Holidays for our family of six will always be a little bittersweet in our household. My Cuban “suegros” (in-laws) are no longer with us, but we honor them, and my husband’s Cuban heritage, by keeping the food and fun of the culture thriving in our home, especially at the holidays. This means festive music and food, and heaps of affection to our loved ones. There are many amazing traits of the Cuban diaspora, but the love and joy without pretense has to be the best, in my humble “Americana” opinion.
The majority of our Christmas celebration takes place on Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena. There are empanadas, pastels (from Miami if we are lucky!), tostones and beans. And presents. All the presents! To open on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning has been a bit of a debate, but, trust me, when the kids get their hands on just one on Noche Buena, the dominos quickly fall and they gladly rip into them all. Besides, Santa is still going to do his thing, so there will be a surprise to look forward to, all sleepy-eyed in the morning.
Let’s start with black beans – frijoles negros. I, the American in the equation, love them. I adore a good, creamy starch, and for me black beans take the crown. My husband Juan, however, maintains to have eaten enough black beans growing up in his Cuban household in suburban Dallas to last more than a lifetime, and claims an exemption. I think it’s ridiculous, he thinks he’s right, and we continue to rib each other over it, and will for years to come. And we laugh, and I try to sneak them on his plate. It’s a thing. A Castro thing.
But the star of the show has to be the empanadas, both sweet and savory. The first batch of homemade dough is worked out into pockets filled with our picadillo, a concoction of ground beef, green peppers, olives, stewed tomatoes and plenty of cumin. (We leave the raisins out, to my chagrin. But alas, the kids can’t handle. Maybe when we’re empty nesters we’ll be able to make this fully authentic version!) The second batch is stuffed with thick slices of both cream cheese and guava paste. Believe me, you haven’t tasted Cuban Christmas until you’ve had a sweet, creamy, guava empanada. Find one at a Cuban bakery this holiday season, and you can thank me later.
These savory and sweet bundles are then deep-fried in oil, which my husband insists that his mother said could only be Mazola. Heaven help me if I come home with bargain brand from the store. He’ll probably return it. I just roll with it, and accept that it’s part of the Cuban tradition, and slightly smirk, but don’t tell him I said that.
When we fry-smash-refry green plantains, then douse them with lime juice and kosher salt, no one can resist, and we all risk being too full for all the forthcoming empanadas. So one must learn to pace oneself in the Castro kitchen, try to sing along to Marc Anthony (Puerto Rican, but that’s ok) in broken Spanish, and try the frijoles, because I said so.
Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad from the Castro Family!
Tostones de Familia Castro
What you’ll need:
3-4 green plantains
Tostonera (or something to smash the fried plantains with, a heavy-bottomed cocktail glass will suffice, but finish your Cuba Libre first)
How to make perfect tostones:
1. Peel plantains and slice one-inch chunks diagonally.
2. In a deep sauté pan or skillet, heat enough oil to submerge plantain chunks.
3. Fry in batches until they begin to turn golden and take on a slight crisp.
4. Remove with a slotted spoon to plate covered with a paper towel to soak up excess oil.
5. With tostonera, or bottom of heavy glass, smash each fried chunk and return for second deep fry.
6. When crispy and golden brown, remove again to plate as before.
7. Sprinkle with fresh lime juice and kosher salt.
8. Devour and be delighted.