Category Archives: Dinner

1 Hour Mediterranean Chicken, the midweek save

This is my new go-to, middle of the week, what the heck am I gonna feed ’em dinner.  I love to cook, yes, but often I feel irritated and uninspired and just plain resentful that, once again, I’M in charge of dinner.  Want to blow those dark feelings away?  Well, here’s my solution.  Mediterranean Chicken.  My boys love, love, love it.  We’ve had it maybe four times in the past week and a half and they are thrilled  every single time.  They hang over the pan, big, sad eyes wanting a taste.  Every time I hear another story, “I just need a little taste to tide me over.”  Or “Mama!  Please!  I never had lunch!”.  I love it.  And Lawdy, it is one easy recipe; most ingredients are probably lounging in your pantry waiting to be used.  Redolent with the flavors of the Mediterranean, this dish is ready from start to finish in about  one hour.  Other ingredients may be added such as olives and capers but I tend to stay away from adding more ingredients with strong flavors as they take over and obliterate the more subtle notes of artichoke and lemon.

fullsizeoutput_14d8

Mediterranean Chicken is heavenly served over noodles, mashed potatoes or rice and, my favorites, roasted spaghetti squash or mashed boniato, a white kind of sweet potato but it’s not a sweet potato loved by Hispanics.  This dish is perfect for all you gravy lovers and delicious the following day.  Another quick dinner is to serve it with a few bags of fresh spinach sautéed with garlic, seared asparagus and hot, crunchy bread.  Enjoy!

img_3516

Mediterranean Chicken

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 1/2 packed cup sun-dried tomatoes, dried not in oil, chopped
  • 5 garlic cloves, finely grated or minced
  • grated zest of one lemon
  • 1 8.5 ounce can artichoke heart, drained, moisture squeezed out and roughly chopped
  • 1 1/3 cups white wine, chicken broth or water
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Pour olive oil into a large, high sided frying pan and heat over medium to medium high heat.
  2. Salt and pepper chicken thighs and place all of them “skin” side down.  Do not spread open the chicken.  They’re best bunched up as they are packaged.
  3. When chicken has browned turn all the pieces over to the other side, the side where the bone was.
  4. When the bone side of the chicken has browned remove to a bowl and set aside.
  5. To the pan juices add the onion, garlic and chopped sun-dried tomatoes and stir until well combined.
  6. When the onion is clear add the grated lemon and artichoke hearts and stir well.  Pour in the wine, broth or water.  I’ve even done combinations of the three when I didn’t have much on hand.  It all comes out great.
  7. Return thighs to the pan, moving the onion artichoke mixture around and spooning it over all the chicken.
  8. Cover and lower to a simmer.  Cook the chicken over low heat for 30 minutes or until fork tender.

http://www.theirreverentkitchen.com

Advertisements

Shrimp and Grits…yes, please

Last week we had a monstrous hurricane bearing down on us and after getting the house and yard storm ready all I could think of was the enormous amount of beautiful dolphin, wild caught shrimp, grass-fed beef and organic chicken lounging in my freezer.  We lose power in our house about the time a storm picks up off the coast of Africa.  It takes nothing for us to lose power.  I hate it.  A car can drive by and all of a sudden, flicker-flicker, and flat silence descends.  No sound, no light, no cooling ceiling fans and no AC.  The worst!  And then, of course, things start thawing and dripping in my freezer.  Not knowing if we would get a direct hit from Hurricane Matthew, and I thank God everyday that we did not, I figured I’d cook up a large portion of my frozen treasures and we would eat like kings for a few days.  Here in south Florida we are blessed with a type of shrimp called Key West Pinks, so sweet, succulent and, yes, pink.  And although their season peaks in June, they’re still quite easy to find in seafood markets.  I quickly steamed a few pounds in a spicy lemony broth and set them aside for us to enjoy cold with cocktail sauce.  I had all kinds of food items in my refrigerator that I was loath to toss.  Bacon, peppers, milk, cream, butter, cheese…what’s a girl to do?

