Noche Buena: A Cuban Christmas Eve dinner from a Naples cook

Flans are ready to satisfy every kind of sweet tooth. Flavors such as mango and lime can go into them or add cream cheese for an even richer dessert. Tom O'Haver

Photo by Tom O'Haver

Flans are ready to satisfy every kind of sweet tooth. Flavors such as mango and lime can go into them or add cream cheese for an even richer dessert. Tom O'Haver

As in any Cuban family, most of our gatherings revolve around food. Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena, for Latin families, is often the biggest feast day of the season, when friends and family, young and old alike sit around a table laden with traditional dishes, telling stories that grow more colorful each year.

The main course at any Cuban Noche Buena celebration was always lechon, roast pork, black beans or frijoles negros and rice. Yucca with mojito — yucca covered with mashed garlic and oil — was the other key holiday side dish. We usually had fried sweet plantains and salad to finish off the main part of the meal, and flan for dessert.

After the feast, everyone would get ready to go to church when the church bells started ringing calling everyone to La Missa del Gallo (Mass of the Rooster, so-called because it is said the only time a rooster crowed at midnight was on the night Jesus was born) or Midnight Mass.

The gifts we received on Christmas Day were usually the ones from our parents (as Santa Claus) and from family in the States.

Mary O'Haver is preparing Christmas Noche Buena  using avocados for a salad from her fathe's  farm. Tom O'Haver

Photo by Tom O'Haver

Mary O'Haver is preparing Christmas Noche Buena using avocados for a salad from her fathe's farm. Tom O'Haver

The packages from our Cuban grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives were not put under the tree until the night before Jan. 6 — Three King's Day (Epiphany), the traditional day Cuban children got their gifts.

Food and family are the foundations of tradition. Food seems to be the glue that keeps people together this time of year and helps create new traditions for future generations. Of course, we make accommodations for some traditions to fit into our busy lives, but that does not change the meaning and emotional lift one gets when meeting with family and friends.

Noche Buena is great on Dec. 24, the traditional day. But it is just a joyful on any day we decide to celebrate.

Feel free to adopt any traditions that you enjoy sharing with your family. We have borrowed traditions from various cultures and have created some family traditions of our own. As some of you start new families of your own, make space for traditions that have been passed on to you from your parents and create some new ones.

CUBAN LECHON ASADO (Roasted fresh ham, Cuban-style)

Get a nice fresh (not precooked) ham, about 8 to 10 pounds.

The day before you plan to serve this dish, trim the excess fat off the pork leg.

Make shallow slits all over the pork, using the tip of a knife, poke pieces of garlic (10 or 15 pieces) into the pork.

Pour mojo all over the roast. The amount depends on the size of ham, but for a 10-pound ham I usually use 2 cups or more of mojo.

You can make your own — recipe follows — or you can purchase mojo in grocery stores under brand names such as Badia, Goya and Mia Vida.

Let it marinate overnight.

The next day, preheat the oven to 350 degrees, or you can barbecue it on your grill. We prefer the grill; the lechon has a much better flavor, and is crisp on the outside.

Tom O'Haver is shown carving and serving the pork.  Bottle in forgound is fuel for carver. Mary O'Haver

Photo by Mary O'Haver

Tom O'Haver is shown carving and serving the pork. Bottle in forgound is fuel for carver. Mary O'Haver

If you are using an oven, tent and roast the pork, basting from with the pan juices, until almost cooked about 150 degrees F.

Uncover and continue cooking until it starts to brown nicely. It should register 180 degrees on the cooking thermometer when you are ready to cut.

If you are using a barbecue grill, follow your grilling directions.

Let the roast stand at least 10 minutes before carving.

___

HOMEMADE MOJO

Ingredients

2 cups fresh lime juice or sour orange juice

1 tablespoon cumin

10 or more cloves garlic

1 large onion, cut into pieces

Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation

Combine all ingredients into a blender.Use as a marinade and to baste the pork.

I make some fresh mojo to use as a sauce over the cooked pork for some of the more adventurous eaters.

___

CUBAN-STYLE BLACK BEANS

This is my mom's recipe. Serve with white rice.

Ingredients for beans

1 pound dry black beans

1 large green pepper

1 large onion

Sofrito (recipe follows)

Preparation

You can break this down into three days

Day 1. Soak beans. Add enough water to cover beans about an inch above the beans. Let them soak overnight.

Day 2. Drain beans and add fresh water, enough to cover beans about an inch or two. Add the green pepper washed, cleaned cut into large pieces and the onion cut up into large pieces.

Bring to a boil, then set on low. Cook until beans are tender, depending on the beans, about 4 to 6 hours. Add water if the beans appear to be drying out. The beans will absorb water as the cook but if they seem to dry out without any water on top then add a little.

Day 3. Make "Sofrito" add to beans and simmer beans until ready to eat.

___

SOFRITO

When the beans seem tender, you are ready to add the stuff that really makes them taste wonderful.

In Spanish it's called a "sofrito." You can make and add it immediately and refrigerate in the beans overnight to blend the flavors, or make and add the sofrito the next day. I like to add the "Sofrito" at the end of day 2 so it can sit in the pot overnight before I simmer them the next day.

