MAYBE WHEN you think of Puerto Rican food, you think of such staples as rice and beans or lechón (roast pork). But according to chef Wilo Benet, a particular flavor combination defines his island’s cuisine: “The merging of the sweet and savory reveals itself more often than it has been officially acknowledged or discussed.” A traditional piñon, for example, combines beef and sweet plantains in a satisfying casserole. A popular breakfast sandwich stacks egg, ham and cheese on sweet Mallorca bread sprinkled with powdered sugar. In Mr. Benet’s new book, “SaltySweet” (May 18, New Hills), the chef examines that irresistible combination in the Puerto Rican kitchen and places it in the context of other world cuisines.
Over four decades, Mr. Benet’s career has taken 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 top reservations for 28 years. His current restaurant, Wilo Eatery & Bar in the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo, became a pandemic hit with a combination of grab-and-go and outdoor dining as well as a spacious modern dining room and an innovative craft cocktail bar. There, Mr. Benet fully indulges his penchant for what he calls “the most gratifying and complete flavor profile.” Recently he welcomed us into his home kitchen for a glimpse into how he strikes that salty-sweet balance every day.
The first thing people tend to 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 not—such as blenders, spice grinders, food processors, bamboo steamers and plates.
A food I could happily have every day of my life is: a sandwich. It’s my favorite way of eating and what I feel is the most complete food. Providing it was engineered properly, you get all the goodness in one bite. Something like a Katz’s Deli corned beef sandwich, which I always say would be my last meal, makes the case for good, casual, relaxed, enjoyable eating.
The cookbooks I find myself turning to again and again are:the Time-Life “Foods of the World” cookbook series. The recipes are on the money, with great, sound advice on technique.
My pantry is always stocked with: olive oil, salt, vinegars of all kinds and, most important, Spanish Sherry. I’m always using it to deglaze, and I tend to use it as a substitute for white wine altogether. I just love to cook with it. Add a little sprinkle to some shallots in a pan, let it reduce until it evaporates and you have some very nice flavors going on.
The ingredients I’m most excited about right now are: radishes and radish sprouts. I love that they are a pungent element, but when you bite into them they are not necessarily spicy. I’m also crazy about fish from Veta de Palma, a fish farm in southern Spain, which I think 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 tin. They are out of sight!
I love it when dinner guests bring: a recipe they are proud of, to share. I love the element of sharing. I’m a professional cook, but I can also dig things that are not made professionally, things that are just delicious, period. Love and care are transferable emotions. Any human being wants to be taken care of by someone. So if some of those emotions are transferred into my house with the recipes you brought, then that’s fantastic.
If I’m not in my kitchen I am: off-road motorcycling. I’m also into target practice, and I spend a lot of time in my photo studio. Bird photography is a particularly big deal for me. I take trips to do off-roading in places such as Colorado and Iceland and the Skagit Valley in Washington State, and I take pictures of eagles, owls, all the different birds that I see.
I’d say my favorite mixed drink is: gin and tonic, especially while in Spain. I love this drink’s acidity, the fruitiness, the sugar in the tonic water. A well-made gin has lots 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 provided the inspiration for this salty-sweet recipe when he mentioned enjoying a pepperoni pizza with honey. Mr. Benet decided to fashion 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 for drizzling
- Make the pesto: In a food processor, combine basil, pine nuts and garlic and process until finely minced. With motor running, slowly add olive oil and process until smooth. Add 8 ounces grated Parmigiano Reggiano and pulse until evenly blended.
- Assemble the panini: Cut off round edges from tortillas to make 4 large, square tortillas. Place a tortilla on a flat surface. Picture the tortilla divided into quarters. On the upper right quarter, arrange 1 ounce pepperoni. Top with 1 ounce fontina and 1 ounce shredded Parmigiano Reggiano. Spread 1 tablespoon pesto on upper left quarter.
- Fold bottom half of tortilla over top half to form a rectangle. Repeat layering of pepperoni and cheese on one half and pesto on the other.
- Fold pesto side over pepperoni and cheese to close and form a square, four-layered panino. Repeat with remaining tortillas, pepperoni, cheese and pesto.
- Brush all panini with melted butter. Set a skillet over medium heat. Place 1 panino in skillet, press down on it with a spatula and toast 2 minutes. Flip, and toast 2 more minutes more. (Alternatively, place tortillas in a panini press for 4 minutes.) Transfer to a platter and repeat with remaining panini.
- Cut panini in half. Spread additional pesto on top of each one, drizzle with honey and serve.
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