“Wake me up tomorrow morning when you do the pig.”
“Are you sure? I mean, it’s like one in the morning now, and we’ll be getting up at six to put the pig in the oven to make sure it cooks long enough.”
Number One Son was adamant: “Cousin Doc and I were talking about it earlier. We want to learn how to do nochebuena right.”
Nochebuena dinner—the traditional Cuban Christmas Eve feast—has several essential components. The centerpiece to the meal is the Cuban Christmas “Three Sisters”—not the maize, beans, and squash of Native Americans, but a pernil (a fresh, uncured ham), black beans, and rice.
Enhancing these dishes are the flavorings: olive oil, garlic, citrus juice, garlic, sherry, onions, garlic, green peppers, and other good things (details below). And garlic. (Never been a Cuban vampire.)
Making it all work are love and tradition, as was clearly understood by Number One Son and Cousin Doc—Brother Doc’s eldest child, at whose home we gathered for Christmas that year.
For a few decades, the feast was always at the Folks’ (Mrs. P’s parents’) house, and I’ve explained elsewhere how wonderfully they embodied the Christmas spirit—and how magnificently they satisfied the Christmas hunger.
It is a new age now, though, and life is different. The family, of course, is not in Cuba; many gringos (thankfully) have been absorbed into it; the Folks, alas, have moved to another existence; and we are sprinkled from the east coast to the west and points in between. Everyone cannot gather every year. Even those who can come cannot all arrive in time for dinner on Christmas Eve. Traditions must be flexible, even as they are upheld.
That year, then, nochebuena was served on the 26th, as we attained critical familial mass on that day. That made the meal no less hallowed. That made the meal no less the hallmark of the year.
Mrs. P and Cousin Doc were the lead chefs, but many others—including Cousin-in-Law Doc (her husband)—played major roles.
Preparations began three days before. When we arrived in Ohio on the 24th, Cousin Doc had already taken the important first step: marinating the pernil, the First Sister. First she prepared the rub and marinade for the 24-pound fresh ham destined for a score of eaters. The rub has lots of garlic (a head or a head and a half for a ham that size), oregano (about a teaspoon for every 5 or so cloves of garlic), cumin (about half as much as the oregano), salt (1 tablespoon per 5 garlic cloves), and freshly ground black pepper (not very much). (Note: Cumin is a matter of taste. Mami didn’t put it in; Mrs. P always does.)
She mashed these together, in batches, with a mortar and pestle (a food processor is fine), and then rubbed them into the ham. Into the ham, because you should prick it in several places and push the rub into the holes—you wouldn’t want to cheat the people who get an inside slice, now, would you? (And with a 24-pound hunk of ham, there are a lot of inside slices.) The second component of the preparation is a marinade (per 5 pounds of meat) of 1/2 cup of fresh orange juice, 1/4 cup of fresh lime juice, 1/4 cup of fresh lemon juice, 1/2 cup of sherry, and two onions peeled and sliced crosswise. Note that these are rough proportions: more of any of these ingredients isn’t really a problem. After the ham is rubbed, it is placed in a receptacle of sufficient size, and the marinade is poured over it.
Cousin Doc, as we usually do, used a large (clean) plastic trash container. She marinated it for a couple of days. Since she lives in the cold Midwest, she did what we do in the cold Northeast and put the container in the cold garage. (Disclaimer: Should you interpret that as a directive, get food poisoning, and then sue me, note that I never presented this practice as a recommendation. And have no net worth, either.)
It looked like this:
The ham should be tilted so that as much as possible of the meat is in the liquid. To do so, we leaned the container against a surface so that the liquid ran farther up the inside. During the two days that it marinated, we switched the sides of the ham lying within the liquid two or three times a day to give all parts of the piggie some time in the marinade.
On the 24th—two days before the meal—began preparation of Sister Two: the black beans. Mrs. P, Brother Doc’s Wife, Cousin Doc, and Cousin Consultant picked through the dried black beans to remove any unsightly ones (matte finish, wrinkles) and dirt and then set the beans—three pounds’ worth—to soak overnight in plenty of water (the beans should be well covered—about four fingers worth of water above the level of beans).
On the 25th, Mrs. P and helpers cooked the beans, following Mami’s “cook them the day before so that if they don’t cook well or if they burn, you have a day to do it over” theory and the “they thicken better and the flavors blend more if they sit overnight” corollary.
First she brought the water to a boil. When it reached a hard boil, she added one whole green pepper, peeled and seeded, and one whole onion, peeled, for each pound of beans. It looked like this:
After adding these vegetables, she lowered the heat to a simmer and covered the pot. They cooked for a couple of hours, until they were starting to get tender. Mrs. P stirred the beans every 20 minutes or so, checking the temperature and the tenderness of the beans and making sure they didn’t stick. (Sticking leads to burning, which can ruin the whole batch.) She kept a pot of hot water handy, and when the liquid was reducing too fast, before the beans were growing tender, she added more—the water has to be hot to not change the temperature in the pot.
While the beans simmered, preparation of the sofrito began. Sofrito, the flavoring agent of the beans, comes from the Spanish sofreir, which means “to sauté.” That which is sautéed is two green peppers, two onions, and 2–3 cloves of garlic, all minced very fine, for each pound of beans. Mrs. P had a team of cutters who prepped the pepper, onion, and garlic, while she did the fine mince. The result looked like this:
She then cooked the sofrito, in batches, in olive oil.
