Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving - Nitza Style

My husband and I have been hosting Thanksgiving since 2005. All of our holidays before then had my husband and I doing time between my family’s house and his family’s house. As the years passed, we started timing the gatherings so that we could be in all places in one day – quite exhausting, but we would have a chance to see everyone. Thanksgiving used to be brunch at my grandparents’ house, late lunch with my father-in-law’s sister and her side of the family, and dinner was always at Moki’s house, my mother in law’s sister.

When Moki passed away in early 2005, the family tried to split up the holidays. I took Thanksgiving, partly because my husband had been frying turkeys for the past few years and I figured I would get out of making turkeys as part of this holiday ownership.

This year, when it came time to think about Thanksgiving, I’ll tell you, I would freeze at the thought of planning the menu. I knew I had to it based around The Project, but was totally hating the thought of having to make a turkey.

I would have visions of my grandfather basting, basting and basting. I would see Tia Gladys (my father in law’s sister) on her feet for hours and I would think of Moki’s house that since we would show up at around 9 p.m., I had no idea of the work that went into the turkey prep. I was scared out of my mind.

I sat with my cousin, Jessica, the first week of November, and we planned the menu. We divided and conquered, giving everyone a role and their dish. My mom’s spinach dip, my mother in law’s beans, Bivi’s white rice, Jessica, Hilda and Claude with the sides and desserts. My husband and his two fried turkeys, Tia Alina with a turkey breast, and me with my Cuban turkey and mashed potatoes with cheese.

Were we feeding an army? No. Just about twenty Cubans and Cuban-affiliates.

I’ll start with the potatoes because they were so easy and so gooooooooood.

Recipe #246: Pure de Papas con Queso

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Potatoes for twenty is crazy. I bought ten pounds of potatoes in my true spirit of exaggeration. I also bought one of those industrial-sized turkey pans so I could put my mashed potatoes in once they were ready.

Once you peel your potatoes and cut them up into smaller pieces, you put them in a large pot, cover them with water and boil them until you forget that you’re boiling them. When you remember that you’re boiling them, you check for doneness. If they smash with a fork without effort, they’re ready.

Strain the potatoes and put them back into the pot you cooked them in. Mash mash mash, then pour into the large pan to add the rest of the ingredients – salt, two sticks of butter and four bars of cream cheese.

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Yes, four bars of cream cheese and two sticks of butter – for twenty. If you just want to make one recipe, you only need one bar of cream cheese, a little more than a third of the stick of butter to about three pounds of potatoes. Still very rich, but drop dead good (and drop dead prone if you make this recipe on non-Thanksgiving days).

And, without further delay, here is the story on the Cuban Turkey.

Recipe #164: Pavo Relleno con Congri

Days and days and days of prepping. Did Abuelo Pepin, Tia Gladys and Moki do it this way? Or, will I, after years and years of learning, finally do this in my sleep like they made it seem?

Sunday started with a trip to Publix to buy all the ingredients. Luckily, my husband and I had seen Alton Brown’s Dear Food Network special on Thanksgiving earlier that day and we were totally psyched for our mission.

Alton had given us the go ahead on buying Publix’s frozen turkey (the one with the purple stripe on the bag) because that’s the one he uses for himself. He gave us all the reasons why, you can check on the Food Network website for more details.

Alton had also talked about stuffing and a contraption he used to stuff his birds. Coincidently, I found it on a random trip to the Container Store that day, so I was really ready for my congri-stuffed turkey.

Monday, I thought about my prep steps and freaked out. I wrote down my step-by-step process and tried to put Wednesday out of my mind.

Tuesday, I thought about Wednesday and freaked out some more. I also started to defrost my turkey because Alton had recommended doing so for about 48 hours in the fridge so it would thaw out appropriately.

Wednesday, I thought I had to prep at night and that there was no turning back. I freaked out even more.

I took out all the ingredients and my step-by-step process and started to get to work on the marinating of the turkey.

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First thing I had to do was to clean out the turkey. I think that was the worst part of the recipe. That was gross. Sounds childlike, but it really is gross.

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The marinating is really easy and a great recipe that can be used on anything – minced garlic, salt, pepper, cumin, oregano and sour orange. You rub this mix inside and outside the turkey liberally. You can instantly taste what will happen because of this marinade. You then add thin onion slices to the top and the sides of the turkey.

I had bought some oven bags at Publix because I couldn’t think of anything else to marinate my turkey in overnight. That was a good move. The turkey fit perfectly in the bag and I had placed the turkey inside the bag before adding the marinade so all the juices would be locked in the bag overnight.

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Good night, dear turkey. See you in the morning. Away to the fridge you go.

When I started to work on the turkey, I had placed a bag of dry black beans for congri (see – black this time, red last time, no pattern) in a bowl and covered them with water. Now that I was done with the turkey, it was time to start on the congri that would be the stuffing for the turkey.

