Our babysitter Norma is from Puerto Rico and has added a lot of great recipes to our repertoire. When I bring this dish to work, people ask me who made it for me, since I am obviously not Puerto Rican, and they can't believe that rice and beans can be taught. Norma showed me all the seasonings, including the sofrito, a mixture of fresh coriander, onions and garlic, and green pepper whirled in the blender. Sofrito can also be made with the addition of ajicito dulce, tiny mild hot peppers, if they are available, and culantro, a Puerto Rican herb similar in flavor to cilantro. Green Italian frying peppers and red peppers can be used instead of green peppers. The sofrito freezes well if you make a big batch and is also delicious with stewed chicken. Omit the sliced smoked ham shanks for a vegetarian version, but if you do use meat, the shanks are better than ham hocks or smoked turkey. Pancetta is a nice alternative to shanks, or leftover ham. —luvcookbooks
Whirl the sofrito ingredients in the blender until they form a smooth sauce. Freeze half of the batch for another time.
In a large saute pan, heat the canola oil over medium heat. Add the half recipe of sofrito and the ham hocks, and cook for a few minutes. Add the onions, green peppers and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and translucent but not colored.
Add the tomato paste, cumin, oregano, paprika, cayenne and salt and pepper. Cook for a few minutes until the mixture is well-amalgamated.
Stir in the beans and tomatoes, and add a little water so that the beans are like a stew, but not too soupy. Tuck the bay leaf in and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the green pepper is tender. Taste for seasoning.
Just before serving, take out the sliced smoked shanks and separate the meat from the bones and fat. Cut the meat into small chunks and stir it into the beans.