img_3353

Well, I’ll tell you what this girl did.  I prepared for dinner the most luxurious, creamy dish of Shrimp and  Grits this side of heaven.  I always have grits on hand, good grits.  Slow cooking, stone ground grits.  Not that highly processed, quick or instant, grocery store mess.  All watery and bland.  No.  I like coarsely ground grits, loaded with texture and full of corn flavor that easily stand alone on their own merit.  In fact, these are the grits you almost want to eat without anything on top but then I think of the sweet Pinks.  I daydream of the bacon seasoned sauce puddling on top of creamy, white grits and I’m back on board.  Oh, and by the way, Trader Joe’s store brand grits are really super if you don’t have a grist mill down the street.  The shrimp will be gone in two seconds flat but you’ll probably have some grits left over.   It can be gently warmed again the following day and eaten as is with nothing added but a quick grind of black pepper.  The grits will take about 30 minutes to prepare so don’t start cooking your shrimp until the grits are almost done.  If the grits get too thick it can be thinned out with a little warmed milk, half and half or cream.   Pork is usually included in the shrimp mixture.  Bacon, andouille sausage and Tasso are typically put into service.  My first choice is bacon as its saltiness really brings out the sweetness of the shrimp.  Andouille is good but I find its taste completely overwhelms the delicate flavors of both the shrimp and grits.  Tasso is wonderful but it’s also strong plus can be difficult to find.  This, Gentle Reader, is comfort food at its best.  As there is such a difference in wild caught shrimp versus farmed so is there a vast difference in stone ground grits as opposed to highly processed, quick or instant.   Make the effort to find wild caught shrimp and stone ground grits.  You’ll be positively delighted at the difference they make in your dishes.  I hope you enjoy these two recipes as much as my entire family does.  They’ll do ya proud!

Creamy Grits and Collards...it's a natural!
Creamy Grits and Collards…it’s a natural!

Shrimp and Grits

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Grits

  • 1 3/4 cups stone ground grits
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 5 1/2 cups water
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 4 ounces cream cheese
  1. In a large, heavy pot bring the water and salt to a boil then reduce the heat to low.
  2. Using a whisk or large wooden spoon, stir the water in a circular motion while slowly pouring in grits and stirring constantly.
  3. When the grits begin to thicken add the milk, cream and butter.  Stir until all the ingredients are incorporated.
  4. Cook over low heat for 30 minutes or until grits are tender, stirring often.
  5. Add the cream cheese and mix until the cheese has melted into the grits.
  6. Cover, set aside and keep warm on low.

Shrimp

  • 5 slices thick sliced bacon, cut into matchstick size pieces
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 large garlic clove, finely minced or grated
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/4 cup half and half or heavy cream
  • 2 pounds wild caught uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • serve with Tabasco sauce or Crystal Hot sauce on the side, optional
  1. Place the bacon pieces in a medium size skillet and cook over medium heat until crisp, 6-10 minutes.
  2. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon and set aside in a small bowl.  Leave the bacon drippings in the pan.
  3.  To the bacon drippings add the onion, bell pepper and garlic and cook over moderate heat until the onions are clear and soft but not brown, about 5 minutes or so.
  4. Add the butter and stir until melted.  Add the shrimp, lemon juice and white wine.  Stir well to cook evenly.  Cook until shrimp just turn pink.
  5. Quickly add reserved bacon and stir well and remove from heat.
  6. Spoon warm grits in shallow soup bowls.
  7. Using a slotted spoon top grits with shrimp
  8. Pour remaining sauce evenly over shrimp and grits.
  9. Serve immediately.

http://www.theirreverentkitchen.com

 

Comfort Food…Chicken, Sausage and Collard Pilau

I knew I wouldn’t go back to sleep when my body rebelled and I awoke at 4:00 Sunday morning.  I lay in bed wondering what the day would bring…would I go to church or work out?  Would it be a sunny day or a rainy day?  I watched the silent paddles of the ceiling fan slowly rotate in giant sweeps, appreciating  the cool, early morning darkness.  When early morning sleep eludes me, I typically reach for my cell phone and peruse my favorite news outlets, NYT, BBC and CNN.  This Sunday was no different until I glanced at all the screaming banners across the face of the phone.  Now we know all the horrific details of the Orlando shootings.  And my heart aches for all the friends and families of those whose lives were so brutally ended.  As I write this I can’t get past the thought that those kids, and they were kids, weren’t hurting anyone.  And now their loved ones are suffering indescribably and they weren’t hurting anyone either.  Life for them, those left behind, will never, EVER be the same.  When I want to give comfort or take away someones pain and helplessly can’t, I turn to food.  Many an almost-strangers door I’ve knocked on with a pan of hot, buttermilk biscuit, a gentle and calming pound cake or a warm, reassuring casserole in hand.  Whether my offering is for a close friend or neighbor or someone I’ve never met, food is always my contribution…my way of wrapping my arms around someone I may or may not know.  So this is what I wish I could take to all those in pain.  I’m not foolish enough to think it would ease their agony but it is all I have to give.  That and my sincere and earnest prayers.

 

IMG_1992

This recipe is incredibly forgiving.  If you’re a little low on ingredients it rolls with it.  Really the only part that can’t be played with is the broth/rice ratio.  Feel free to add more or less of the vegetables or any combination you prefer.  The final baking in the oven ensures the rice will be beautifully cooked.  There’s enough for your family and another family.  It always seems to be what a loved one with a cold wants.  If you plan to take it to another household don’t bake it just include the baking instructions.  That way it can be frozen and pulled out to bake when needed.  It really should be served soon after baking.

