For some, the holiday season is over, but many in Latin American countries celebrate Epiphany, Jan. 6, the holiday marking the arrival of the Three Kings 12 days after Christmas to proffer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus.
While children in the United States ask Santa Claus for gifts, children in Latin American countries write letters asking for gifts from the Three Kings, Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar, on the eve of the Epiphany. They leave turon, a pastry cookie, and water for the kings, similar to children in the United States leaving milk and cookies for Santa.
On the morning of the Epiphany, people attend church services. In the evening a celebratory dinner is served around 8 or 9 o’clock, the customary time for dinner in Spanish cultures.
For many Cubans this year, the holiday was a joyous one because Cuban President Fidel Castro gave Roman Catholics an early Christmas present. As a goodwill gesture to Pope John Paul II, who will be visiting the communist country at the end of the month, Castro declared Christmas 1997 a public holiday. (Cuba is the only Spanish-speaking Latin American country that the pope has not visited.) In 1969, the holiday was banned, including Epiphany and other Christmas celebrations.
Here are a few of the many dishes prepared by Cubans and other Latin Americans to celebrate this one time of the year when all seems right with the world.
Com Pote de Fruita
1 apple (per person) 1 pear (per person) 1 strand of grapes (per person) 1 kiwi (per person) 1 scoop of any flavor of sherbet (per person) 1 tablespoon of white zinfandel (per person)
This appetizer should be prepared shortly before the meal to keep the cut fruit from turning brown too soon. Rinse the fruit. Cut kiwi in half and peel off the outside layer. Cut apples, pears and kiwi into quarters (if serving in a bowl) or slices (if serving on a plate). Arrange the fruit in a bowl or on a plate. Place the scoop of sherbet in the middle of the fruit. Splash the white zinfandel all around the fruit and sherbet.
Arroz Con Pollo (Spanish Rice with Chicken)
3 pound frying chicken 1/3 cup olive oil 2 medium tomatoes 1 green pepper 2 cloves garlic 1 bay leaf 1 tablespoon salt 4 cups chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon saffron
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup small green peas (frozen or canned) 2 pimentos 4 asparagus tips
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cut fryer into quarters. In a large skillet, saute chicken in heated oil until skin is golden. Remove chicken and place in casserole dish.
Peel, seed and chop tomatoes. In the same olive oil, saute tomatoes with chopped onion, chopped green pepper, minced garlic, bay leaf and salt for 5 minutes. Pour over chicken and add chicken broth, saffron and uncooked rice.
When mixture boils, cover casserole and bake 20 minutes. Then sprinkle with wine and garnish with peas, halved pimentos and asparagus tips.
Makes four servings.
Frijoles Negros (Black Beans)
1 pound dried black beans 1 bay leaf 1 medium-size green bell pepper, seeded and cut into quarters
For the Sofrito (the sauce for the black beans)
2/3 cup pure Spanish olive oil 3 to 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped 1 large onion, finely chopped 1 medium-sized green bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped 2 to 3 teaspoons ground cumin 2 tablespoons cider vinegar, optional 1 teaspoon finely chopped seeded aji cachucha (rocatillo pepper) or green chile (optional) Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Rinse the beans in cold water. Make sure they are covered by 1 1/2-2 inches of water and soak them overnight. Remove any beans that float to the top. The next day, make sure that 1 1/2-2 inches of water are still covering the beans. Add more water if needed.
Pour the beans into a large saucepan, add the bay leaf and green pepper, bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to low, and cook uncovered until the beans are tender and they have almost cracked open, about 2 hours. Check the beans while they are cooking. If they need more liquid, add hot water.
To prepare the sofrito, heat the oil in a skillet over low heat until it is fragrant, then add garlic, onion and bell pepper and cook, stirring, until the onion is transparent, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the cumin, vinegar and rocatillo pepper, and mix well.
Add the sofrito to the beans, mix well, and cook over low heat, covered, until the beans crack open, 30 to 40 minutes. Season to taste and serve.
Depending on their quality and freshness, the beans will vary in cooking time and the amount of liquid they will absorb.
Makes 8 servings.
Tostones (twice-fried green plantains)
Vegetable or peanut oil for frying 3 plantains 4 cloves of garlic salt to taste
Peel and dice plantains 3/4-inch thick. Peel and crush garlic cloves. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat 1 inch of oil to 375 degrees or until a plantain round sizzles when it touches the oil.
Fry as many rounds as will fit in a single layer until light brown, about 2 minutes on each side, turning with a slotted spoon. Drain on a paper-towel-lined platter.
Set aside the skillet and the oil. Fold a brown paper bag in half, place several plantain rounds between the halves, and using the heel of your hand or a can, press down hard on the plantains until they are about 1/8-inch thick. If refrying later, cover and store at room tempertaure.
Several minutes prior to serving, reheat the oil over medium heat and add the garlic. Remove the garlic when it starts to brown. When the oil is 375 degrees, fry as many rounds as will fit in a single layer until golden, 3 to 4 minutes on each side, turning with a slotted spoon. Drain on a paper-towel-lined platter, sprinkle with salt, and serve immediately.
If frying many plantains, keep them warm in a 200-degree oven until ready to serve. This dish is wonderful as a side or as a tasty snack. If using as a side, refry shortly after the guests arrive and put in the oven to keep warm until dinner.
Flan (Spanish caramel custard)
1 quart whole milk
1/8 teaspoon salt 1 cup sugar 8 eggs 1 teaspoon vanilla 6 tablespoons sugar
To make the custard, heat oven to 300 degrees. Pour milk in large saucepan. Add salt and scald. Bring just to the boiling point, but be sure not to boil mixture. Remove from heat and add 1 cup sugar, stirring until dissolved. Set aside.
In large mixing bowl, beat eggs until slightly foamy. Gradually add milk-and-sugar mixture, then vanilla. Stir well and strain. In a small skillet, melt 6 tablespoons of sugar to light golden color. (If cooked beyond that, sugar hardens.)
Coat 1 1/2-quart tube mold with caramelized sugar. (Mold can be a small sauce pan that can be used in the oven). Pour in custard. Place mold in a shallow pan with enough hot water to extend about halfway up the mold. Bake for approximately 1 hour, or until set. Custard is done when knife inserted in center comes out clean.
Cool thoroughly before serving. Cooling time is approximately 2 hours if done in the refrigerator.
To remove the flan from the mold, place a plate on top of the mold. Turn the mold and plate upside down.
If the flan does not come out, gently insert a rubber spatula around the edges of the mold to loosen the flan. (If not done gently, the flan may crack. It will still taste delicious, but it will not look as nice.) Then remove the flan from the mold.
Serves 6 to 8.