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Joy Elena Soler’s Famous Puerto Rican Rice and Beans + Carrot Cake

The owner of Revolutionary Grounds Books and Coffee shares the recipes that bring her home.

December 22, 2017

Foodies of Tucson

“COFFEE BOOKS REVOLUTION.” This unexpected call-to-action is printed on the awning of a little red brick building on Fourth Avenue. I discovered this tiny gem on January 21, 2017 (the day after Donald Trump took office), while looking for a place to reflect, recharge, and take action. I left with three books, lots of new ideas, and a delicious pastry.

These days, it’s hard for me not to stop into Revolutionary Grounds Books and Coffee when I’m on Fourth Avenue. Between their “Resistance Reading” book list and poetry reading fundraisers, Revolutionary Grounds is always buzzing with activity. Founded in 2008, this bookstore/coffee shop is the brainchild of Joy Elena Soler, whose multicultural upbringing, passion for activism, and love of food is the story I am sharing here.

Soler was born in the projects in East Harlem, New York City, to a Puerto Rican father and American mother. Her childhood was not always easy, as “just being poor and Puerto Rican is politicizing in many ways,” Soler explains. Yet, this distinct identity also created a strong sense of self, one which she channeled through food. Soler learned to cook in a household where recipes from her mother’s home in a small town in Ohio mingled with classic Puerto Rican dishes and flavors from East Harlem. Each dinner tasted of the different cultures, histories, and traditions that had fused together to form her existence.

Joy Elena Soler, owner of Revolutionary Grounds Books and Coffee.

At 18, she moved from New York to New Mexico. “Leaving New York changed my life,” recounts Soler. “In New Mexico, I learned a lot about the history of the Southwest. We have so many struggles in common in terms of history, trauma, land, loss, culture and food.” She began to dream of a space where people could come together to address these common struggles. This would be a political and educational space; one where community advocates could gather to address the oppression that was as much a part of East Harlem and Puerto Rico as it was of the Southwest.

After a brief stint in San Diego, Soler moved to Tucson in 2004. It was there that she and her husband decided to make those dreams a reality. “My husband and I used to talk about it as a bookstore, but you could never pay the rent as a bookstore.” So, Soler decided to incorporate her love for food and open it as a bookstore/coffee shop. In 2008, they took the plunge (and a loan on their house) and opened Revolutionary Grounds Books and Coffee.

Almost 10 years later, Soler couldn’t be happier. She spends her days gathering great minds together to discuss socialism, intersectional feminism, human rights and the like; and her nights filling the house (or dare I say, neighborhood) with smells of Puerto Rico. At the café, her favorite dish is the World Famous Carrot Cake; at home, it is Puerto Rican Rice and Beans. These recipes both hold a special place in her heart. In them, you can taste the true flavors of a multicultural heritage that has found a home in Tucson, Arizona.

World Famous Carrot Cake

This dish has unlikely origins: the playground in East Harlem, where Soler’s mom used to swap recipes with other moms. Since the day it was scribbled onto a piece of paper, it became the go-to cake for Soler’s family. “It makes me feel good whenever I eat it,” Soler says. “It’s moist and has a sweet goodness, but not overpoweringly sweet. It reminds me of being a kid.”

The carrot cake, however, often has a mind of its own. “If you’re not paying attention it doesn’t work.” Before perfecting the recipe, she often found herself with a sinkhole in the middle of the cake. “It’s a finicky cake, but it’s so good, and SO worth it.”

Joy Elena Soler's Famous Carrot Cake
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Joy Elena Soler's Famous Carrot Cake
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Ingredients
Carrot Cake
Cream Cheese Frosting
Servings:
Instructions
Carrot Cake
  1. Heat the oven to 350º. Grease two, eight-inch round cake pans.
  2. Sift flour into a large bowl. Add all other dry ingredients except for the sugar to the bowl.
  3. Zest the orange and set the zest aside for the icing. Peel the orange and discard the peel. Blend the flesh of the orange in a blender or food processor.
  4. In a separate mixing bowl, mix together orange, shredded carrots, eggs, oil, and sugar.
  5. Add the dry ingredients to the bowl of wet ingredients. Stir until everything is evenly combined.
  6. Divide the cake batter evenly between the two cake pans. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the cake is set and a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove the cakes from the oven and allow them to cool before frosting them.
Cream Cheese Frosting.
  1. Place all frosting ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer. Whisk ingredients together with a wire whisk attachment. Evenly spread the icing on the cake.
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Puerto Rican Rice and Beans

“If I really want the taste of home I’ll make rice and beans, Puerto Rican style,” says Soler. When she speaks about the rice and beans, her whole face lights up. “Some people feel good with mashed potatoes, and I feel good with rice and beans.” Each bite is a taste of home.

Yet to Soler, home can sometimes be painful to think about. “For a while I couldn’t make any Puerto Rican food because it was too painful,” explains Soler. She even let green plantains – a variety hard to find in the U.S. – go bad on her counter after the hurricanes hit, too depressed to make the Puerto Rican speciality, to stones.

For Soler, Puerto Rican Rice and Beans is an amalgamation of culture, histories and traditions (the Sofrito Spice Mix is her family’s specialty). For better or for worse, memories of Puerto Rico are ingrained in each bean and grain of rice.

“It’s food. It’s my food. And when I cook it, the house smells like heaven.”

Joy Elena Soler's Famous Rice and Beans
Print Recipe
Joy Elena Soler's Famous Rice and Beans
Print Recipe
Ingredients
Sofrito Spice Mix
Puerto Rican Rice and Beans
Servings:
Instructions
Sofrito
  1. Chop and blend all ingredients together in a food processor. Freeze mixture in cubes for easy access.
Puerto Rican Rice and Beans
  1. Mix sofrito spices with tomato paste, dried spices, and salt and pepper.
  2. Cook in olive oil until the smell fills your house with happiness.
  3. Add cooked beans, and cook for 10 minutes.
  4. Cook the yam for 15 minutes, or until soft. Chop and add to mixture.
  5. Serve over white rice with avocado on the side.
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