Creole Tomatoes and Peppers Stuffed with Dirty Rice

IMG_1879

Sometimes I get such a jonesing, such a strong pull towards Creole food that I can’t stop myself.  What I can do though, is change-up some of the more rich ingredients and substitute them for more healthful ones.  That’s precisely what I did with traditional dirty rice and dinner was a triumph.  I want preparation to be a speedy, low-labor process and this was.  All my vegetables were organic and non-GMO plus I made use of organic chicken sausage in place of conventional sausage or ground beef.  The chicken livers melt into the other ingredients giving the meal a satiny finish.  So don’t get all scaredy cat over the word “liver”.  White rice was replaced by fragrant brown Basmati rice and with so many flavors ricocheting in your mouth, you’ll never notice the change.  This is the perfect dish to bake whenever you have leftover rice on hand.

IMG_1855

https://en.support.wordpress.com/recipes/

Creole Tomatoes and Peppers Stuffed with Dirty Rice

  • 5-6 medium sized tomatoes, cored and hollowed, tops reserved.  Save the inside of tomatoes for another recipe
  • 1 large tomato, chopped
  • 5-6 small to medium sized bell peppers, ribs and seeds removed, tops reserved
  • 3 cups cooked long grain rice
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, separated
  • 1 cup finely chopped cooked ham
  • 1 pound hot Italian sausage, out of casings, chicken or turkey is fine
  • 1 pound chicken livers, drained
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 ribs of celery, finely chopped
  • 4 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 scallions, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon dried thyme
  • 1 large tomato, cored and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  1. Preheat oven to 350° and cover the inside of a 9X13 baking dish with non-stick cooking spray.  Set dish aside.
  2. In a large, deep, non-stick skillet place 1 tablespoon of olive oil and bring heat up to medium-high.
  3. Add chopped ham to the pam and lightly brown.
  4. Remove browned ham, I throw it in with the rice so as not to dirty up another bowl, and add sausage to the pan, breaking it up as it browns.
  5. When sausage is thoroughly cooked remove from skillet leaving the pan drippings.  I put the sausage with the rice and ham.
  6. Add the drained chicken livers to the pan and cook for 2-3 minutes per side.  You want them still pink inside as they’ll cook further in the oven.  Leave any pan juices in the pan.
  7. Add the second tablespoon of olive oil to the pan juices and add the onion, stirring and cooking until translucent.
  8. Add the celery, garlic and scallions, stirring well and cooking for 2-3 minutes.
  9. Add the thyme and Worcestershire sauce and stir until all ingredients are well combined.
  10. Add the chopped tomato and stir to combine all flavors.
  11. Taste for any needed salt and/or pepper.
  12. Remove skillet from heat and mix in rice-meat mixture.
  13. Spoon dirty rice mixture into the hollowed out tomatoes and peppers, replace tops of the vegetables and position snugly in baking dish.
  14. Pour wine onto bottom of baking dish, cover with tin foil and bake in oven for 45-60 minutes or until vegetables are fork tender.
  15. Cool for 10-15 minutes prior to serving.

 

 

www.theirreverentkitchen.com

Shrimp, Sausage and Chicken Jambalaya…let the good times roll

Mardi Gras is coming to a close, people.  Ash Wednesday is day after tomorrow and this is the time when suddenly I begin to crave pork and beef and chicken and all manner of dishes that will be given up by me once I get that black cross of ashes traced onto my forehead.  Every year I say “Oh, I don’t care about meat.  I don’t even like it!  I never eat it anyway.”  That’s right about the time when visions of $12.00 bacon cheeseburgers, spicy, homemade jambalaya and hot, crispy chicken wings begin to pop up in my head.  I pulled out my giant pot, the one big enough to bathe a baby, and set about to make the best pot of jambalaya I’ve ever had.  I’ve been making this for the longest time and I think I’ve worked out the kinks.  That said, no shortcuts may be taken ie: frozen bags of the Trinity which always leave you waiting for the promised burst of flavor.  This iconic dish begs, no, DESERVES, to be prepared properly…leisurely, and it will reward you by delivering that slow and sultry combination of Louisiana flavors that cause you to roll your eyes back in your head.  Well-made jambalaya, good jambalaya, is like finger-poppin’ music in your mouth.  Layer upon layer of ingredients make themselves known, some subtly others not so discreetly.  It is a one-pot marvel of unpretentious components that ultimately yield a sophisticated dinner of comfort food while at the same time an over-the-top indulgence.  And it is the best possible way to celebrate Fat Tuesday.  So put on some boom-boom radio or zydeco, haul out your big pot and get to it.  Laissez le bon temps rouler!

My pot holds 3.5 gallons. the spoon could probably be used as a paddle in a row boat!
My pot holds 4 gallons. The spoon could probably be used as a paddle for a row-boat!

