. 4

    Susan in the Boonies — January 13, 2012 @ 1:38 pm

    Breathtaking colors and delicious looking food! Looks heavenly!

  5. 5

    Marnely Rodriguez — January 13, 2012 @ 3:04 pm

    I haven’t been to PR in ages, but remember it still the same! Gorgeous and love the food!

  6. 6

    Maureen — January 13, 2012 @ 9:56 pm

    I think I went on the same sort of cruise years ago – same ports of call. I loved walking the streets of old San Juan and all the other spots.

    The recipe looks smashing!

  7. 7

    sippitysup — January 14, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

    OHHHH! This takes me back. I spent many of my childhood summers at my famly’s house on Sint Maarten! it has changed so much it breaks my heart… Beautiful photos. Thanks. GREG

    • Gwen replied: — January 14th, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

      Hi Greg,

      Yes, it has changed quite a bit. I went to the French side many years ago and it was very different with beautiful cafes and shops. We were told that after the hurricane in 2004, things moved to the Dutch side and that no one rebuilt on the French side for the most part.


  8. 8

    Suddie — January 14, 2012 @ 3:53 pm

    Makes me want to go to the Islands!!!

    • Gwen replied: — January 14th, 2012 @ 11:33 pm

      And I want to go back!! :-)

  9. 9

    redkathy — January 14, 2012 @ 11:01 pm

    Breathtaking photographs! Arroz con gandules is one of my favorites Gwen. My 1st mother in law made a glorious pot whenever we visited.

    Save a lot is the store that has frozen gandules in my area. Haven’t found them at Publix or Winn Dixie here.

    • Gwen replied: — January 14th, 2012 @ 11:33 pm

      Hi Kathy,

      Thank you for your comment. I am glad that your are familiar with this dish and know how good it is! I will definitely be making this again soon, especially with lots of Sofrito in the freezer!

      The International market here had the pidgeon peas both frozen and in cans. I just happened to see them in the International section at Publix today, so I assume they are becoming more readily available.


  10. 10

    Jamie — January 16, 2012 @ 1:02 am

    Gwen, wow….just wow! What gorgeous photos of such a beautiful place (or places). This really does look and sound like a fairytale place. Beautiful. I love the photo of the cats and the one with the old men. I wish you had added more pics of food 😀 And that Arroz con Gandules is fabulous! With home-smoked meat? Yowzers! Absolutely stunning and glad you and R could go on this. Boy would I love to join you on a culinary adventure! x

  11. 11

    Baker Street — January 16, 2012 @ 1:37 am

    Woah! Such gorgeous pictures Gwen! I just feel like i went on a holiday! :)

  12. 12

    Lora ~ cakeduchess — January 18, 2012 @ 10:10 pm

    I can’t get over the stunning colors. I am dreaming of visiting there one day. I’m so happy you had such a wonderful trip. Your arroz con gandules looks fantastic!

  13. 13

    Katie — February 14, 2012 @ 2:01 pm

    Oh how I love cruising and I love this recipe! I can’t wait to give it a try!

  14. 14

    Wendy read — January 27, 2014 @ 4:54 pm

    I was introduced to this dish from my Dominican Kitchen assistant and I love it! Your recipe looks wonderful. We make it very simply with rice and pigeon peas which are readily available here at all of our markets. Beautiful photos too!

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