Chef Douglas Rodriguez talks about roast pig and other Cuban delicacies
Douglas Rodriguez is arguably the most influential Latin chef on the planet. At his pioneering New York City restaurant Patria, he invented Nuevo Latino cuisine — pan-Latin dishes updated with lighter sauces and colorful presentation. Although he has since ceded Patria to a successor, his influence lives on at the multitude of establishments that cater to the mohito and ceviche craze that has swept the dining world. His empire now includes Philadelphia's Alma de Cuba, Miami's Ola, and Scottsdale, Arizona's, Deseo.
Cuban Christmas Eve is called Nochebuena, and it is, above all else, a party. Rodriguez's family would gather in a Miami backyard to celebrate. The pig (lechon in Spanish) had been marinated overnight in mojo, a tangy sauce of citrus, garlic, and herbs. In the morning it was loaded into a specially made wire box and set over hot coals. As the day progressed, the hungry guests would listen to salsa music and down beer after beer as they monitored the progress of the roast with great anticipation. This was a family that took its food seriously. Rodriguez remembers: "I had one uncle who was nicknamed 'the pig doctor' because he never wanted to talk about anything but the lechon. He claimed to have perfected the process and would explain his system in great detail to anyone who would listen."
The rewards were abundant: Guests enjoyed crispy-skinned, succulent pork; yuca with garlicky mojo sauce; hearty beans and rice; sweet glazed plantains; and silky flan. Then they trotted off to Midnight Mass, where you knew it had been a good party when, according to Rodriguez, "the church was filled with the smell of the alcohol on everyone's breath."
To create this feast in your own home this Christmas, follow Rodriguez's recipes and helpful tips.
• Tamals Also called tamales, these treats, consisting of meat or vegetables mixed with a corn dough and steamed in corn husks, are eaten for the holidays throughout much of Latin America. According to Rodriguez, however, the art of making tamals is dying out, because "you need a grandmother to supervise the process." Luckily, in his recipe, Rodriguez plays grandmother to us with detailed, easy-to-follow instructions.
• Roast suckling pig with lime-oregano mojo This recipe takes its cue from Cubans living in colder climes, trading the traditional 100-pound roast for a 12-pound suckling pig that can be cooked in the oven. Rodriguez compares this process to roasting a turkey, and advises home cooks, "Don't be afraid to give this recipe a try."
• Beans This is Rodriguez's mother's recipe and can be served either as a soup or over white rice.
• Yuca with sour orange mojo This mojo calls for sour, or Seville, oranges, which are available in some gourmet supermarkets. In a pinch, Rodriguez recommends substituting a mixture of five parts lime juice and two parts regular orange juice. Yuca, a starchy root vegetable (also called manioc or cassava root), is traditionally served with this sauce in Cuba. It is available in gourmet or Spanish grocery stores. To cook yuca, peel off the bark and the underskin using a paring knife and then cut the yuca into sections. Steam until soft, then remove the central fibrous cord and toss the sections with the mojo.
• Plantains "Only Cubans could have three starches at the same meal," says Rodriguez. "We call them all vegetables." They may not meet with Dr. Atkins's approval, but these traditional accompaniments are delicious. For this recipe, Rodriguez recommends plantains that are yellow and sweet but still firm.
• Flan Rodriguez has added a crispy cookie-crumb crust to this traditional Cuban dessert.
— Sarah Kagan