IMG_1272

 

Jambalaya is a great dish for a crowd.  It’s best prepared in a large, heavy bottomed pot with a lid that fits well.  Having all your ingredients cut, chopped and ready to go will also ensure a fantastic meal.  If you’re not able to locate converted Louisiana white rice just substitute it for a good quality, converted, white, long grain rice.  What cannot be substituted is the Andouille sausage.  I get mine from the butcher’s  and if they’re out I use Aidell’s brand which is stocked at Publix.  I find using sausage other than Andouille in this dish ends up tasting like hot dogs.  Not a flavor I want after I’ve been standing in the kitchen for a few hours.  So put off making jambalaya until you can find the real thing.  I use a mammoth, wooden spoon to stir this dish.  You’ll want to use the largest spoon you can get your hands on as the ingredients become heavy and bulky as you get further into the cooking.

Shrimp, Sausage and Chicken Jambalaya

  • Servings: 10-12
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

  • 5 cups converted long grain rice
  • 3 tablespoons smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon celery salt
  • 3 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
  • 1 pound ground pork sausage, preferably spicy
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 pound Andouille sausage or 1 12-ounce package from the grocery store, thinly sliced
  • 12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of all fat and cut into 1″ cubes
  • 3 large, sweet onions, diced
  • 2 bell peppers, seeded and diced
  • 6 stalks of celery, leaves included, diced
  • 1 large head of garlic, minced
  • 3-4 fresh bay leaves
  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • 1 1/2 cups canned crushed tomatoes
  • 3 pounds medium-sized shrimp, peeled and deveined, preferably not farmed
  • salt and pepper
  1. In a medium-sized bowl add paprika, celery salt, thyme, cayenne pepper and rice.  Stir well to break up any lumps in the spices.  Set aside.
  2. Bring a large pot up to medium heat and add ground sausage, breaking up and stirring while it browns.
  3. When sausage is browned add oil and Andouille sausage.  Stir occasionally but allow Andouille to brown and get color.
  4. Add chicken pieces and cook until golden.  Stir occasionally.
  5. Add the onions to the pot and stir continuously.  Cook until clear.
  6. Add the bell pepper, celery and garlic and cook for another 7-10 minutes stirring all the while.
  7. Add the rice mixture to the pot and stir so the grains of rice are evenly coated with the contents of the pot.
  8. Raise heat to high, add bay leaves, crushed tomatoes, chicken stock and stir well.  Taste broth for seasoning and add salt and black pepper as needed.
  9. When pot comes to the boil, drop the heat to medium-low, cover the pot and simmer until rice is cooked according to package instructions.
  10. When rice is cooked, gently mix in the shrimp, this is where you truly need a big spoon, again cover the pot and turn off the heat.
  11. Allow the shrimp to cook in residual heat another 15 minutes then serve.

 

http://www.theirreverentkitchen.com

 

Puff Pastry Tart with Goat Brie, Ricotta and Zucchini

There’s not much better on a Friday evening than mouth-watering, delectable dinner that’s put together with ingredients you happen to have on hand.  Having discovered some time ago goat brie at Trader Joe’s, I thought maybe I would incorporate it into some sort of puff pastry tart for dinner.  Looks like any brie but this one has a strong, goaty flavor that’s positively sublime, and, yes, now I am an addict.  If you’re not able to locate it, the combination of a small wheel of brie chopped and mixed a small amount of chevre, goat cheese, will also work quite well.   I wanted a creamy backdrop to support the brie and  one small container of ricotta was the perfect foil, rich and spreadable but not as gooey as mozzarella.  An egg to bind, some fresh basil,  zucchini ribbons, a quick drizzle of a fragrant, green olive oil and I had one gorgeous, undemanding dinner.  The only fly in the ointment was neither of my boys had gotten home yet.  Jimmy was speaking at some conference and James catching up with a co-worker he had worked with on a gubernatorial campaign.  All fine and well but, hey, dinner’s ready!  I chased away the feeling of discouragement by serving myself the prettiest part of the tart.  Cut into quarters, my portion had the most browned, runny, chewy bits of cheese.  Not exactly first prize but I’ll take second prize any day.  I had prepared a splendid salad of leaf lettuce dressed lightly with creme fraiche; the requisite glass of Malbec had been poured.  Each bite was a song of flavors. The buttery puff pastry gave a satisfying crunch as did the barely cooked zucchini.  But the goat cheese was the star of that musical.  Not too sharp and  creamy-dreamy, the brie made its presence known in every bite.  Happy Friday night to me!

IMG_1240

 

IMG_1235

 

Puff Pastry Tart with Goat Brie, Ricotta, Basil and Zucchini

This tart may be made with fresh baby spinach or fresh basil leaves.  If you have a handful of some strong, flavorful cheese and you want to get rid of it, it’s most welcome in this dish.  I’ve  used the odd bits of Gruyere and even used the last quarter cup of bagged, shredded Publix brand 4-cheese Italian .  One cup of marinated artichoke hearts roughly chopped is lovely, too.

