Photo: Jose Kevo, Flickr
Pork, that most Puerto Rican of meats, is paramount to Nochebuena. The most ideal cut -- a roasted pork shoulder or pernil -- is traditionally cooked on a spit over charcoal in the backyard. At least one family member gets up around 4 a.m. to prepare the charcoal and sit while turning the spit so the pork cooks evenly. It's critical to taste as you go, especially when some parts of the pig cook faster than others.
"You have to check the doneness of the pork by pulling off the ears and tail. It's some of the best meat," explained this blogger's father -- and native Puerto Rican -- Jose Ralat Torres. As an alternative to this all-day process, he noted, "Now, some bakeries will roast the pork for you and it would only take half the time. It almost tastes the same" -- but loses the endearing tradition.
Even with all the hard work, pernil is nothing without its customary accompaniment, arroz con gandules. This savory achiote-colored rice with green pigeon peas (Santos de Curran's recipe below) goes perfectly with the slow-roasted meat.
Joining these foods are a litany of other tasty dishes. "The family menu has always included without exception pasteles, potato salad, tembleque and arroz con dulce," explained Chef Wilo Benet, owner of three restaurants in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Like most Latin American holidays, Nochebuena is religious at its core. After post-dinner Midnight Mass (attendance required), family and friends return to the house for music and dancing and more eating. Most parties provide live music with folk instruments guiro, maracas, cuatro, bongos and congas. "We go back to the house, the music and dancing begins. The party continues sometimes until 6 or 7 a.m.," described Carmen Santos de Curran, executive chef and food editor of El Boricua, the monthly online magazine of all things Puerto Rican.
A hearty meal necessitates hearty, high-octane beverages, like coquito (Santos de Curran' recipe below), Puerto Rican eggnog and ponche party punch. "If you're lucky," said Ralat Torres, "you can get your hands on some pitorro, Puerto Rican moonshine." Illegal pitorro is distilled from sugar cane and can replace rum in coquito.
Many Puerto Ricans look forward to this feast all year and consider it Santa's gift to La Isla del Encanto.
Arroz con Gandules
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 1/2 tablespoon Sofrito
2 envelopes Sazón seasoning with achiote
1 15-ounce can of gandules
2 tablespoons Manzanilla olives
1 1/2 teaspoon capers
1 envelope onion soup mix
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1 pound raw medium or long-grain rice
16 ounces water
Place the vegetable oil, Sofrito, Sazón with achiote, gandules, olives, capers, onion soup and tomato sauce in a big pot. Thoroughly wash rice and add to the other ingredients. Pour water over the ingredients and stir well. (Water should be about 1 inch above the ingredients.) Boil on medium-high until all the water is absorbed. Reduce heat to low and cover the pot with aluminum foil and a lid. Cook for 35-40 minutes, depending on your stove.
2-3 cinnamon sticks
2 cups water
12 ounce evaporated milk
14 ounce condensed milk
4 egg yolks
15-ounce can cream of coconut
4 cups white rum
Boil cinnamon sticks in the 2 cups of water. When the water turns yellow, remove sticks. Add the evaporated milk, condensed milk and egg yolks; cook on low heat. Stir frequently to avoid sticking. After it has boiled for a few minutes, stir in the cream of coconut and then the rum. Stir very well and remove from stove. Chill and enjoy.
Do you celebrate Nochebuena? Tell us about your party in the comments below.