Friday, January 1, 2010

Plantains and Peppermint: Christmas in Florida

Dear Boo,

Do you realize that the first entries we ever wrote were two letters to each other on the very first Christmas we ever spent apart? That time, I was in Jersey, holding down the buche, as they say. But this year, again at two different celebrations, I was at my very first Christmas away from our childhood home. It was a Christmas of firsts in many ways: my first Christmas away from the family, my first Christmas in a warm climate (Tampa, Florida), my first Christmas with the Boyfriend and his family, my first Christmas cooking the entire meal (with the Boyfriend, of course), and my first Christmas with an (almost entirely) latin menu, which in itself constitutes a number of firsts...

I'm not going to lie--it was hard being away from our family and our traditions (no Alastair Sim's Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve, no lobster dinner the night before, no massive tree with wacked out homemade ornaments, no turkey!). But I decided early on that it was time to let go of the past, and embrace this Christmas as something entirely new. A day which, in spirit, resembled the holiday I knew, but in sights, smells, sounds, and yes, taste, was something all its own. I was, after all, a guest of someone else's family who have their own much-prized traditions, and far be it from me to impose my own esoteric Hart family mumbo jumbo where it doesn't belong and wouldn't quite fit. And I have to say, it was a lovely time, full of newness (for me), festive decorations, tons of kids (who are really what makes Christmas so magical, once the rest of us have gone all disillusioned and jaded. I actually engaged in Santa letter-writing, cookie and milk plating and then eating, and all kinds of fun little white lies in the name of the Jolly one), and feasting like you would not believe. Indeed, said feast went on for DAYS as the Boyfriend and I traveled from house to house to visit siblings, bearing leftovers which we reconstituted in all sorts of creative and delicious ways (Christmas Part 2: Leftover Boogaloo, soon to be posted).

As you may remember from last year's Christmas miracle, the Boyfriend had declared that this year, there would be no ordering food from the Cuban restaurant nearby. Having tackled the Pernil (roast pork leg) the year before, he would now (with my help) be cooking the entire menu. The sisters gasped, some reached for the phone to call in back-up orders in case we really blew it, and others reached for the fire extinguisher. We barely broke a sweat. I don't think I'm ruining the suspense when I tell you we pulled it off like gangbusters. Let's take a post-holiday tour, shall we?

The morning after we arrived, we took the rental car to pick up the pork from a little store that looked like an East Harlem bodega, complete with glass-enclosed, bar-covered corner where lottery tickets and phone cards are sold. The pork leg was handed over, a 26 pounder, and we were on our way. The Boyfriend seasoned it with the secret ingredients and set it to marinate in the fridge, which reeked of garlic every time the door was cracked. On Christmas morning, at 4am, the Boyfriend took it out of the fridge, let it come to room temp and then put it in a 450 degree oven for an hour, letting the top get golden, the onions turn to crisps. He then turned the oven down to 275 and we waited...and basted...and waited...until about 4pm when it came out, perfectly golden, falling off the bone, and soaking in its self-created gravy. Fingers immediately pounced, pulling off tender bits before the oven door was closed.

Here it is, ready for carving. Notice the bald spot where a taste was stolen. Child in background with maracas, natch.

A knife is hardly necessary after twelve hours of slow roasting. I turned the juices into a gravy that would have made grandma proud.

Also on the menu were my Old Bay chicken thighs and legs, for those who don't partake in pork (and those that do), and fried sweet plantains, made by the Sister-in-Law, who unlike us, has actually made them successfully before. Starchy, sweet, crisp, and delicious.

Yucca, tended to like a week-old babe by the Boyfriend who boiled them until tender, and then covered in a mojo of sauteed onions, a TON of garlic (I'm sure you're sensing the theme here), lime juice, orange juice, olive oil, and fresh oregano. Similar to a potato, the Yucca is good for mashing or boiling and absorbs the zingy, acidic sauce like a well-seasoned sponge. You can find a similar recipe here, if you're interested...

Rice and beans were also on hand, though I have hardly a picture to prove it. Sorry, rice and beans, I guess you're just not as visually arresting as a 26 lb hunk of slow-cooked meat. You were delicious, nonetheless, and provided essential leftover ingredients for the days to come.

Oh look, there you are! Alongside the green salad of onion, tomato, hearts of palm, and traditional noche buena (Christmas Eve) radishes.

And of course, the red cabbage. Did you really think I'd go without it?! The Boyfriend wanted me to add something to the menu that would represent my Christmas flavors, so I picked the cabbage not only because it, like the jello mold, is a ubiquitous part of the Hart holiday meal, but because out of all of our dishes, it seemed to match best with the menu. Cabbage is a natural pairing with pork and the sweet and sour nature of the dish echoed flavors in the plantains, yucca, and salad. Also, it's cheap and can be made on the stove, which with the oven occupied all day, was a plus. In the end, it was quite a hit and blended in with the crowd so well you'd think it was a native spanish speaker.

For dessert, two apple crisps, one with nuts and one without. Topping made with help from three nieces. Crumbling butter and sugar with hands is a great job for little fingers.

And, the chocolate cake made by our Aunt for Chanukah which was so delicious, so light and chocolatey and creamy, that I had to recreate it. It was quite easy as well, and kept perfectly in the fridge. Next time you have to make a birthday cake, use this recipe, from our favorite Contessa.

I have to say, one of my happiest moments was walking into the dining room, the tree glowing in the background, music tinkling and glasses clinking from the kitchen, and seeing nine small heads bent over plates of chocolate and apple sweets, cookies and candies, smiling and munching. Later that night, when all the gifts were opened, leftovers stored, a late night bourbon drunk, a midnight snack snuck from the fridge, shoes cast off, and a brother-in-law sleeping soundly on an armchair in front of the tree, I got into bed, turned down the lights, and with one earphone in my ear and one in the Boyfriend's, lay listening to the melodious tenor of Dylan Thomas' voice, reading A Child's Christmas in Wales, thinking of you and wondering if a few hundred miles away in a colder climate, you were doing the same. Some traditions I'm just not ready to let go of.


The Mouse

P.S. For pre-dinner bites, I made this guacamole, and this rosemary chickpea dip (which was more like a chunky spread due to the lack of food processor). Both delicious and simple. And to me, rosemary always tastes like Christmas.

Christmas Ubiquitous Braised Red Cabbage

3 strips of bacon (can substitute olive oil if you're anti-pork)
2 heads of red cabbage (2 heads served about 16, for a large party. But prorportions are forgiving if you want to halve or quarter for a smaller meal)
1 large onion, sliced
1 apple, sliced thin (granny smith works great)
6 Tablespoons cider or red wine vinegar
2 Tablespoons honey
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

Slice cabbage thinly, removing core, of course. Soak in a pot of cold water for about 30 minutes to soften. Drain and discard water. Cook bacon in the bottom of a large, heavy pot until the fat is rendered. Remove bacon and discard (or eat). Sautee onion and apple (amounts can vary depending on your taste) in the pot with the bacon fat until tender and browned. Add the cabbage, vinegar, honey and sugar and plenty of salt. Turn heat to low, cover and let cook for 60 to 90 minutes, stirring and tasting occasionally. Amounts may vary depending on how you like it. I may have added more vinegar and sugar as I went until it tasted just right. Add black pepper and salt to finish. As mom wrote when she emailed me the recipe, HMMMMMYUMMMISH...GOES GREAT WITH HAM/TURKEY...


luis18 said...

i loved that meal.

shimmy said...

you guys are so freakin cute! wish we could have had an adventure with alligator tail. another time.

Anonymous said...

That was such a wonderful post....a very tender ending.