  • 1 puff pastry sheet, I use Pepperidge Farm, keep chilled until assembling tart
  • 1 wheel goat brie 4.4 ounces, or cow’s brie with 3 or 4 ounces of chevre added
  • 1 15-ounce ricotta, fat-free is great…that’s all I use in this tart
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 12-15 zucchini ribbons made with a vegetable peeler or mandolin
  • fresh spinach, washed and dried, as much as you like to scatter on top, optional
  • fresh basil, cut into strips, optional
  • 1 cup marinated artichokes, drained well and roughly chopped, optional
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • olive oil to drizzle when serving
  1. Preheat oven to 425°.
  2. In a medium size bowl place a paper towel.  Gently dump the ricotta cheese on the paper towel, bring the corners of the towel around the cheese and softly press all excess liquid away.  Turn cheese back into the bowl and discard towel.
  3. Roughly cut the brie into 1/2 chunks and add to ricotta.
  4. Add the egg to the cheeses.
  5. If using spinach, basil or artichokes add to cheese/egg mixture and mix well.
  6. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Cover baking sheet with tin foil.
  8. Open puff pastry on floured  surface.
  9. With a rolling-pin, use a cold wine bottle if you don’t have a rolling-pin, quickly roll puff pastry out to a 12″X15″ rectangle.  Don’t fret.  It doesn’t have to be perfect but you do want to keep the dough cold so move fast.
  10. Using your finger or a small brush and a little water paint a 1/4″ rim around the entire rectangle.
  11. Fold 1/4″ of dough from the edge each of the four sides of the rectangle onto the wet area to make a collar or dam, if you will, to keep in the cheese mixture.  Press the dough firmly to adhere to the water painted dough.
  12. Cover the puff pastry evenly with the cheese mixture just up to the folded edge and  smooth the top.
  13. Arrange the zucchini on top of the cheese, flat and on its side to resemble a lovely jumble of green ribbon.
  14. Bake 45-60 minutes until corners are browned and top is slightly browned.
  15. Cool 10 minutes before serving.

 

When you see Pasteles you know it’s Christmas in Puerto Rico

IMG_0941

Christmas is the best of Puerto Rican culture.  There is nothing, NOTHING, like a Christmas party in Puerto Rico.  Our Christmas fiestas are epic, beginning early in December and really not ending until mid-January.  Growing up in Fort Lauderdale we had a conflict of loyalties at Christmas.  Leading up to the 25th of December was everything every little boy and girl dreamed of.  Christmas parties at school with Secret Santas.  Christmas on Las Olas where we got all dressed up, played in our Florence Eiseman dresses, white socks and black patent leather Mary Janes with our friends while our parents strolled the boulevard also decked out in their formal attire our mamas sporting big jewels with cocktails in hand.  Museum parties where, if you were lucky, you got your picture in the social column of the local news paper.  Every waking hour found vinyl spinning carols on the big, brown hi-fi.  Mama would let Cynthia and me play Burl Ives and Bing Crosby songs over and over while she sat and enjoyed our beautiful tree.  She let US set up the massive manger sent from Spain that her father in Puerto Rico had given her.  Mama bought us GALLONS of eggnog from Farm Stores, a convenience store known for their thick, rich Christmas drink.  There were tree trimming parties and cookie exchanges.  There was virtually no baking in our house so Mama would buy boxes and boxes of butter cookies with sparkling red and green sugar crystals at Jacobs Bakery.  Together Cynthia and I would hide in our room and, with heads together and low, secretive whispers, carefully open the presents we had for our parents.  We were so proud of them…we just HAD to look at them again.  Usually the presents consisted of some sort of pottery made and fired at school.  We still have our handprints we each made when we were in first grade.  And Mama always, always loved and treasured each and every handmade gift.  One year I made a small, squat, acid green pitcher.  Another, a dark, olive green snake rising from a rock as if to strike.  But Cynthia made the coolest gift of all.  It would have been the late 50’s or early 60’s and each classmate had been asked to bring in an empty glass bottle.  Clean, dry and labels taken off, brightly colored marbles were then inserted and the bottles were, somehow, fired in a kiln.  What came out was a large glass ashtray striated with brilliant ribbons of color throughout.  My parents didn’t smoke but that thing sat in proudly in our living room for an eternity.  Christmas morning was an astonishing extravaganza of thoughtful, magical gifts that stunned us year after year.  Mama was quite frugal year round but come Christmas, well, she let Daddy know in no uncertain terms that she was pulling out all stops and that was that.  Piled high and exquisitely wrapped were dollies, complete with wardrobes and wardrobe trunks from France and Switzerland, beautifully wrapped books from England, pen and ink drawings concealed between the heavy, linen paper pages patiently waiting to whisk us away to new lands and adventures.  There were gleaming bicycles and roller skates complete with keys tied with a string of yarn ready to be worn around our necks during a fast paced race down the street.  And that’s wherein our conflict of loyalties would lie.