Ingredients

1 large green pepper

1 large onion

It took about 8 hours of slow roasting for this 20-pound fresh pork leg roast. Tom O'Haver

Photo by Tom O'Haver

It took about 8 hours of slow roasting for this 20-pound fresh pork leg roast. Tom O'Haver

1/4 cup olive oil

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon oregano*

1 teaspoon ground cumin*

6 fresh cloves of garlic*

Salt and pepper to taste

Cayenne pepper to taste (optional)

*Add more of these ingredients, according to your preference.

I like to add cayenne pepper, but then I like a little bite to it.

Preparation

Clean and chop the green pepper into smaller pieces. Peel and chop one large onion into small pieces.

Peel garlic cloves and put them through a garlic press.

In a large skillet, add 1/4 cup of olive oil and set heat at medium to medium/high. Add chopped green pepper and onions and saute until they start to brown.

Add bay leaves, cumin, salt, pepper and sugar.

At the last minute, add the garlic into the skillet and stir. Garlic will burn quickly so take it off the heat after a minute.

Pour the entire sofrito mixture into the beans.

Let it simmer on low for at least 2 hours until the beans and liquid become velvety. The longer they simmer (all day) the better they taste.

___

YUCCA FRITA CON MOJO (Fried yucca with mojo)

If you are in a hurry, frozen yucca is actually easier to handle then the raw yucca; just follow cooking directions on the package.

Ingredients for yucca

2 pounds of yucca (sometimes called cassava)

Salt

2 quarts water in a saucepan

1 cup cold water

Vegetable or canola oil

Mojo (recipe follows)

Preparation

Cut the yucca into 2-inch pieces and peel the brown covering off. Cut all pieces the same size.

Bring 2 quarts lightly salted water to a boil and add the yucca. Cook for 10 minutes.

Add 1 cup cold water. Return the yucca to a boil, and cook for 5 minutes, or until the yucca is firm but tender. (Adding cold water helps tenderize the yucca.)

Drain the yucca and pull out any fibers. Pat dry and cut yucca into smaller pieces.

Heat the oil in a skillet. Use enough oil to cover yucca; I use a deep fryer. Being careful to not splatter the hot oil, deep-fry pieces until golden.

Drain on a paper towel and transfer to a serving platter.

Pour hot mojo over fried yucca and serve hot.

___

MOJO

Ingredients

1/4 cup olive oil

4 cloves of garlic, minced (or more, to taste)

1 onion, sliced thin salt and pepper to taste

1/3 cup fresh lime juice or sour orange juice

Preparation

Heat the oil in a fry pan over medium heat. Add the onions and saute till golden brown.

At the last minute, add garlic and fry until just beginning to brown. (Do not let the garlic burn, or the mojo will be bitter.)

Add the lime juice, salt and pepper.

Pour the mojo mixture on top of fried yuca and serve warm.

___

PLATANITOS MADURO (Sweet fried plantains, Cuban-style)

Ingredients

2 to 3 ripe (almost black) plantains

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

2 tablespoons brown sugar

Preparation

To peel the plantains, cut off ends and discard. With a paring knife, make three shallow slits lengthwise along the seams of the skin and peel away.

Slice the plantains on a diagonal about a 1/2 inch thick.

Heat 4 tablespoons butter in a large skillet and place over medium low heat (plantains have a high sugar content and will burn if the heat is too high.)

Fry the plantains in a single layer, until golden on the bottom then turn over with a spatula. Add sugar and let cook a few more seconds, just to begin caramelizing the sugar.

Just before serving, add remaining tablespoon of butter to finish the sauce.

Serve immediately. I sometimes used honey in place of brown sugar when my dad collected honey from his bee hives.

You can finish them off in an oven (about 350 degrees) to serve at a later time. Just heat and serve.

A side note if you are in a hurry: This is a secret shortcut, but it tastes almost as good as starting from scratch. You can buy prepared plantains like the ones shown ready to heat and serve.

Look in the frozen food section (Goya, Tio Jorge and La Fey are known brands). After they are heated, I like to broil them for a minute or two in the oven with a little butter and brown sugar on them.

___

CUBAN-STYLE FLAN

This is also my mom's recipe. First you must caramel-coat the pan.

Coating ingredients

1/3 cup water

1 cup sugar

Souffle pan or baking dish (about 6 cups capacity)

Preparation

In a heavy-duty sauce pan, heat the sugar in the water until dissolved.

Bring it to a slow boil until it turns a golden-brown color. This may take a while but keep an eye on it because it can turn very quickly and burn.

Heat the baking dish to avoid breakage.

Remove from heat and pour into the heated baking dish.

Use pot holders to hold the dish and swirl it around so that the caramel covers the bottom and sides of the dish.

Custard ingredients

6 to 8 eggs, depending on the size

1/2 to 1 cup sugar, depending on your taste

2 teaspoons of vanilla

3 cans of evaporated milk (unsweetened condensed milk)

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Beat custard ingredients together until well mixed. Pour into cooled caramelized baking dish or dishes and cover with foil.

Bake in a "Baño Maria " (similar to a double boiler but for the oven some cooks use a large roasting pan that water can be carefully poured into around the custard dishes. This makes the oven a moist environment.)

Bake for about one hour or until a knife appears clean after it has been inserted into the center.

Cool in the refrigerator.

When ready to serve, loosen the sides with a knife, place a larger plate on top of the flan dish and carefully turn the flan over quickly.

Variations:

■ My mom has, on occasion, added 8 ounces of cream cheese to the custard mixture.

■ You can also add any other flavoring to the flan, such as lemon zest, mango, guava, coconut or others.

■ It may be served with whipped cream.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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