I’m not a turkey person. I’m not. I go for the “oysters” under the turkey that flank the turkey backbone. It’s dark meat at its unctuous finest but after that the bird is all yours. If the oysters “disappear” then I won’t be having turkey that year. I like having leftovers to pack up for Daddy and the traditional sandwiches the day following Thanksgiving but I find, without fail, I always have bags of turkey meat left over. Mammoth drumsticks pester me from their gallon freezer bags as do equally huge bags of carved white meat. “Use me! Use me!”, they taunt. Okay. Get ready to be scarfed down and enjoyed. The secret to this recipe is a good roux which takes no talent at all…just time, shugah. You must, MUST, continually whisk it in order for the flavor to bloom and to avoid scorching. Scorch or burn the roux and all you can do is throw it out and start over. It takes roughly 30 minutes to prepare. But other than that it’s easy, clear sailing. I’m not going to prepare turkey pot pie, tetrazzini, turkey soup, spaghetti sauce or anything. I’m not. I’ll toss it before I make that stuff. But gumbo? Oh, yes, ma’am! This’ll be a family favorite, I kid you not. It’s cold out and now it’s the Christmas season. Try it. You’ll be glad you did.
Hey, y’all! I’m going straight into this recipe without chit-chatting about having James home this weekend and getting to smother him and cook for him because he was sick with a cold nor will I regale you with details of the Miami Book Fair because I want you to have plenty of time to get your menu together for Thanksgiving. These warm and gooey appetizers are the perfect combination of sweet and savory but the best part is the dough is already made, rolled out and waiting for you in the dairy section of your grocery store. I found a new product by a company I NEVER use, Pillsbury, at the store and thought I’d try it out. Pillsbury now makes a thin and a thick pizza dough, rolled up and on parchment paper in a plastic tube alongside the boxed pie shells. I used the thin dough and it was terrific in that the dough is sturdy enough to hold the heavy cubes of cheese and fig jam unlike phyllo which seemed to always fall apart on me. The mini-bites may be assembled the night prior to baking if kept chilled in the refrigerator. Try to find a ripe piece of brie to play up its flavor. If the cheese isn’t fully developed the taste, the character, will get lost in the fig preserves. Which isn’t a bad thing…I mean, who doesn’t love figs?! And that gets me to the figs. This recipe calls for a jar of fig jam, no fresh figs to be cut. Gosh, but I love this receipt. The dough is cut into squares with a ruler and a pizza cutter and the cheese is cubed. The fig jam is already prepared and the fresh rosemary leaves, waiting in the produce department, are either pinched or clipped off the stalk. Oh, so easy peasy. Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!
I know I’ve written of Christmas in Puerto Rico but, truly, it is a thing to behold. The breezes were balmy and cool especially in the mountains where we spent a considerable amount of time during the Christmas holidays. My sinfully handsome uncle, Tio Enrique, had serious parties on his farm, the entire family coming from all corners of the island. Often Mama’s second cousins and their families would come and make merry because, as on any island, everyone is family. The house was big and airy, several balconies had hammocks strung up. Set back off the main road and nestled within undulating hills, we looked forward all year to the celebrations at Villa Josefina, the farm named after one of Tio Enrique’s sisters, an aunt who died young before I was born. My parents gave me a second middle name which I share with Josefina. Villa Josefina was a favorite destination for all of us when on holiday whether we were little ones, during the gawky, awkward preteen years or sophisticated, cigarette smoking, makeup wearing high schoolers. My uncle gave us free rein and let us take his horses out for a ride whenever we wanted, without even asking. You want to chew on a stalk of sugar cane? Go get a machete and cut it down…go on! You know how to do it! He didn’t care if we sneaked a smoke behind one of the massive royal poinsiana trees, its fiery flowers blanketing the ground. On the contrary, he’d bum cigarettes off us. No. We were left to do what we like with the only caveat being we had to stay on the property regardless if the iron gates were locked or had been left open. To pass unsupervised and without permission through those gates was tantamount to that of jumping off a cliff. We knew without a doubt we were secure and protected from any harm while behind the lovely iron portal. Well, except one time. My little brother and sister, Tommy and Pamela, and Tio Enrique’s sons, Quico and Tommy, were careening down a hill in a wobbly wagon which happened to deposit them right in front of the open gates. Pamela told me she was miserable and frustrated being excluded just because she was a girl. The more she tried to be part of the fun and excitement, the more they shut her out. None of the kid’s were aware of any commotion around them; Tio Enrique shouting and running toward them, frantically gesticulating, fell on deaf and uninterested ears. He was the cool uncle, nothing he did surprised us. The boys were occupied with an out of control ride as well as thoroughly enjoying a bothered, angry Pamela so all their attentions were focused on that merriment. Two of my uncle’s workers ran behind him as fast as their legs could carry them.