IMG_8346

Mama would allow us to play with our new toys for a few hours but then we had to clean up and give all our attentions to Christmas dinner with our grandfather, aunt, uncle and cousins.  Upon returning home we had a quick bath, story then bed, for the following morning we were flying to Puerto Rico and we wouldn’t see our toys and books again for another month.  Cynthia and I never wanted to leave.  Tell me the 4 and 6-year-old that doesn’t mind walking away from their NEW TOYS?  We never said much about it because Mama was so darned happy…she was going home.  HOME.  And she would be there for the happiest, most fun time of the year.  There was no discussion.  So off we went.  On Pan American.  With our little white socks on and Mama frantically asking, “Cielo, did you pack your veil as I asked?”.  That would be for all the Masses we would be attending on this VERY Catholic island.  Or, “Alicia, did you find your other glove?”.  Probably not.  I never had a matching pair.  One seemed to always be lost from each pair.  From the moment we landed it was color, music, laughter and clear-cut, point-blank, unreserved love.  The happy, exalted, pick-you-up-and-swing-you-around kind.  My mother’s family adored us, gave us everything we wanted and gave us that which we weren’t even aware we wanted!  Night after night, at my grandparent’s house, we were awakened in the middle of the night by “parranderos” made up of family friends and relatives singing Puerto Rican Christmas songs.  Still a tradition, the singers gather quietly at the unsuspecting family’s house sometime after 10 or 11:00 p.m. and, at a given signal, burst into song surprising the sleeping family.  Parranderos all play a musical instrument from guitars, tambourines, and maracas to palitos, short, hardwood sticks struck together to give off a deep rhythmic sound, and guiros, dried, hollowed gourds with parallel notches carved out on one side.  Scraping  a stick or metal tines across the notches of the guiro makes a raspy, sexy sound and all these instruments played together produces the kind of music that’ll bring your oldest grandmother or grandfather to their feet for some hip-shaking, hand-clapping music you’ll be thinking of with a smile on your face for a long, long time.  The awakened family is then expected to join the group for some song and then invite all into the house for some holiday food and a few fingers of fine Puerto Rican rum.

Pasteles that James and I made. A treasured mountain of homemade love!
Pasteles that James and I made. A treasured mountain of homemade love!

The family is invited to join the group as they go on to the next unsuspecting household for more surprise and song.  You can leave the parranda to go back home any time you like but most parrandas go on until 4 or 5 in the morning.  Mama would hurry into our room and, gently shaking Cynthia and me on the shoulders, whisper, “Girls!  Girls!  Wake up!  Come to the balcon!  Come see!”.  In our cotton nightgowns, barefooted with eyes half-shut, we’d hurry to the front balcony and looking down there would be friends of the family, a few neighbors and a handful of uncles, dressed up, playing their instruments and singing their hearts out.  Our grandfather, Papa Pepe, would be holding court in one of the mammoth cane-back rocking chairs, the rich smoke from his cigar curled off in long wisps and disappeared into the black night.  Mama would be dancing in place, singing and clapping as if it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon.  Too young to know how to swing our hips, Cynthia and I would clap our little hands, jumping up and down in perfect syncopation with the latin beat.  My grandparents always smiled and welcomed the carolers but never continued on with the parranderos.  It was back to bed for us after they left.   Well accepted and custom in Puerto Rico, this practice is routine weekend AND weekday!  For family parties whole pigs were roasted on hand-turned spits at our Tio Enrique’s farm.  He and my other uncles always had a substantial supply of “pitorro”, illegal rum made from a still, and made certain that the farm worker hired to sit and turn the spit all day was well oiled with a discreet sip and maybe a slightly off-colored joke or two.  Along with the roast pork, or lechon, was served the ultimate of Puerto Rican holiday dishes, pasteles, a tamale-like treat of blended of root vegetables seasoned with tasty chunks of savory pork wrapped in banana leaves, incredibly tasty but labor intense beyond belief.  Alongside the lechon and pasteles was served our island’s version of rice and pigeon peas or arroz con gandules, spicy blood sausage called morcilla, garlicky cod fritters known as bacalaitos, crispy, salty fried plantains or tostones and, of course, the Puerto Rican egg nog drink, the Coquito, which is a creamy coconut cocktail spiked with a liberal amount of island rum.  While the grownups relaxed and visited my sister and I would swing as fast and high as we possibly could on strung up hammocks.  Our uncle would gather the both of us onto one of his horses and, machete in hand, cut down a good-sized piece of sugar cane, one for each of us to munch on, and off we’d go to explore his property and, essentially, run free.  His gated house was set far off the road, surrounded by mountains and studded with palm and mahogany trees.  My favorite, the scarlet flamboyan, offered delicious shade where Cynthia and I wiled away hours playing fairy and in later years sneaking cigarettes and having boy-talk.

