We've been celebrating our joint birthday every year for the past six, but for some reason I'd been dawdling this year.
"I know," I replied, promptly changing the subject. Truth was that I didn't know what I wanted to do. Having recently hosted a fairly large Christmas party, I was reluctant to throw another big bash, but I didn't want to go to a bar or dinner. I wanted to host.
Perhaps it's something best discussed with my shrink, but I enjoy parties significantly more when I'm hosting, cooking, or--at the very least--contributing a large platter of stuffed mushrooms. Maybe it's a control thing. Maybe I just like the praise. It’s probably a bit of both. The only thing I am certain of is that few things match the rush I get when watching new and old friends enjoying food that I've prepared for them. There is power in knowing ones way around a kitchen; a power that I’m often eager to display.
And yet, I was hesitant to make the commitment.
Our birthday fell on a tough week this year: Moe was going out of town for work and I had Fashion Week parties, visiting editors, and way too many deadlines to meet. 3 AM had become my new bedtime as I juggled my full-time editorial position with the demands of my increasing load of freelance assignments. I longed for a bit of leisure and wasn't sure that I could successfully take on party planning and hosting duties. So I vacillated. I delayed. I hemmed and hawed, and avoided making any final decisions until the absolute last possible second.
But then I remembered the pork.
"Moe!" I typed in an IM box. "Let's do it! The party. A cozy dinner party at my place. Just 10 or 12 people, followed by drinks and jazz somewhere nearby. Send me emails--I'm writing the invitation now!"
"You're sure?" She asked, likely shocked by my sudden burst of enthusiasm after so many days of noncommittal replies.
"Oh yes," I wrote. "And get this. I'm making pork! Pork shoulder, to be exact, stuffed with fruit and thick slabs of bacon. I'll marinate it for a couple days and cover with brown sugar before roasting. And I'll make smoky black beans. And mofongo. Oh oh oh...and flan! Creamy, caramel flan. It's going to be the most amazing meal ever. Just you wait!!"
And that's how it began.
Fried Chorizo on Dominican “Pan de Manteca.”
Fried Plantain Mofongo
Avocado and Corn on Romaine with Blood Orange Dressing
Citrus Marinated Roast Pork Shoulder
stuffed with candied guava shells, dried plums, ham, and bacon served with Caramelized Yuca and Smoky Black Beans and Saffron Rice
Vanilla Caramel Flan
I'd seen the original recipe on a Food Network special some time ago. It was the usual Food TV fare: Bobby Flay bringing his cocky NY shtick to a beach in Miami and getting (quite rightly) schooled by the Cuban masters of pork. Even he conceded defeat in that episode, and I filed away the featured Cuban chef's brilliant idea of stuffing pork with one of my all-time favorite treats: candied guava shells (casquitos de guayaba).
Blame it on the guava.
Usually purchased canned (look for them in the Goya aisle), the fragrant scent of the fresh fruit at the market made me wonder if perhaps I could give it a go from scratch. I'd never actually handled a fresh guava before, but the process proved fairly simple. I peeled and seeded the fruit, reserving the citrusy peels and fragrant pulp in a bowl. I then quartered the fruit and boiled in a 1:1 sugar syrup for about an hour. I added a bit of Mexican vanilla extract just because.
The fruit softened and collapsed into itself like pairs of very naughty-looking lips. Since I used white guava (you can use white or the more common red), a few drops of red food coloring in the syrup gave them that fiery red glow I loved as a girl. I stored them in a jar, where they bobbed and floated, suspended in the translucent red syrup like pornographic maraschino cherries.
I used the reserved pulp and peel to make a creamy guava flan, which, when topped with two or three of the syrupy shells, gives off a slightly decadent appeal—just perfect for sharing with a hungry lover by the light of the refrigerator door. (More about this tomorrow...)
A Twist on the traditional
In Cuba and Puerto Rico (where my family is from), sour orange juice is often used to marinate pork and other meats. These oranges, also known as Seville Oranges, are like the ugly aunt to the perky fruit bowl navel. A thick, bitter, and bruised peel protects the lip-puckering juices that taste much closer to lemon juice than the stuff you drink with breakfast. This intense acidity makes it an ideal base for marinades and dressings, adding an additional layer of flavor not found in lemon juice alone.
