Lifestyles expert Evette Rios, host of CBS’s Recipe Rehab, was raised in New York City by Puerto Rican parents. Despite growing up in America, Rios said her family maintained deep ties to the culture and values of their native country.
A huge part of this was centered on food and entertaining.
Rios said her parents always made things from scratch– this was partially economical, but also because it was what they were familiar with. It was just the way they’d cook and prepare things back home. Not only would they make traditional Puerto Rican dishes from scratch, but they often made enough to feed a crowd.
“We were always the house that had parties that families would come visit,” Rios says. “My mom was always preparing food.”
That’s just Latin culture, Rios added, the constant feeding–always providing food and drinks. She says it’s in her blood. And is a major reason she is so passionate about cooking and entertaining today.
While she doesn’t like to put on airs, Rios enjoys the design aspect of entertaining– making food look as good as it tastes, making the dinner table look special. She sees it as a way to make her guests feel appreciated.
“It’s about creating that fun experience for people– something memorable, something they wouldn’t do for themselves.”
That’s not to say that every gathering requires taking out the good china.
The time she spent working with Rachael Ray on her daytime talk show also impacted how Rios feels about hosting.
Rios said Ray was always inviting people into her world, blurring the lines between her professional life and her personal life.
“That was one thing I loved about her, she loves to have people over,” Rios says. “She was always making sure there was plenty of drinks and games.”
Rios says she often borrows a page from Ray’s playbook when having people over.
Despite the fact that Ray had made her name as a professional chef, she kept things simple when she was hosting, Rios says. She didn’t offer too many options when a came to food and drinks. She might have a couple different bottles of wine and then order pizza or serve sandwiches.
“It was never really very fancy. It makes people feel comfortable and takes their guard down,” Rios says.
Just like having a dress code at school, keeping things simple is a way of leveling the playing field. Throwing in a fun game like Charades allows guests to do something silly, so they don’t just have to spend all their time talking about what they do and what they want to do.
Rios grandfather was also a source of inspiration. He grew up in Puerto Rico and came to the states later in life, working his way up from a dishwasher to head bartender at Delmonicos. With a passion for experimenting and a desire to further his career in the restaurant industry, Rios said her grandfather would always come home with crazy ingredients– sea urchins or soft-shelled crabs– testing out dishes on his family.
“There’s nothing he wouldn’t try, nothing he wouldn’t eat,” Rios said.
She became fearless about eating as a result, whether she’s sampling fried Oreos at the New York State Fair or cuy (guinea pig) in Peru.
Eating Local Foods While Traveling Puts Culture in Context
While having two young children has cut down on her traveling, Rios says she tries to take a couple of big trips every year. When visiting a new place, she makes it a point to eat food that the local community is known for. While she sticks to a predominantly vegetarian diet at home, she gives herself carte blanche to try different foods when traveling– especially when someone has prepared it themselves.
“I think it’s rude to turn it down,” she says.
For where to eat, she turns to her well-traveled foodie friends for suggestions– asking advice on restaurants and chefs to look out for at any given destinations. She also uses apps like Yelp, but says that can be hit-or-miss.
Experiencing a local cuisine is not only a way to experience the flavor of a country, Rios says, but also develop a better understanding of how that culture spends their time.
She describes watching women make tortillas in Guatemala– how they grid the corn, make the masa, then make the tortilla– all the while talking, sharing information and building a community. Rios contrasted this to watching fishermen on a visit she made to the southern part of Sri Lanka.
“These men stand on stilts far away from each other. What are they doing as they’re standing in silence? It helps you understand their human condition,” Rios says.
For Rios, an important component of traveling is understanding the context that the culture is living in. She says one of the best ways to do this is by knowing what they eat and drink and then trying to live that way while you are there.
Bringing the Flavors of Home, Home
Of course, as much as Rios loves trying dishes from around the world, when she thinks about the flavors that are at the root of her love of food, she thinks of Puerto Rican cooking. Things like her mother’s sofrito– the quintessential base for many Puerto Rican dishes– a mix of onions, garlic, sweet peppers, cilantro and culantro (a less sharp, warmer relative of cilantro) all blended together into a paste and used to make everything from beans and rice to chicken and Thanksgiving turkey.
She visits Puerto Rico a few times a year to visit aunts and her grandmother, and in between she dreams of mofongo– a dish featuring green plantains that have been fried and mashed with garlic and then filled with meat– whether it’s shrimp with a delicious garlic sauce or been and onions mixed with a flavorful red sauce.
“That’s my No. 1. Puerto Rico dish that I miss the most,” she says.
Rios loves mofongo so much that when she got married in Puerto Rico years ago, she had a mofongo bar at the rehearsal dinner. Guests could mix and match mofongo made from yucca, green plantains or sweet plantains called maduros with different fillings.
The dish is tricky to make, so Rios hasn’t really tried to replicate it fully at home. She makes her own take on mofongo at home– a kind of open-faced sandwich made by flattening mashed fried plantains and topic it with a shrimp cooked in oil, sofritos, tomato sauce and onions.
“It gives you the flavor without having to do all the labor,” she said.
Pining for your favorite flavors from afar? Shop for them on FoodyDirect.