IMG_4408
Plaza del Mercado, where all good city girls could pick up their holiday party fixins’. Built in 1910, Plaza del Mercado not only has it’s own coat of arms but also boasts an extensive selection of local produce, meats and fish. My grandfather, Papa Pepe, used to stroll down here to pick up his lottery tickets. When I asked where he had been he always gave me the same answer, “Mi hija, fui a misa!” “My child, I went to Mass!”

New Year’s Eve brought more parties and Cynthia and I were permitted to stay up although when our family rang in the new year we were then in our nightgowns and close to going to bed.  There were countless toasts, hug and kisses for all and, of course, good wishes.  In the tradition of the island, one of my aunts or uncles would fill a bucket with water and with everyone standing back, cheering and whistling, the water would be flung with abandon off the second story balcony onto the street below signifying renewal and washing away all bad luck.  Cynthia and I bounced up and down and climbed from lap to lap, skittish with excitement…this behavior was crazy!  At the threat of something worse than death, we weren’t ever allowed to throw anything off the balcony.  Our eyes were big as dinner plates at this display of dangerous living.  Each of the grownups had had a sip or two, possibly three, and emotions were running high.  My mother’s family rejoiced that she was with them, they were ecstatic that their girl was back if only for a month.  Emotion washes over me when I think of how much my mother must have missed them and they her.  Mama NEVER complained, she was raised in a world which dictated that complaining was common and unrefined, but I know it must have ripped her heart to pieces to have to leave.  January 6th was Three King’s Day, the most important of holidays in Puerto Rico, when the Magi traveled all over the world on their camels leaving gifts for all good little boys and girls.  The evening of January 5th would find children in the city, in the country and the mountains, outside with cardboard boxes in hand eagerly searching to fill them with the greenest grasses and most tender and loveliest of flowers to offer the camels who had journeyed so far.  Cynthia and I, without fail, asked our aunts for a shoebox for each of us to fill with the prettiest of flora and they never let us down.  We’d follow closely in their footsteps  to their closets with eagerness because their closets were veritable treasure troves.  Out came the big, brass keys they wore.  The doors swung open and we caught sight of delicate fans made of lace and balsa wood, jewelry boxes with small, brass padlocks and fragrant rounds of soaps from Spain delicately wrapped in pleated, red tissue paper finished with a stamped coat of arms.  Their leather high-heels were neatly lined up on the floor but all the prettiest, dress-up heels, were wrapped and stored in their ornate boxes.  Both aunts would pick out the loveliest of boxes because you only put out your best for the Three Kings.  The boxes were left at the foot of each child’s bed in the hopes that while the camels ate the flowers and greenery, the Three Kings, Los Reyes, would reward the children with wonderful presents.  Like Santa, the Three Kings came in the middle of the night.  It never occurred to Cynthia or me to question how those elaborately designed boxes ended up BACK in their respective closets but they did and without a scratch on them.  January 7th through the 9th are holidays as each king has his own day and then, hard to believe but it’s gospel, the next 8 days are known as Las Octavitas with continuous celebrations all over the island.  Sometime towards the end of Las Octavitas would be when we returned home to Fort Lauderdale.  I won’t even go into the overwhelming sadness and yearning felt by all.  I know Mama would have given her right arm and one eye to stay but Cynthia and I had usually already missed a good week of school.  Through all our heartfelt hugs and tears we consoled ourselves knowing that soon we would be back for summer vacation, three whole months, for new adventures and memories to be made.  We’d had a magnificent time and we knew it.  Again, Mama, thank you for the most perfect, blissful childhood a little girl could ever want.  This glimpse I give you all into a past time, my world, is not only a precious, treasured memory but my Christmas gift to you.   And so I say Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad!

Taken in Fort Lauderdale, this is the only photo that I know of which shows Cynthia and me gathering grass and flowers for the Three Kings camels. I don't recall what I was thinking but it looks to me that I might be stealing some of Cynthia's flowers when she's asleep. And I'm really loving that bowl-cut my father gave me!
Taken in Fort Lauderdale, this is the only photo that I know of which shows Cynthia and me gathering grass and flowers for the Three Kings camels. I don’t recall what I was thinking but it looks to me that I might be stealing some of Cynthia’s prettier flowers while she’s asleep. And I’m really loving that bowl-cut my father gave me…said no one ever.