I took the beans, their now black bean water and a green pepper and put them in the pressure cooker. Put them to cook for 30 minutes.

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While the beans cooked, I prepared the pretty green trilogy (garlic, onions, green peppers) in the food processor. I took some bacon and fried it up in a deep pot. Once the grease was released, I removed the crispy bacon for later on. I added the Cuban trilogy to the bacon grease and when the sofrito was ready, I added everything from the pressure cooker (beans and a good amount of liquid) into the deep pot. I also added salt, black pepper and oregano, along with a bay leaf. Once it started to boil, I added the white rice and brought it back up to a boil. Then, I covered it on medium-low and let it cook for 20 minutes.

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The grains of rice should be undercooked. You’re supposed to take the congri off the heat early since you’re cooking it again inside the turkey.

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Time for bed. 2 a.m. Big day ahead with my daughter’s class performing at mass, cousins coming over after mass for the kids to play, Tia Gladys’ at 1 p.m. and our dinner at 7-ish.

Thanksgiving morning came too soon. After mass, we got home with our little pilgrims, and I started to peel the potatoes with my cousin, aunt and mom keeping me company. I left them in water so they wouldn’t turn brown and we left to Tia Gladys’ house.

Tia Gladys' Thanksgiving consists of about 40 people and includes your usual Cuban Thanksgiving dishes - pig (caja china-style), turkey, black beans and rice and cuban bread, to name just a few of the dishes.

tia gladys

This year I watched as Tia Gladys took out everything she had made, except for Nena’s Sweet Potatoes, which are the greatest sweet potatoes in the world.

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Nena is Gladys’ daughter and my husband’s first cousin. She has given me the recipe for her sweet potatoes before, but I can almost bet that she leaves something out so they don't come out like hers.

At the end of the meal, Tia Gladys brings out those fancy Cuban desserts like a cake with glossy jelly stuff on top. That’s gross. And I know I’m going to have to make something like that in the desserts chapter, so I cringe when she brings it out.

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We go home and it’s time to get to work. Big time.

Hello Señor Pavo, it’s time to get to work. I’ll need five hours of your time, so come with me as I prepare you for your baking.

As I take the turkey out of the oven bag, I place it in it’s roasting pan and bring out my congri from the fridge and my Alton Brown stuffing contraption. I fill up the stuffing pusher with congri and ask the bird for forgiveness as I stuff it with congri.

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But, with the first bit of congri that I put into it, the bird plumps up and I can see a beautiful turkey taking shape. Well, of couse, I get totally carried away, so I stuff the congri into the turkey like crazy until it’s practically twice it’s size.

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(Note: bad idea. Why? Because then you have to cook the turkey for an indefinite amount of time because this log jam, caulking of stuffing doesn’t let the turkey cook through. So, next time, I won’t be so exaggerative and I’ll just stuff it like a normal person and won’t have to stress about putting the turkey back in, and back in, and back in the oven.)

Once the turkey is stuffed, you close it up with this really cool turkey sewing kit I found at Publix.

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Then, you artistically wrap it with bacon. So pretty. I thought wrapping a turkey with bacon was a new trendy Williams Sonoma type of thing. Who knew that Nitza had been doing this for so long. This was going to be fun.

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Once the bacon is in place, you pour dry white wine over it and put it in the oven for three hours (or five if you go crazy with the stuffing).

The presentation for the turkey, once done, was impressive. The congri was coming out of the turkey and it tasted just like the seasonings I had used for the marinade.

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My turkey was not perfect, by any means, as we were eating by 10 p.m. because of all the times I had to put the turkey back in, but it was well worth the effort.

We had way too much food, as always, but our cousins came to pick up the leftovers the next day to have a leftover dinner. Food to bring the family together for days and days. It’s good to exaggerate.

About the blog

Inspired by Julie & Julia, I've embarked on my own project: to celebrate the Cuban kitchen -- the food, the abuelas who prepared it, and the family that gathered around the table to enjoy every bite. For my generation -- and for my kids' generation -- I'm cooking my way through Nitza Villapol's Cocina al Minuto. With each recipe, I'm taken back to what those housewives of my grandmother's and mother's generation must have been thinking as they tried to follow Nitza's instructions, from her books or TV program. I hope this project moves you to learn how to cook, simply, and to bring the joy (and sofrito smell -- the smell of home frying) back into your home. Click here to read previous posts. Click here to read The Miami Herald article on my journey. ¡Buen Provecho!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Congri - Round I

When I decided I wanted to make a Cuban Turkey for Thanksgiving, I made sure Nitza had a recipe for it. I wasn’t going to try to do my first turkey without Nitza. She has a recipe for a congri-stuffed Turkey and, I figured it would be good to practice making congri first before feeding 20+ a first time turkey and first time congri. Good thing Nitza has two congri recipes – this one here and the one for the turkey. Not sure why they’re different, but I guess I’ll find out.

