Puerto Rican food is known for its rich flavors, but you won't really know what it's all about until you try holiday fare.
Arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) accompanies many meals, including the roast pork that helps characterize Christmas Eve dinner. Pasteles (dough made out of plantains—or rice or yucca—, colored with anatto oil, wrapped in a plantain leaf, and stuffed with meat) are also often served.
Common side dishes are guineitos in escabeche (green bananas boiled and then pickled with onions and garlic) and mollejas. Funny thing is, though I'm not a picky eater, I've been avoiding sweetbreads for years, but I just found out that's what mollejas are and I adore my dad's mollejas. This makes me feel both ignorant and picky, but I figured I should tell the story in case it gets you to try them.
Popular holiday desserts are overall coconut-based. My favorite, arroz con dulce, consists of rice cooked as usual and then simmered with three milks (coconut, condensed, and evaporated), whole cloves, shredded coconut, a cinnamon stick, and raisins. The tembleque, a sort of coconut pudding, always invites smiles all around.
But the coquito—our version of eggnog—is really the creme de la creme of Puerto Rican holiday cuisine. It tastes like alcoholic vanilla ice cream with the tiniest hints of dulce de leche and cinnamon. (It is usually made with rum, since Puerto Rico is in the major leagues of rum production, but can be made without alcohol for children).