Lately I’ve been leaning towards simple but satisfying weekend dinners. I find Saturdays can be exhausting, whether one is grocery shopping, making Home Depot and dry cleaning runs or staying home to spend the day doing yard work. I always seem to bite off more than I can chew and pay dearly for it hours later with sore muscles or Sunday morning when the alarm goes off at 6:15 to get ready for 7:30 mass. No, weekends aren’t always the restful breaks we want them to be. In order to make life easier and keep my family happy, I often prepare some sort of grilled sandwich or panino, served with a salad and some fruit, for dinner at the end of the week. This stuff makes a sandwich absolutely sing. The jam may be cooked in a crock pot or stove top. I feel the crock pot just makes the entire process foolproof plus one doesn’t need to check on it every half hour to make certain it’s not too dry or, worse yet, burning. But it’s up to you as either way yields a gorgeous product. On Thursday I prepared this bacon jam and we enjoyed it over the weekend. Saturday night I roasted brussel sprouts and tossed them mid-roast with a few spoonfuls of the jam. I’m sorry to say they were so good they were eaten before I could snap a photo. You’ll just have to take my word they were fantastic! I made grilled cheese sandwiches with Monterey jack cheese on a rich, dark whole-grain bread and spread both slices of bread liberally with a swath of bacon jam. They were delicious served with the brussel sprouts and cold apple slices.
For the Super Bowl game I kept my people entertained by giving them bacon jam palmiers made from store-bought puff pastry. They were gone before you could say, “lickety-split”. I spread the jam evenly over each sheet of puff pastry, rolled up the sides, sliced them with dental floss and baked them off. What a luxury! Even easier is to only roll one side and you’ll have pinwheels instead of palmiers.
Monday morning as my son headed off to work I surprised him with the same grain bread toasted, bacon jam on both pieces of bread and a fried, organic egg nestled in the middle. That’s some kind of treat, huh? I hope you try this recipe. I’m pretty sure you’ll find plenty of ways to enjoy it…including directly off the spoon!
1 1/2 pounds thick sliced bacon, if the package is a few ounces less that’s fine
2 cups yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/3 cup spiced rum, I use Captain Morgan
1/4 cup maple syrup, I use dark amber
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 packed cup brown sugar
1 cup strong brewed coffee
1/8 teaspoon or 1 large pinch of red pepper flakes
In a large skillet cook bacon over medium high heat until the bacon is crisp but not burned. Transfer the bacon to drain on paper towels and drain the pan of all but 3-4 tablespoons of bacon grease.
Lower the heat to medium and return the pan to the heat. Add the onion and garlic to the skillet and cook until the onion begins to soften and turn clear.
To the pan add all of the remaining ingredients except the red pepper flakes and stir until all the ingredients are well mixed and any browned bits of bacon are loosened and combined.
Crumble the bacon by hand directly into the onion mixture and stir well.
If cooking in a crock pot, transfer the mixture to your slow cooker. Set the temperature to high and allow to simmer uncovered for 3 1/2-4 hours. The liquid should be somewhat syrupy.
If cooking stove-top drop the heat to low and allow to simmer for 2 hours uncovered. Check the pan every 30 minutes and stir. If the mixture is sticking to the bottom of the pan lower the heat a bit and add 1-2 tablespoons of water.
From the crock pot or the pan transfer the mixture to a food processor or blender or use an immersion blender and pulse until the jam still has texture and a few small chunks. Try not to over-blend.
Allow to cool 30 minutes, add the red pepper flakes and stir well to combine.
Spoon into clean jam jars and cool completely before storing in the refrigerator.
The jam will keep 2-3 weeks stored in the refrigerator.
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
My parents always stressed that the best godparents are family members. Friends come and go, but family is a constant. They’re forever there for you. So why did they pick friends to be my godparents? Never knew them. Never saw them. So I adopted Cynthia’s godparents as my own. Our aunt and uncle in Puerto Rico, whom we affectionately named, Madrinita, little godmother, and Panino, apparently we couldn’t pronounce godfather, Padrino. The nerve-center of our family was our grandparents house, where Panino lived until he married and where Madrinita still lives today. Panino bought a house down the street from them and is, also, still there. My grandparent’s house is old, with cool, thick walls, incredibly high ceilings, typically Spanish styled. Panino’s room was across from my grandfather’s, and we weren’t allowed in his room unless he was there and he issued the “okay”. Those were the rules. Panino was the uncle who would come home late from the University, he was in graduate school, and in a loud voice ask my mother, who would be on the second floor, front balcony, with my grandparents, aunts and any visiting uncle, “Oye! Y donde estan las nenas?”, “Hey! Where are the girls?”. All the rocking chairs would freeze mid-rock as my mother would try to explain that as four and six-year olds, we had long been in bed and was he aware of how late it was? He would hear none of it! Under hissed threats that he better not wake us, he’d happily sail into our bedroom, throw on the light and loudly wake us up. “Nenas! Nenas! Depiertate! Quien quiere helado de coco? Vamonos! Vamonos! A Los Chinitos!”