While these oranges are readily available in my Manhattan neighborhood, I opted to recreate their flavor using slightly less traditional ingredients. I settled on a blend of my two winter favorites: blood oranges and Meyer lemons, which I juiced by hand, rolling the room temperature fruit on the counter first to release the juices.
The preparation of this marinade is a full-blown sensory experience. The colors of the citrus juices melded beautifully in the bowl. To this I added a few fresh bay leaves, slightly crushed garlic cloves, and a handful of course salt (I have very small hands, mind you). I poured a couple tablespoons of whole peppercorns into the traditional wooden pilon (mortar) my mother bought me the last time we visited the island, and crushed them by hand with the matching hand-carved pestle. It’s not necessary, of course, and would certainly be much quicker and easier in a food processor, but I’m convinced it makes a difference to get that involved in the process. I find something soothing about the methodic grinds and bursts of fragrance from the peppercorns as the crack and split under the pressure. It’s aromatherapy for the epicurean.
A generous blessing of extra virgin olive oil finishes off this incredibly beautiful marinade, which is then poured and massaged into the flattened and de-boned pork shoulder (I had my butcher remove the bone for me, and then made sure he included it in the package so that I could use to cook the beans.). I scored the fat and tucked the crushed garlic cloves into the little crevices, then covered the whole thing and let marinate for nearly 30 hours.
The finished dish is a thing of beauty. Just before roasting, I drained the excess marinade and layered the inside with the candied guava, dried plums, thick slabs of country bacon, and slices of slow-cooked ham. I rolled this up and tied securely with twine, then rubbed completely with handfuls of soft muscovado sugar. I poured half a bottle of Malta over the entire thing and roasted at 350 degrees. About three hours into the cooking, I poured on the rest of the Malta and surrounded the pork with raw pieces of peeled and split yuca that roasted and caramelized in the flavorful pan drippings. To keep the starchy vegetable from drying out, I finished them off in a pan with a sour orange mojo sauced thinned with chicken broth.
I served the pork sliced over golden saffron rice and surrounded by the caramelized yuca, and accompanied this with a pot of smoky black beans cooked slow and low with the bone from the pork shoulder and a generous amount of smoked Spanish paprika, garlic, and cilantro.
My guests clearly enjoyed the meal, moaning with pleasure as they heaped their plates and then came back for seconds. Everything was served family style in large bowls and platters. I think latin food is best served this way because I like the feeling of comfort it creates: everyone gathered around the table, laughing and leaning over each other, grabbing more of a favorite or taking just a bit of everything. Another wonderful this about this meal is that while it required quite a bit of planning and forethought, nearly all of it is completed ahead of time and only requires the tiniest bit of preparation throughout the dinner. This meant that I was able to sit and enjoy the food and conversation (and copious drinks) right along with everyone else.
The main course was followed by a round of fresh mint mojitos and slices of blood oranges, which served as a refreshing palate cleanser before the creamy vanilla caramel flan was served. The flan disappeared in a matter of moments. No sooner had I served a piece than the plate was passed back to me for seconds. It was sweet and creamy, with rich hints of mexican vanilla contrasted by the slightly bitter caramel.
The entire meal lasted around four hours, after which we piled into cabs and made our way to a nearby lounge for more drinks, including a round of sweet, fiery shots for the birthday girls (that would be Moe and me). It was well past three when we made it back to my apartment, boozy, happy, and singing off-key as we loaded dishes haphazardly into the dishwasher and picked at the leftovers that seemed to taste even better cold. With the kitchen (somewhat) clean, Monica and I finally collapsed into a sleepy, satisfied heap on my bed, where we remained until well past three the next afternoon.
It was, quite possibly, a perfect evening.
I still have to write up all the recipes for the evening, but I will post them soon... (Soon being a relative term, of course.) If you're absolutely *dying* to have one or all of the recipes now, shoot me an e-mail (nanditablogs[at]gmail) and I just might oblige...
I should note that most of the incredible photos in this post were taken by my co-birthday girl Moe, who is many things, but not the least bit mediocre. (And yes, she is available for weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, or even if you just want a cute girl to take killer pictures of your pork.)