Comfort food with rice and beans

There's something comforting about Mexican food. Or at least the food that is served here under the name of Mexican food. Rice, beans, cheese and tortillas — put them together in any combination and I'm a happy camper. Add some salsa, lime, lettuce and tomatoes and I'm even happier. And the more cheese the better.

For the record, I have been to Mexico three times and have always found the food very tasty. It's imaginatively prepared and quite flavorful. What we call "Mexican" up here is different. It's more like Tex-Mex cooking. Still, it's my idea of comfort food.

So last week when I was visiting my brother and looking for comfort food, I suggested that we go out for some enchiladas, rice and beans at a simple little Mexican restaurant. There should be plenty to choose from — after all, Mexico is just around the corner, so to speak.

Trouble was, I was not in Oregon. I was in South Florida, and as Dorothy would have said, I was definitely not in Kansas anymore. It was easier to find a Chinese or Thai restaurant than it was to find a Mexican one. My brother pointed out that this may have to do with the many former New Yorkers who live in South Florida and who love their Chinese food. There were a few fast-food chain stores that served Mexican food, but while there was plenty of Latin food available, it was mostly from counties other than the one directly south of the border from California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. After all, there are quite a few countries southeast and southwest of Florida.

After driving around looking for the elusive Mexican restaurant, we stopped at one place that looked promising. It was a little mom and pop operation with some of the selections listed in Spanish on the red and white and red flag-draped window.

It turned out to be a Peruvian restaurant. We decided to give it a try. The only Peruvian food I was familiar with was quinoa, a grain which I often have at home. My brother enjoyed his strip steak and I enjoyed my white fish with onions, lime and rice. Even though it had some of the same ingredients I was familiar with, it wasn't Mexican. But it was very good.

The rice served at the Peruvian restaurant was white, unlike the tomato-tinted "Spanish rice" served in Mexican restaurants. And it tasted nothing like the white rice served in Chinese and Japanese restaurants. We had eaten white rice at another restaurant and it soon became our favorite dish. There is a wonderful Cuban restaurant not far from my brother's house that serves the most delicious Cuban-style white rice with a bowl of equally tasty Cuban-style black beans as a complement to the rest of the meal.

Never having tasted Cuban dishes, I was not aware that Cuban cuisine is the result of the mixing of Spanish, aboriginal, African and Caribbean cooking. And that includes a lot of rice. The rice we had at the Cuban restaurant almost didn't taste like rice. It had a smooth, creamy texture a bit like Italian risotto. I poured on some of those black beans and discovered my new comfort food — and my brother's. So what if it didn't have any cheese or tortillas?

My visit quickly became a dining adventure. We'd go to this restaurant or that one trying various kinds of cooking. And when we wanted comfort food, it was Cuban rice and beans with steak and fish. Almost every place serves tilapia, the mild white fish I had been introduced to in Oregon. It became my staple and I had it prepared in a variety of ways.

When we weren't eating, we were walking. Always a good thing if you plan to eat a lot. We walked for miles each day and spent some time on board a ship traveling along Florida's intercoastal waterway. The sun beat down on us and the humidity was high. But our spirits were higher and we had a great time. After all, we had discovered a new comfort food.

The first thing I did when the plane landed at the Portland International Airport was to head straight for the food mall. With no Cuban restaurant in sight, I went to the Mexican one. The next day, still unable to find a place that served Cuban rice and beans, I headed for my favorite local Mexican restaurant and had my usual: cheese enchilada, chile relleno, rice and both kinds of beans. It's great to be back in Kansas again, but I'm starting to miss Cuba.

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