. “Girls! Girls! Wake up! Who wants coconut sherbet? Let’s go! Let’s go! To The Chinitos!” You can only imagine my mother’s futile protestations falling on Panino’s deaf bachelor ears. And, so, at eleven o’clock at night, off we’d go in our nightgowns and tennis shoes to get ice cream. He was that special uncle who took us everywhere. My aunts would all laugh and say, “Don’t ever go off with Panino! He’ll hold you hostage in his car all day and you’ll never get home!” That was just fine by us. Countless times he took Cynthia and me up into the mountains that were only a beautiful, foggy haze from the balcony at home. We would spend the whole day just exploring, exotic territory to us. The trip home was never a let-down because during the treacherous ride down the mountain’s snake-like roads with hairpin turns, Panino would open the moon roof of his Peugeot, and driving as fast as he possibly could, would let his nieces at four and six little years old, STAND UP IN THE CAR, TORSOS HANGING OUT THE MOON ROOF, ARMS UP IN THE AIR, screaming in sheer delight with reckless abandon! Oh, yeah. That was Panino. A cool uncle. He’s quite the holistic, yoga-loving being and evolved into a vegetarian, eschewing meat with outrage, sometimes to the point of alienating his siblings. Years later he “kidnapped” Pamela and me, along with our babies, James and Catherine. We stopped and picked up a gallon of milk for the little ones and, loaded with diapers, bottles and no car seats, off we went to the mountains. What a beautiful time! We meandered through picturesque, colonial towns, the babies dozing or having their bottles. When it was time to refill the bottles one of us would hold the gallon of milk, the other the baby bottle, all the while trying to hold on to our babies. If you can visualize that, then you can imagine the amount of milk that splashed and spilled all over the back floor of his car. We didn’t say anything partly because we didn’t want to get in trouble and partly because we knew Panino didn’t want to hear about it. Our final stop before the trip back home was to stop at one of the many road-side stands for some Roast Pork, whole pig on a spit. It was delicious. Tender and intense with the flavors of garlic and oregano, we gorged ourselves. Panino would have none, none!, but smiled, indulgently remembering the addicting song of the pork-siren. For dessert we ate big, mega-crisp shards of the roasted pig skin, cuerito. It’s one of the few times in life when it would be a bona fide sin to even entertain the thought of how incredibly unhealthful this stuff is. We made our way back home, tired and sticky, the fullness of the day exhausting us. Kissing Panino goodbye, we thanked him for the day and struggled into the house with Jamesy and Catherine in our arms, trying to keep hold of all our baby accoutrement. The following day we ran into Panino’s wife, Lucy, and after the requisite kisses and pleasantries, we excitedly asked her about the boxed roasted pig and fried pig skin Panino had taken home to her. “What pig?”, she asked, “What are you talking about?” “The pig, the roasted pig Panino brought you. With the big piece of cuero on top? Did you like it? Wasn’t it so good?” Panino, the meat-free, tofu touting, vegetarian had eaten all of it on the two-block drive from our grandparent’s house to his house! Then Lucy asked, “By the way, do you girls know what’s on the floor of his car? In the backseat? It just smells awful! Did the babies get sick?” “Gosh, we don’t know..” and “No, no. We left it just the way we found it. We have no idea”, we chorused. Right. Pamela and I ran upstairs and just fell on the floor laughing, imagining the sour, rank smell of the milk left overnight in a 118° closed-up car. We screamed thinking of the milk becoming rancid, clumpy curds. And fetid, sour globs of cheese. We just howled. “Gosh, we don’t know…” We still laugh. And we love Panino all the more for it!
This is one fabulous, easy and incredibly delicious dish. If you change it up in terms of times and ingredients, well, it just won’t be the same. You can change amounts of ingredients but there are so few that anything left out is truly noticeable. That said, here are the basics. You want to get a pork shoulder picnic cut. Notice in the picture above the thick layer of fat? You want that. Not only will it keep the meat moist and add tons of flavor, but the end result is the crispy outer skin, the “cuero”, which is great to hand out to those friends and relatives you need to get in good graces. I usually use a 7-10 pound shoulder, lots of freshly minced garlic, dried oregano, salt and pepper, all which are your key ingredients. You’re going to marinate the meat the before serving, 24 hours prior is plenty of time. Put the following ingredients in a mortar and pestle, a “pilon”, and mash to a paste. If you don’t have one, finely mince the garlic. I guess you could use that already minced garlic in a jar, but I go the old fashion way and do it by hand in the “pilon”. Here’s the marinade:
2 heads of garlic, cloves peeled and mashed or finely minced
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2-4 teaspoons of salt
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
Mix well. Holding the skinny end of the bone and beginning at the widest pat of the fat cap, use a sharp knife and make one continuous cut between the fat layer and the meat until you have one huge flap of fat all the way back to the beginning of the skinny bone end. Flip the fat over the skinny bone so the meat is exposed. With a small knife make 1″ deep incisions all over the meat, that way the marinade will work its way into the meat and further flavor it. Sprinkle salt all over the inside of the fat, but just the fat, not the meat. Using your hands, spread and rub the marinade all over the meat, sides, bottom and especially where the fat was cut. Fold the fat layer back over the meat, sprinkle with salt, cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.
The meat needs to cook for 5 or 6 hours and to come to room temperature before roasting or it will steam. Bleh. It won’t crisp up and will cook to a gray shade. So, take the meat out of the refrigerator for at least one hour before putting in the oven. Preheat the oven to 400° and back to the meat. It needs to roast in a deep pan because there will be a lot of grease. Put the meat fat side up in the pan, you will never turn the meat. Once more, fat side up for some outrageous cueritos, and at no point will you cover it. Place the meat into the 400° oven for one hour and then drop the temperature to 300° for the rest of the cooking time. When the meat shreds easily with a fork it is done. If the cuero is not crispy enough for you, take the meat out of the oven, raise the temperature back to 400°, and put back into the oven when the temperature has been reached for 15-20 minutes or until it’s crispy. Remove from oven and let the meat rest uncovered for at least 30 minutes before carving. Take the cuero off and scrape off any uncooked fat that might be left. While the meat rests, break the cuero into pieces and enjoy with your guests. It’s really good with cocktails or beer. Scrape any fat off the meat, carve and serve. If you take this dish to a party don’t cover or box up the cuero or it’ll turn into mushy, nasty fat. Buen provecho. And Boricua love.