Pasteles are easiest made with two or three people helping and in stages, over two days.  The achiote oil can be store-bought or homemade.  For the most part I prepare the meat and grate the root vegetables the first day and the second day is spent preparing the banana leaves and wrapping the pasteles.  Frozen banana leaves may also be purchased at most large grocery stores.  The outer paper is also available at grocery stores or online.  When peeling the green bananas and plantain I strongly suggest using disposable gloves otherwise the juices will stain your cuticles and under your fingernails and you will look like you have farmer hands.  James and I assembled the pasteles at our dining room table which we covered with thick layers of news paper to avoid not only sticky messes but achiote oil stains.  Please know, achiote stains permanently.  So it’s probably not a good idea to wear your favorite pajama top.  Jus’ sayin’.

IMG_8345

PASTELES

yield: 30-35

MEAT

  • 3 pound boneless lean pork picnic, fat off and cut into 1/2″ cubes
  • 3 tablespoons adobo powder, I use “light” for less sodium and Goya brand
  • 4 tablespoons achiote oil
  • 1 1/2 cups sofrito, homemade or store-bought
  • 1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 1 15.5 ounce can garbanzo beans, rinsed, drained and skinned
  • 1 tablespoon oregano
  • 1 cup green olives, I use olives with the pit for more flavor
  1. Mix the pork with the adobo until the meat is evenly and completely covered.
  2. Add olive oil to a heavy bottomed pot and over medium heat cook the pork until the meat begins to release its juices stirring all the while.
  3. Add all the remaining ingredients, stir well, and cook covered over medium low heat for 1 hour or until the meat is tender.
  4. Remove from heat and set aside.

MASA

  • 9 pounds very green bananas, peeled and maintained in cold, salted water until grated
  • 5 pounds yautia or malanga, peeled and rinsed clean
  • 1 large green plantain, peeled then put in the salted water with the bananas
  • 2 envelopes of Sazon Goya with Culantro and Achiote
  • 4 tablespoon salt
  • 1/2 cup achiote oil
  1. Using the large grater side of a box grater, grate all of the bananas, yautia and plantain.  They will grate down to a sticky, runny paste, very loose and smooth.
  2. Mix the root vegetable paste well then add the Sazon Goya, salt, achiote oil and the meat mixture, juices and all.
  3. Mix well then take one or two tablespoons of the mixture and fry it up in a little olive oil to taste for seasonings.  This will give you a really good idea of what the final product will taste like.  Season accordingly and refrigerate, covered, until ready to assemble the pasteles.  For me that’s Day Two.

ASSEMBLING THE PASTELES

  • 1 pound frozen banana leaves, washed, trimmed and cut into 5″X7″ or 8″ pieces, Publix carries them
  • 30-35 sheets paper for pasteles, I get mine at Sedano’s
  • 30-35 pieces of cotton string measuring about 60″ in length
  • achiote oil, maybe 1/2 cup
  1. Heat a large skillet or griddle to medium high heat.  Place a cut banana leaf on skillet and warm the leaf for maybe 30-60 seconds moving around to avoid burning.  With tongs flip leaf to the other side and continue wilting.  This wilting process will make the leaves much easier to work with.  Set aside when finished.
  2. Set up your work stations however it’s most convenient for you.  I put a stack of pastel papers right in front of each person and assemble the pasteles from there.
  3. To begin, place one banana leaf in the middle of the pastel paper and spread a scant teaspoon of achiote oil all over the leaf.  It doesn’t have to be all the way to the edges.  This keeps the pastel from sticking when it comes time to serve it.
  4. Place 1 cup of the pastel mixture in the middle of the leaf.
  5. Take the pastel paper with the leaf and mixture in it and fold in half towards you so the edges of the paper meet.  Hold the edges down with one hand and with the side of your other hand press the mixture away from you, back into the leaf.  You’re going to often press the mixture back into shape as you fold.
  6. Take the edges in front of you and make a tight, 1/2″ fold.  Make the same fold two more times, tightly and the same 1/2″.
  7. Place the tightly creased fold over the pastel mixture.  It will look like a torpedo with a fold running lengthwise.
  8. Pressing the pastel mixture to the center of the bundle, make two 1/2″ folds at one end of the torpedo and, where the mixture begins, fold that entire end over towards the center.
  9. Repeat with the other end and you’ll finish with a small bundle.  Set aside, folded edges down.
  10. Fold another pastel and tightly tie the two pasteles together placing the folded edges facing each other.  I tie the length and width both two times.
  11. Freeze until ready to cook.  Because of the high fat content they freeze marvelously.  We just ate the last of the pasteles I made last year and they were sublime!
  12. When ready to eat, heat a large pot with one inch of water and a steamer, bamboo or stainless steel.
  13. If fresh, gently steam for one hour, covered, and add water as needed.  If frozen, steam for two hours, again, adding water as needed.
  14. To serve, cut string, unwrap, discard paper and banana leaf and slide pastel onto waiting plate.