Once the beans were tender, she added the sofrito to the pot,
followed by some bay leaves (two or three per pound of beans) and oregano (maybe a tablespoon per pound) and salt and pepper. She cooked the beans for another couple of hours, until they were falling apart, the liquid had reduced and thickened, and the flavor of the sofrito had fully infused the liquid. Near the end, she added some sprinkles of hot sauce (NOT MUCH!!—the picante is just for an accent flavor, not intended to be a dominant taste in the dish, as it might be in Mexican cuisine).
Mrs. P tasted for salt and pepper (with some help from willing tasters) and added a bit more. Then, she turned the beans off and left them for the night. The sitting allows the flavorings to meld and bond.
On the night of the feast, the beans were placed in serving bowls and warmed in the microwave. You can warm them in a saucepan, but you run the risk of their sticking and burning, ruining all your work.
The night of the 25th, after Christmas dinner, there was a concerned confab. Cousin Doc fretted about when to start the pork the next morning. “Tía, you said 40 minutes a pound. [Cubans like meat well done and falling off the bone.] This is a 24-pound ham. If we do that, we should put it in the oven tonight!”
Mrs. P reassured: “It needs time, but probably not that much. Besides, who wants to baste it all night? We’ll get up at six and put it in the oven, and we’ll keep checking it. At noon, if it doesn’t seem to be cooking fast enough, we’ll cut half of it off and cook it as two pieces.”
And so Mrs. P, Cousin Doc, and Number One Son made plans to reconvene at six.
On the morning of the 26th, the intrepid party (and your reporter) gathered in the kitchen as scheduled. After the ham was placed in the roasting pan (fattiest side up), Mrs. P went to work. “To get it ready, you make deep cuts into the ham and pour the marinade inside. Then you stuff the holes with pieces of onion.” Like this:
Number One Son poured the marinade on top of the ham, slowly, while Cousin Doc and Mrs. P patted the liquid on the meat and arranged the onions. By the time they were done, the pernil was well covered.
Mrs. P covered the ham with two pieces of heavy duty tin foil (you don’t want it to dry out) and put it in a 325-degree oven. Then, we waited to see.
After about two hours, we checked the pork for the first time. Mrs. P was pleased with the progress and went to work poking more holes and pouring more of the marinade into them.
The noon check showed that the ham was roasting quite nicely and relieved any anxiety about it not being ready until very late at night.
For the next four or five hours, Mrs. P checked it every half hour or so, basting each time, and doing the hole-making thing every other time (more or less). Note how deep the cuts are:
By the end of the afternoon, the ham was practically falling off the bone—as it should be:
Mrs. P cut two large chunks of meat off the ham and let them sit in the pan juices so they would absorb as much of the flavorful liquid as possible. Then she covered the ham with tinfoil and turned the oven off: it was ready to rest.
About then, another helper (Sister-in-Law-in-Law) prepped the Third Sister, the rice, by rinsing the grains in batches to take the extra starch off (Cubans like their rice separate and not sticky), pouring the cleaned rice into two rice cookers, and adding water, oil, and a bit of salt.
While the rice cooked and the pernil was being carved, others put the finishing touches on the meal. Cousin Doc, intent on doing everything right, had picked up some radishes and avocadoes for the traditional salad. She mounded radish slices in the center of a serving platter
and surrounded them with fanned avocado slices (which some idiot forgot to take a picture of—can’t get good help nowadays!).
Brother Doc’s Wife and her sister worked on prepping onion slices, mincing garlic, and juicing citrus to use in the mojo. Mojo is a sauce that can be poured on the pig slices, on yuca (a root vegetable that is boiled as an accompaniment—though we didn’t have any this year), or for the tostones, slices of fried green plantain.
Cousin Doc’s husband (another gringo) took the lead on making the tostones and mojo.
For tostones, plantains are cooked twice. (Slices of sweeter maduros, or ripe plantains, are fried only once.) The plantains have to be peeled and cut in 1/2-inch chunks.
(Why, look! There was drinking going on!) They are fried (use canola oil) until golden
and then removed from the heat and strained on paper towel. After they’ve cooled, and when you’re ready to finish them, you smash them down and flattened
(easy with a tostonera!) and then fried a second time, until crispy. (Oops! No picture!)
The mojo has these rough proportions: 6 to 8 gloves of garlic, minced fine; 1 teaspoon salt; 1 medium onion, peeled and sliced very thin; juice from 5 oranges, 5 lemons, and 5 limes; 1/2 cup olive oil. To prepare, mix together all ingredients except the oil and let the mixture sit for half an hour or so. When ready to serve, heat the oil in a saucepan to high, then add the rest. Cook it all together very quickly—only a minute or so—to blend the flavors and then remove to the serving bowls. (I was carving, hence no picture.)
As mealtime neared, the kitchen was a bustle of activity, with eight people busy filling water glasses, giving the plantains the second fry, finishing the mojo, slicing bread, slicing the avocadoes, carving the pork, moving rice and beans into bowls, and talking.
The Three Sisters looked like this separately:
(The photographer who neglected to clean the rim of the bean tureen before taking the picture was given two demerits.)
And they joined together with the salad (the tostones were on a salad plate) like this:
And a good time was had by all, as we honored the Folks (and our bodies and souls) by honoring tradition.
Words and pictures © 2011 AtHome Pilgrim.
All Rights Reserved.