Three Generations, One Cookbook, and Memories of Puerto Rico

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Cocina Criolla / Food / Immigrants / Latinos / Puerto Rico / Videos / Women

Originally published on August 25, 2014 as part of Feet in 2 Worlds Coming to the Table issue.

My grandmother, known fondly as “Tata,” inspired me to start cooking. It was because of her that I started the Cocina Criolla project—where I’m cooking my way through the classic Puerto Rican cookbook by the same name. When I began the project, I was immediately transported back to Puerto Rico, standing in my grandmother’s kitchen while she and my mom cooked dinner for our family, smelling sofrito frying in olive oil, and listening to them laugh and sing along to salsa music.

Last summer I traveled to Provo, Utah with my mom to visit Tata. She’s in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s, and in addition to not being able to live alone she also isn’t able to cook anymore. But she still loves to eat, especially Puerto Rican food. On that trip, the three of us to cooked one of her favorite dishes— chicharrónes de pollo, or crispy fried chicken nuggets. The chicken is marinated overnight, then lightly battered and deep fried so that it comes out crunchy like real chicharrón (fried pork skins).

We documented the experience on video, which is likely one of the last times the three of us will ever get to cook together.

Check out my recipe for Chicharrón de Pollo on Feet in 2 Worlds.

‘Gordita’ Supper Club at Lucky Luna on November 17

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Cocina Criolla / Food / Puerto Rico
Bilí ingredients (Photo: Marin Watts)

Bilí ingredients (Photo: Marin Watts)

Join me on November 17 at Lucky Luna for a special supper club featuring recipes adapted from ‘Cocina Criolla‘!

Bilí (Photo: Marin Watts)

Bilí (Photo: Marin Watts)

Click here to buy tickets.

Working with chefs and owners from Lucky Luna, a Mexican and Taiwanese restaurant in Greenpointe, Brooklyn, we’ve designed a night centered around bilí — a rum from the island of Vieques infused with vanilla bean, bay leaf, peppercorns and cinnamon. We’re keeping it intimate at 20 guests, and each ticket includes 5 courses with drink pairings.  Check out the menu below, and buy your tickets online.

Reservations are required, cancellations are honored though Nov. 14th.
For more information about this event, email Lucky Luna, and learn more about the Cocina Criolla Project.

The Menu


dark rum, quenepas, vanilla bean, bay leaf, peppercorns, cinnamon, brown sugar

Sopa de plátanos fritos

fried plantain and beef soup


Mas que un mojito

white rum, culantro, lime, raw sugar, vanilla, pineapple, mineral water

Pernil Bao with salsa aji-li-mojili

pork shoulder stuffed steamed bun


Cono Sur Sauvignon Blanc

2012/Central Valley, Chile

Ensalada de Chayote, Habichuelas Tiernas, Tomates, y Aguacate

chayote, green beans, tomato and avocado salad


Cono Sur Pinot Noir

2012/Central Valley, Chile

Conejo Estofado

braised rabbit with chorizo sofrito and chard


Cafecito de Naranja

coffee, coffee liqueur, dark rum, orange bitters


pumpkin, sweet potato and coconut milk

Cocina Criolla on NPR’s The Splendid Table: ‘Cooking from a classic Puerto Rican cookbook, with mother and grandmother’

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Cocina Criolla / Food / Puerto Rico / Women

Originally published on The Splendid Table on September 20, 2014.

When Von Diaz ended up with her grandmother’s 1964 copy of the Puerto Rican classic Cocina Criolla, she decided to explore the recipes. What started as an homage to her grandmother became “a project that was so much about culture and identity and understanding the history of an island’s cuisine that is fiercely underexplored,” Diaz says.

She is working on a memoir and cookbook based on the project, which was launched on Feet in 2 Worlds, a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.

Keep reading and get a recipe for chicharrón de pollo on The Splendid Table.

Bronx Baker Turns Dominican Cakes Into A Sweet American Dream

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Food / Immigrants / Women
Yolanda Andujar (R) and Astrid Andujar (L), holding up a Dominican cake they made together in their Bronx apartment bakery. (Photo: Néstor Pérez-Molière)

Yolanda Andujar (R) and Astrid Andujar (L), holding up a Dominican cake they made together in their Bronx apartment bakery. (Photo: Néstor Pérez-Molière)

Originally published on August 26, 2014 on NPR’s The Salt.

For many immigrants arriving in the U.S., opening a family food business can be a pathway to economic stability. While many fail, one Dominican woman in the Bronx has managed to get her family off food stamps, send her kids to college and share her heritage with new friends and neighbors. And it all started with cake.

Not just any cake — but bizcocho Dominicano, flavored with rum and vanilla extract, and layered with tropical fruit spreads and meringue.

