The AtHome Pilgrim

Musings at a Slower Pace


Philly area, Pennsylvania, USA
"Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita," I find myself still asking some of the same questions I did when I was just a punk kid. The Big Things confuse me. Fortunately, though, many little things delight and amuse me, and some Big Things--my wife, our kids, our bird and bunny visitors, food, baseball--make me very, very happy. In my pilgrimage, I try to be guided by the wisdom of dear old Auntie Mame: "Life is a banquet!"


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MARCH 19, 2011 11:05AM

A Family Cooks a Feast

Rate: 27 Flag

“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:  

Pernil marinating 

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:  

Beans step 1 

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:  

Beans-step 2-raw sofrito 

She then cooked the sofrito, in batches, in olive oil.  

Beans step 3-sofrito cooking

Once the beans were tender, she added the sofrito to the pot, 

Beans-step 4-adding sofrito  

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.  

Pernil-mid cook cutting 1

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:

Pernil-mid cook cutting 2 

By the end of the afternoon, the ham was practically falling off the bone—as it should be:  

Pernil cooked 

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.

Platanos cut 

(Why, look! There was drinking going on!) They are fried (use canola oil) until golden

Platanos cooked once  

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

Platanos smashed  

(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:

 Pernil sliced




(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:   

Finished plate 

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. 

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This was barely noticed when I posted it back in 2009. While it's hardly Christmas season, I think all in the family would agree that this meal is near and dear to the communal heart. Besides, I didn't have any pictures of the frijoles colorados or judias or caldo Gallego. Course, I could repost bistec empanizado . . . .
Time for a pig post. Must be spring. Those fried plantains do look good though. Can I have a double portion of those?
Dios mío! I shall be there, with bells a'jingling, singing carols with muy gusto outside your door next Christmas Eve.
I do not each much pork , in fact seldom..
But could you mail me some?
rated with hugs
I adore food history. These are the communally culinary kinds of dishes that families around the world have done for centuries. Sad, yet realistic to have to modify to suit our peripatetic lifestyles nowadays, but definitely better than not having at all. :) Rated
I think that this entire post and photos are wonderful. The pork looks so good I'm salivating. -R-
I noticed it back then and I loved it as much when I read it today. As soon as I finish this comment I'm handing the computer over to Mel for her to read it and hopefully she will take up the challenge of trying that ham....God that looks so good.
Beautiful post, Pilgrim. Although I don't eat porc, I pretended it was a leg of lamb as I read through your recipe. It was the (hi)story and tradition that captivated me more. The plate, cradling the sliced radishes, is exquisite. Thanks for sharing.
Wow! I want to come to your place for Christmas dinner. What an incredible feast and family tradition. High off the hog, indeed.
Thanks for sharing. Since just about all my aunts and uncles have passed, my cousins and I have continued the noche buena tradition. R
Que rico gozar a la tradición y al cambio. Junto con una rueda cubana y esa música y vea como vibra esta vida finita y bien fina.
Thank you for these posts, hoy, manaña y siempre.
No pig for me but I am trying the rice and beans. Loved the picture of the radishes on that colourful dish. I thought this was up last year with the contraversial pig on a spit picture? Maybe I'm dreaming ...Bon Apetite!
Darn you, Pilgrim, can't you see my empty plate? I'm STILL waiting for my first taste of that Pernil!

I'll never complain about how much work Thanksgiving is again!
I haven't had tostones in about a week! Now, I wish I had stopped at the street vendor for some plantains...
I had sandwich de pernil the other day at a Cuban bakery. By the time I was ready to leave with my to go order I was laughing myself silly with the owner's antics. The man has a flair for phrasing and he could tell I was enjoying it.
I guess the making of pernil is different for us here. We do the dry ingredients rub and let it 'sit' overnight inside the fridge. A la varita would be the favorite method, with the skin so crips biting into it is like eating a bit of heaven.
OMG! What an amazing post!!!! Thanks for taking time to do this!!!
Oh mna I'm hungry and I just don't know if my corned beef and cabbage is gonna do it for me now....
I HAVE to try these recipes and soon.
I LOVE your family and your closeness.
I am quivering with delight - no one would care about Christmas presents if they had this to look forward to.
What I love about this, dear friend, is that it brims over with delight and enthusiasm and the love of tradition and the excitement of sharing with family. It is brimming with love.
I was too busy imagining how good it tasted the first time---won't make that mistake again!
too busy imaging how good it tasted TO COMMENT the first time. . . .sigh. . .brain moving faster than fingers here. . . .
heron: You'd like the black beans, too, I think.

Matt: We'll save a seat for you.

Linda: Not sure how well it will travel, but we'll give it a shot.

Theresa: Thanks for coming by. Part of the reason the date has to be flexible is that the younger generation (well, since they're having kids now, they're the middle generation) has two families to do Christmas with, so it's understandable.

Christine: It's to die for.

Torman: It (the flavorings) can be done with any pork roast.

Fusun: Thanks for enjoying the story. Lamb, like piggie, is a Mediterranean food, and these are basically Mediterranean flavors. See no reason why they wouldn't work with it!

Walter: Good stuff, gotta say!

Naomi: Let me know how it turns out!

Trudge: Good for you.

LC: Gracias! But is there such a thing as too much pernil???

catch: Vamos a gozar! Vamos a bailar--pues, comer!!

Scarlett: Good memory, though that post didn't have the full recipe or the full story or the beans.

Shiral: I think you ate it all!!

vanessa: Number Two Son is going in a couple of weeks to be with his brother. I realized in doing this post that I need to make him some platanos before he goes!
Ah, and let's hear it for crispy pig skin! Heaven indeed!!

Midwest: My pleasure. Thanks for coming by.

LL2: I'm sure you'll do it perfectly!

Margaret: Yeah, presents don't matter. Presence does.

Kate: Yeah, some of it brimmed over onto the rim of that serving bowl!

ChiGuy: I wish my brain moved fast . . . . Glad you liked.
it's a good thing i wasn't there in 'official photographer' capacity since i'd have been too busy with the eating and drinking and tasting before things made it to the table to get a decent picture. because of which i'm quite forgiving of the pic-snapper who missed a couple and forgot to wipe the edge of the tureen. A+ to him and the platoon of folks who cooked the feast. only wish i'd been at the table. yummmmmm.
femme: Thanks for the free pass. ;)

Linda: Gracias!

Lisa: Many thanks!