When Pamela turned to look where they were excitedly pointing she turned pale at the site of a monstrous, runaway bull charging down the country road straight at them. A posse of men followed behind the beast futilely attempting the animal’s capture. The children froze, eyes as big as dinner plates, while the sound of the thundering hooves rained on their ears. My uncle and his workers slammed the heavy gates shut with barely a moment to spare, the bull swerved, surprisingly agile for such an enormous creature, and continued down the road. When relief replaced the fear in Tio Enrique he proceeded to give the young boys a blistering tongue lashing. I watched them hang their heads with embarrassment as he verbally took them to the woodshed. Pamela relished every moment. “Your beautiful cousin could have been killed while you played with your wagon!!!” But she wasn’t and minutes later we were all laughing and teasing each other, some were dancing, some were eating, all were drinking. Feliz Navidad!
This dish of arroz con gandules is a traditional Christmas treat in Puerto Rico, rich with pigeon peas, pork, olives and capers. It is typically served with pasteles, lechon asado or roasted pig, salads and root vegetables. Rum and wine cut beautifully through the richness of these foods so feel free to let the alcohol flow. Arroz con gandules can be prepared with or without pork so if you’d rather not include it just leave out the steps preparing the meat. And last, when I prepare white rice it’s almost always medium grain. Short grain can be too sticky or gummy and long grain is just….I don’t know….wrong. Oh, and this recipe will feed a crowd, too. So go tropical. You’ll love it!
Arroz con Gandules or Puerto Rican Pigeon Peas and Rice
I wasn’t planning on serving an appetizer Thanksgiving Day. The family dinner was at our house this year. Everyone was in town and coming late in the day. I couldn’t wait to have all my people gathered together again. The house was ready, the dining room table glittered. I wasn’t going to have a starter course because there was going to be so much food… for crying out loud, it’s Thanksgiving! But then I thought it would be more fun to have a little something to nibble on with champagne and drinks before dinner. Not wanting to break the bank OR break my back I decided a holiday stuffed bread was in order. And because my motto is “more is better” I made two. My husband, Jimmy, looked at me as though I had two heads. “I know, I know. It’s a lot of food but if no one eats it, well, we just wrap them up and have them tomorrow.” He knows not to argue when it comes to food, bless his heart. Let me just cut to the chase. When the two loaves had been plated and my nieces began to make their way through the house serving, you have never seen so many faces light up. My family pounced on them as if they hadn’t eaten in weeks. Grownups were licking their fingers. My brother followed the girls with their trays around the house tearing off chunks of warm, cheesy bread and making happy boy sounds. My son, James,
was not happy when he saw me tucking fresh cranberries into the cheese but after his first bite was in complete agreement that the berries were the perfect clean foil against the gooey, richness of the cheese, olive oil and garlic. Both loaves were gone in minutes. Minutes! This recipe is extremely adaptable in that you can substitute the brie for Gruyère, cheddar, mozzarella or the gooey cheese of your choice. You can tuck in gorgonzola crumbles or shredded parmesan. Red pepper flakes are wonderful for a little heat. Not a fan of cranberries? Try blackberries or raspberries. I used whole grain boules but white bread would be fine. Good looking on a table or passed by hand, this starter is perfect for the holidays. It can be assembled hours ahead, only make certain to wrap it tightly so the bread doesn’t get stale. Make certain you have plenty of napkins and enjoy!
1 1-pound boule or round loaf of bread, 6″-7″ diameter works well
1/4 cup olive oil
1 garlic clove, grated
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
salt and pepper to taste, a healthy pinch of each will do
1/4 pound brie cheese, thinly sliced
1 cup shredded Italian 5 cheese, I believe I used Kraft but any brand is fine, store brand or whatever’s on sale
1/2 cup or more fresh cranberries or berry of choice
thyme sprigs for garnish, optional
Pre-heat oven to 375°.
Making certain not to cut all the way through to the bottom, slice the bread in roughly half-inch slices. Turn the bread 90° and make 1/2″ slices, again not cutting all the way through. I find if I hold the bread firmly it keeps it from shredding or tearing too much. Set aside.
In a small bowl combine olive oil, garlic, thyme leaves, salt and pepper. Set aside.
Gently stuff the brie vertically in the bread slices.
Pour half of the olive oil mixture as evenly as you can into the open bread spaces. Set aside remaining oil.
Toss the thyme leaves with the Italian cheese blend.
Gently stuff the Italian cheese horizontally down into the bread.
Pour the remaining olive oil mixture evenly on the bread.
Tuck the fresh cranberries onto the top of the nooks and crannies of the stuffed bread.
Spray a piece of tin foil with non-stick cooking spray and wrap the bread tightly with the foil.
Place on a baking sheet and bake covered for 25-30 minutes.
Carefully unwrap the bread and bake for 10-15 minutes or until golden and bubbly.
Garnish with fresh thyme sprigs and serve immediately.