On a typical weekend, Yolanda Andujar, 50, fills orders for a dozen or so cakes, ranging in size from 6 inches to 3 1/2 feet across. Some are basic birthday cakes, and others are extravagant fondant creations shaped like Disney cartoons. She’s the owner of Yolanda’s Cake, a home business that deals solely in Dominican cakes.

When Andujar arrived in the Bronx 12 years ago with her husband and three children, they struggled to get by and eventually went on public assistance and food stamps — until Andujar revived an old business that hadn’t quite worked back home in the Dominican Republic.

“In DR, I took cake-making classes at a Howard Johnson in San Pedro,” she says in Spanish. “I tried to sell my cakes, but the electricity would go out all the time, and I would have to run out to a friend’s house to finish the icing. And sometimes my gas would go out, and I’d have to take the cake molds, still hot, in the trunk of my car to another friend’s house to finish them.”

In 2007, Andujar started freelancing at local bakeries. Then she started making cakes in her family’s two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. She had three standard KitchenAid mixers, a basic oven and just barely enough space for cakes to sit cooling on every surface.

Demand grew, and the family moved to a larger apartment. Andujar’s husband turned their tiny dining room into a bakery.

Metal shelves line one side, and two full racks hold 17 cake layers wrapped in plastic grocery store bags to keep them moist. Other shelves hold cardboard cake bases, a rainbow of plastic food coloring bottles, aluminum cake pans, wooden posts for securing tiered wedding cakes, silver beads and pastry bags. On the floor are two industrial mixers. The space is cluttered but immaculately clean.

Andujar and her daughter Astrid, 24, work side by side every weekend; Andujar handles the baking, and Astrid does the cake design. Together they make delicate fondant accents, such as thumb-sized elephants for a baby shower cake, or more elaborate designs, such as a Louis Vuitton handbag.

There’s no space for an extra fridge in the apartment, so everything is baked fresh to order. The cake itself is a basic yellow cake, flavored with Dominican Brugal rum and imported white vanilla extract. Then it’s layered with guava, mango, pineapple, Andujar’s signature tropical fruit blend or rich dulce de leche.

Astrid never gets tired of cake. “I definitely still eat cake. If there’s cake, I’m eating it. If there are pieces of cake left over, the corner of a square cake we had to make round, I’m eating it — with ice cream. The frosting — I will sit here and eat it with a spoon. Because it’s delicious,” she says.

That frosting is suspiro Dominicano, a firm, lightly sweetened meringue that spreads as smoothly as buttercream but is lighter and fluffier. It’s made of water, sugar and egg whites.

“The tropics are too hot for buttercream, and so it’s not our custom to use it. We grew up with suspiro. We used to make it by hand with a fork in a bowl. We would eat it right out of the bowl — I grew up doing that,” Yolanda Andujar says.

Read more on NPR’s The Salt.

This story was produced in collaboration with Feet In 2 Worlds, an immigration journalism project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School. The photo essay on Yolanda’s Cake is available on the Feet In 2 Worlds website.

Cocina Criolla on Last Chance Foods: A Compromise for Cilantro Haters?

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Cocina Criolla / Food / Radio / WNYC
Culantro (Photo: Marin Watts)

Culantro (Photo: Marin Watts)

Originally published on June 27, 2014 on WNYC.

Cilantro could very well be the world’s most polarizing herb. Those who vehemently hate it may have the aversion coded in their genes, while others happily add it to everything from salsas to soups. But maybe there’s a middle ground to be found in the cilantro wars. Perhaps cilantro’s cousin culantro is the herb diplomat to please both parties.

Culantro, with its long, narrow, slightly serrated leaves, is popularly used in Latin and Caribbean cuisine. “Culantro has kind of the base flavor of cilantro but it’s much earthier,” journalist and food writer Von Diaz explained. “It’s much more tame. It almost tastes like a hybrid of cilantro and parsley.”

She described culantro as the cornerstone herb of Puerto Rican food. “We use it extensively in making what’s called ‘racaito,’ which is a component of sofrito, which I’m sure a lot of people have heard of,” Diaz said. “It’s basically a spice paste blend that’s garlic, onions, culantro, and peppers, which you then turn into a paste. You cook it down and it becomes really the base of whatever dish you’re making.”

Read more on WNYC’s Last Chance Foods.

DREAMers No Longer of One Mind on Immigration Reform

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Feet in Two Worlds / Immigrants / Immigration Reform / Latinos / Media / Politics / Radio / WNYC

Originally published on June 27, 2014 on WNYC.

June is an exciting month for graduating high school seniors. But for the thousands of young immigrants who lack legal status, graduation day can be a moment of great uncertainty.