Recipe #221: Congri

congri ingredients

Apparently congri is one of those Cuban recipes that are debatable. Red or black beans. Cook on the stove or in the oven. This recipe calls for red beans, but right under this recipe (#222) is Moros y Cristianos (which translates literally into: Moors and Christians. That recipe calls for black beans and white rice. But, some debate whether the Moros y Cristianos are the red beans and rice and the congri is the black beans and rice.

Nitza doesn’t settle it, either. In my Cuban Turkey for Thanksgiving, the congri recipe calls for black beans. So…maybe it’s a family thing. To me, congri has been black beans and white rice all together, which tastes completely different than when you put white rice and black beans on your plate.

Ahhh, the joys of Cubanisms. Nothing makes sense and everything is right. That’s just the way it is.

And, for my friends on facebook that quickly took my unofficial survey and came to no consensus about red or black being the right color for the congri bean, thank you: Vivian, Michelle G., Mariela, Jenny, Elsy Elena and Claude.

Anyways, back to the recipe.

Take your red beans and soak them overnight if you have time. If not, you put them in a pressure cooker with enough water to cover them and then some (I know, I sound like your abuela saying that, but it’s the right thing to do). Put a green pepper in there with the water and the beans. (Note: although my picture below is a thing of beauty (to me), it's not practical. Cut the green peppers in big chunks - otherwise, they're a bear to pick out.) I cooked them for 30 minutes since I hadn’t soaked them overnight and I wanted to make sure they were soft enough.

pretty beans

While you have the beans in the pressure cooker, start getting the rice ready for later on. You fry up some bacon in a deep pot (can be the same one you’ll use to make the congri in) and once they’re crispy and done, you remove half of them and half the grease they release. That you save for later (no joke). Add the rice to this remaining half grease and bacon and coat it well. Ahhh, the arteries are screaming for help.

grease rice

Set your grease-coated, bacon rice aside.

Once the beans are done, you take them out of the pressure cooker, you strain them and reserve three cups of the bean liquid. (Note: Nitza says three cups, I’d save five cups just in case).

You take pork and cut it into chunks and put the chunks in a deep pot over high heat. Once they have released their grease, it’s time for you to sofreir some onion, green pepper and garlic that you have food processed. Then, add the frijoles.

green sofrito with pork

Since food processing the vegetables together makes them liquidy, you may be stunned when you see your bright green Cuban-trinity (onion, green pepper and garlic) mix in with the pork fat and the beans. I don’t know why, but I was amazed by the bright green and I could just taste how it would affect the dish in the end as it cooked through all the ingredients.

Once you’ve covered everything in the green and the green isn’t green anymore, you add the bean liquid (make sure you cover everything with the liquid you add), salt, pepper and a bay leaf. All of this still on high heat.

When you bring everything to a boil, add your grease-coated bacon rice and bring back up to a boil.

Lower the heat to medium and let it cook, covered, for thirty minutes.

Right before serving, take the other half of the bacon, crumbled, and the bacon grease and toss it into the congri.

grease for later

Seriously, who thought of that?

Hey, let me reserve some grease to swirl over my dish as a flavor enhancer.

¡¡¡Dios mio!!!

My congri turned out to be a bit dry and I think it may have been because I didn’t let the beans sit for a few hours in water before cooking them. I skipped it because I felt it was just an old 1950s thing, but it would help (as I learned for my real Thanksgiving congri that came out better).

The way I think of it, if you let the beans sit in enough water to cover them for at least two hours before cooking, they’re getting the water in and letting the water out that they need. Once you put them in the pressure cooker, they have enough moisture and don’t need any more – they just cook in the pressure cooker as they should.

If you go straight to the pressure cooker, the dry beans start to look for water in there and don’t leave as much water in the end.

Maybe that’s a very long way of explaining it, but my moist beans (for Thanksgiving) did much better than these poor dry red ones and this is my explanation for why.

final product - congri

So, there you have it. Congri. Not too daunting. I was actually loathing having to make congri because it’s just something that’s there, but it’s not a Cuban dish I love. I’m more of a white rice and black beans kind of girl.

About the blog

Inspired by Julie & Julia, I've embarked on my own project: to celebrate the Cuban kitchen -- the food, the abuelas who prepared it, and the family that gathered around the table to enjoy every bite. For my generation -- and for my kids' generation -- I'm cooking my way through Nitza Villapol's Cocina al Minuto. With each recipe, I'm taken back to what those housewives of my grandmother's and mother's generation must have been thinking as they tried to follow Nitza's instructions, from her books or TV program. I hope this project moves you to learn how to cook, simply, and to bring the joy (and sofrito smell -- the smell of home frying) back into your home. Click here to read previous posts. Click here to read The Miami Herald article on my journey. ¡Buen Provecho!