Editor’s Note: Christina F. Gomez-Pina, inspired by Julie & Julia, has embarked on her own project: to celebrate the Cuban kitchen — the food, the abuelas who prepared it, and the family who gathered around the table to enjoy every bite. For her generation — and for her childrens’ generation — she is cooking her way through Nitza Villapol’s 1950s classic Cocina al Minuto. With each recipe, she is taken back to what those housewives of her grandmothers generation must have been thinking as they tried to follow Nitza’s instructions from her books or TV program.
In this essay, adapted by a post on her blog, La Cocina de Christina, she shares the Thanksgiving rituals of her Cuban family, and what she learned by cooking Nitza’s turkey — one covered in bacon and stuffed with congri.
By Christina F. Gomez-Pina
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.
Quite exhausting, but we could see everyone in one day. It 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.
In 2009, when it came time to think about Thanksgiving, I’ll tell you, I froze at the thought of planning the menu. I knew I had to it based around The Project (Cooking my way through Nitza’s cookbook) , 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 and the prep that went into making the turkey. 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 Nitza’s potatoes because they were so easy and so gooooooooood.
Recipe #246: Pure de Papas con Queso
Potatoes for 20 is crazy. I bought 10 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.
Yes, four bars of cream cheese and two sticks of butter – for 20 people. 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, 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 be able to do this in my sleep like they could?
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.
Alton also had 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 about the prepping to come 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. 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.
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.
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 in a bowl and covered them with water. Now that I was done with the turkey, it was time to start on the congri stuffing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When we returned home, it was Hello, Señor Pavo, it’s time to get to work.
As I take the turkey out of the oven bag, I place it in its 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.
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 course, I get totally carried away, so I stuff the congri into the turkey like crazy until it’s practically twice its size.
(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 exaggerated 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. 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.
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).
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.