Undocumented youth have been on the front lines of the struggle for immigrant rights. They call themselves DREAMers to evoke both the proposed federal DREAM Act and a hope that they, too, can achieve the American Dream.

But the DREAMer movement is in flux. Once monolithic, it is now fragmented, because frustration at the slow pace of progress has reached a new high. One reason is that the federal DREAM Act has yet to be enacted more than a decade after it was first introduced. Locally, the New York Senate earlier this year narrowly defeated the proposed state Dream Act, which would have provided college aid to undocumented students — an estimated 90,000 young immigrants would have been eligible. And this week, in response to growing concerns about thousands of unaccompanied immigrant minors who illegally crossed the border into the U.S., Republican lawmakers called on President Obama to deport DREAMers, even if they’ve been granted a temporary reprieve from deportation or deferred action.

As a result of the federal and local immigration reform impasse, growing numbers of young immigrant activists are questioning the core goals of the DREAMer movement.

Among them is Razeen Zaman, who came to the United States with her family from Bangladesh 22 years ago. Her family fled political violence, she said, and later fell out of legal status in the U.S. after an immigration attorney scammed them. Today she’s a law student at Fordham University and and no longer refers to herself as a DREAMer.

“It creates a special elitist divide, where we create one category of deserving peopl, who deserve a better, a faster, an easier pathway to citizenship; and everyone else is somehow made undeserving,” she said.

Another former DREAMer is Claudia Muñoz, who grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, and moved to Houston, Texas at 16. She once fought for comprehensive immigration reform, but last year — after a family member was nearly deported — Muñoz turned herself in at the Calhoun County Correctional Facility near Detroit to organize detainees from within and document the conditions they were living in.

Her experience in the detention center and the experience her family has had with the immigration system in the U.S. has made her skeptical of the goals of immigration reform activism. “That trauma they now have over deportation — papers can’t fix. And there’s a lot of things that papers can’t fix,” she said.

Thousands still continue to fight for comprehensive immigration reform. But the struggle for immigrant rights is changing once again.

Von Diaz comes to us from Feet in 2 Worlds, a project that brings the work of immigrant journalists to public radio. A longer text version of this piece is available on their website.

Podcast: DREAMers No More—What is Happening to Young, Undocumented Immigrant Activists?

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Feet in Two Worlds / Immigrants / Immigration News / Immigration Reform / Latinos

Listen to the podcast.

Immigration Reform Sign on 4th Street

Originally published on Feet in 2 Worlds on May 7, 2014.

The DREAMer movement is in flux. Once monolithic, political activism by young, undocumented immigrants has become fragmented, with some activists abandoning the fight for comprehensive immigration reform, and others focused on local efforts to support undocumented immigrants. Many have stopped calling themselves DREAMers.

In New York, where an estimated 90,000 youth would be eligible for relief under the DREAM Act, some young activists are turning to increasingly radical forms of protest.  But some, meanwhile, continue to work within the political system to push for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Read Von Diaz’s story  – The DREAM Movement’s New Agenda: Five Young Immigrants Tell Us Why They’ve Moved Beyond Seeking a Pathway to Citizenship.

In this podcast Fi2W executive producer John Rudolph and former editor Von Diaz talk with Thanu Yakupitiyage, the Communications Coordinator for The New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) who runs a group for undocumented youth in New York. Listen to their conversation about why many undocumented youth are shifting focus, and what it could mean for the movement.

‘Lucky’ Gives a Rare Glimpse Into the Life of a Homeless Mom

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Art and Culture / Gender and Sexuality / Latinos / LGBT / Women

Originally published on Colorlines on December 2, 2013.

Representations of queer women of color in film are still hard to come by, particularly one as intimate and jarring as “Lucky.” In this first-ever documentary from journalist Laura Checkoway, you meet Lucky Torres–a fierce Puerto Rican lesbian mom from the South Bronx. Life isn’t easy for Torres, who came up in the system, bouncing around foster homes until she ran away and wound up homeless. She has two children–a daughter who was taken from her at age 14, and a young son who stays with her as she travels between homeless shelters and transitional housing.  Her struggles to survive have wounded her, and she approaches life with serious attitude and even rage at times.

But what’s most striking about Torres is her face–an outward manifestation of her inner turmoil. The word bitch is tattooed across her right cheek, a black spiderweb is on her left, and she has a skull on her chin as well as several others markings that stretch across her forehead, neck, eyebrows and torso. Her tattoos and piercings are accentuated by a hot pink mohawk. She wants to be a model and performer and Lil Wayne’s protege–anything to be famous. These aspirations are hampered by mental and financial instability and a sadness that often paralyzes her.

