Von Diaz shares recipes and stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South.
Both a cookbook and a memoir of growing up Latina in the Deep South, Von Diaz’s Coconuts & Collards was inspired by her grandmother’s 1962 copy of Cocina Criolla—the Puerto Rican equivalent of the Joy of Cooking. When her family moved from Puerto Rico to Atlanta, Diaz traded plantains, roast pork and malta for grits, fried chicken and sweet tea. This debut cookbook celebrates traditional recipes while fusing them with Diaz’s own family history and a contemporary Southern flair. For example, quingombo would be recognized as stewed okra in any Southern kitchen, but Diaz laces it with warm and aromatic sofrito.
Since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last fall, hundreds have migrated to the U.S. mainland. They will likely experience many of the same struggles outlined in Coconuts and Collards, from missing a familiar and beautiful place to language barriers, isolation and the awkwardness of acclimating to a new home. Diaz’s story will resonate with Puerto Ricans—and Southerners—across the diaspora.
Coconuts & Collards hits shelves on February 22. We have a preview recipe below that is sure to bring a taste of Puerto Rico to any Southern kitchen.
Funche de Coco (Coconut Grits)
Ever since Miss Donna introduced me to a proper grit, I’ve become obsessed with them. There’s nothing I wouldn’t eat over grits and nothing I wouldn’t put in them. They are, to me, a perfect food.
Funche is basically corn grits and was a dish served to enslaved indigenous and African people during Spanish colonization. It remained a common dish until the last century and was most often mixed with brown sugar and milk. Some food historians believe it went out of fashion because it became associated with blackness and poverty. Here’s my take on a Southern (and once Puerto Rican) staple and a fusion of both cultures. Whenever possible, use fresh homemade coconut milk. It’s wonderful topped with Coconut-Braised Collards.” – Von Diaz
2 cups chicken stock (see note)
2 cups coconut milk, homemade or canned
1 cup stone-ground grits
1/2 tsp. salt or to taste
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
Freshly ground black pepper
In a medium-heavy saucepan or Dutch oven, combine the stock and coconut milk, then slowly whisk in the grits and salt until well incorporated. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to low. Cover and simmer, lifting the lid to whisk often, for 45 minutes to 1 hour, adding more water or stock as needed until the grits are creamy and thick. Stir in the butter and season with pepper and more salt if needed.
Note: You can easily substitute vegetable stock or water to make this dish vegetarian. Serves 4.
Growing up, I was always served collards prepared the same way: some kind of pork and stock, with maybe a tomato, some onions, and always cooked until they were dark olive-green. I love collards and, like all other greens, want them to be a bright color and have some texture. This quick, simple recipe highlights that strong collard funkiness and tastes deceptively rich for a vegetarian dish.” – Von Diaz
1 large bunch collards, rinsed well in several changes of water
1 bunch scallions
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter (optional; to make the recipe vegan, omit the butter and double the coconut oil)
1 Tbsp. coconut oil
1 1/2 cups coconut milk, homemade or canned
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Cut off the bottoms of the collard stalks, then coarsely chop the leaves and stems and set aside. Cut off the bottoms of the scallions, then thinly slice the whites and greens. Melt the butter with the oil in a large wok or skillet over medium-high heat. Add the scallions and sauté for 1 minute. Add greens and sauté for another minute, stirring well to incorporate, then add the coconut milk and soy sauce and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, stirring frequently, until the collards reach your desired doneness—7 to 10 minutes, or longer if you like your greens more tender. Season with salt and pepper and serve. Serves 4 as a side.
From Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South by Von Diaz. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2017. Reprinted by permission of the University Press of Florida. Recipe photo by Cybelle Codish.