There’s nothing soft about this surprising and brutally honest film, which is currently on the festival and college circuit. It is not a projects to the palace story, and Torres is an unlikely hero. But throughout the film viewers become aware of how her attitude and the physical scars she wears have everything to do with a lifetime of survival. Filmmaker Checkoway spent six years embeded in Lucky’s world. Here’s her take:

Your movie takes a provocative look at beauty. Can you talk to me about that?

I thought I was following this badass chick; a style and street icon. But I soon realized that it was more of a story about the wounded and vulnerable person inside. Lucky is very interesting to look at on a superficial levels, and is stopped in the street constantly. Passersby always want to take pictures with her. People are very taken with her exterior–both excited by it and repulsed by it. I think it’s interesting that her surface is so bold, and that she has such bravado, but that only goes so far and there’s so much more she has yet to figure out.

Something that I love about this film is that I haven’t seen much representation onscreen of women that look like the women in this film. And they’re all so beautiful, and really underrepresented, almost invisible in the mainstream. There’s something about seeing the beauty in daily life, and in seemingly ordinary moments. And I think that that there’s beauty in our flaws and imperfection, and a lot of truth in pain. Lucky wears all of that and shares all of that in this story.

In the film, Lucky has to hustle her way out of homeless shelters and into public housing by fabricating a story. Why did you choose to include this?

For me, it’s an important part of the story. If a program or a system is backwards, then the way to make it work for you is backwards as well. Lucky knows that system really well and has been stuck in it, and sort of wired into it, and that’s how she makes it work.

I understand Lucky attended the New York premiere and responded erratically during a Q&A. What do you make of her reaction?

Lucky is a loose cannon. She is woman of many moods, as I guess we all are. But I think she is really pleased with the way the film turned out. She was invited to attend the premiere at the HotDocs festival [in Canada], and most people on my team said not to bring her. But I knew in my heart I would. She’d never traveled internationally and there were tons of hoops to jump through just to get her to Canada. But she did make it, and she was wonderful.

She had a tough night at the [New York City] premiere, and stormed out. She wasn’t sober–something that I identified a long time ago as being key to her being in control of herself. But, it must be so overwhelming, a packed house, and the entire cast of the film was there–no one had ever seen it before, and they were all in the front row. So, I just imagine it was very overwhelming from her on various levels. She’s there and being celebrated in this great way, but then it’s like, “Where am I going to [sleep] tonight?”

I have been very clear with Lucky that subjects of documentaries don’t get paid, that it’s not a money-maker. She has a very powerful story and a very powerful voice, and I would love for the film to create opportunities through outreach, to connect with young people and women. The point of this film is to open people’s eyes and change people’s lives.

What’s the most meaningful reaction you’ve gotten so far?

There’s been so many. This film, it’s so heavy with so many issues, I thought the conversation would be about that. But actually at some smaller screenings, people just wanted to start spilling their guts and sharing their dark pasts in a really guttural and powerful way. And it kept happening. There really is power in that, that sharing truth and pain sparks others to feel comfortable opening up in that same way. I know it’s a pretty hard core and raw portrait, and Lucky isn’t the most typical hero. In some way there can be some healing through sharing this story, of showing someone who’s had a hard time and has found a sort of healing.

Six years is a long time. When did you know the film was done?

I guess what you’re waiting for in a story is closure, and that takes time. I think a lot of stories often expect complete transformation, which is not the case in this story. Like when she and her sister Fantasy were able to piece together some of their broken past, and we got some answers. But, really, when Lucky finally reached a point where she was able to be a bit more reflective, that was really key for me, and for the story. There were moments that I was glad that I waited for. I felt that I had told a story.

Pavochón: Puerto Rican-style Turkey

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Cocina Criolla / Puerto Rico / Radio

Pavochón Thanksgiving feast. (Photo: Marin Watts)

Pavochón Thanksgiving feast. (Photo: Marin Watts)

Originally broadcast on NPR’s Latino USA on November 27, 2013.

When reporter Von Diaz was a girl celebrating Thanksgiving in Puerto Rico, her abuela ruled the kitchen. Each year she created a magical dish called a pavochón, a turkey cooked like a traditional Puerto Rican pork roast. This year, she tries to recreate the dish with her grandmother’s help.

Retailers Turn Thanksgiving Into Black Thursday [Infographic]

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Originally published on Colorlines on November 27, 2013. Infographic by Erin Zipper

There are more than 16 million retail workers in the U.S. according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and this year many big-name stores have asked them to work through the Thanksgiving holiday. It seems Black Friday has now become Black Thursday, and at least a dozen stores are opening their doors in the middle of turkey day.

Those working on Thanksgiving are likely to be working part-time for low wages, and despite their low income many are also the primary earners in their households. Here’s a look at who decided to stay open this year, and a snapshot of who’s likely working this Thanksgiving.—Von Diaz