Our fellow citizens in the Caribbean know a thing or two about celebrating the holidays.
Puerto Rico isn’t short on culinary charms all year round, from rum-soaked cocktails to dozens of ways to prepare plantains (I’m still thinking about a particular plate of tostones I had in Guayama six years ago). But Christmas is perhaps the most food-forward season when hungry travelers should consider visiting — and yes, it’s a whole season. Lasting from some point in November and often well into February, the Christmas celebration on the island keeps the party going for months of revelry and delicious holiday dishes. It’s due time the rest of America learned a thing or two about ringing in Christmas from our fellow citizens the Caribbean.
At a dinner earlier this month hosted at the James Beard House in New York City, four of the island’s culinary talents put together a five-course meal under the theme Navidad Borinqueña — Puerto Rican Christmas. The goal of the evening was two-fold: to promote the idea that Puerto Rican culture and cuisine doesn’t reside solely in the resorts of San Juan, and that the island, its restaurants, and its bars, are open for business just over a year after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory. The chefs invited into the kitchen represented a range of traditions and backgrounds, including Maria Mercedes Grubb, co-founder of Gallo Negro, Paxx Caraballo Moll of El Baoricua/Jungle BaoBao, Natalia Vallejo, a pop-up chef from the central part of the island, and Kelly Pirro of Mai Pen Rai.
The Beard dinner focused on, what Caraballo Moll called, "Christmas at the beach," with a seafood forward menu. But when I sat down with all four chefs to discuss Puerto Rico’s edible and imbibe-able traditions, they all pointed to one Christmas dish they think the rest of America is missing out on:
The roast pork is simple, rustic, and designed to feed a crowd. Pair the tender meat with its crispy skin and you’ve got two irresistible comfort food textures in one protein. Fill out the tablescape with a generous bowl of arroz con gandules — rice with pigeon peas — among other sides.
"You should roast pork," Mercedes Grubb insists. "Everybody has access to it, it’s cheap, you can do a ‘set it and forget it’ situation.’ I think everybody should add a pernil to their turkey dinner. That would make it more exciting. Screw ham."
"[Pernil is] my favorite, it’s so juicy and the flavor of oregano is so aromatic," Pirro agreed. "It’s a fairly simply seasoned dish: for me it’s salt, pepper, oregano brujo from the Dominican Republic, and garlic, and that’s it." Grab a pork shoulder and try your hand at this version of pernil from Chef Jose Enrique.
Just as families may have slightly different recipes for their house pernil, some also have larger traditions around the dish. "My father commissions a pig every year to grow and be slaughtered for the holidays," Vallejo said. The pig is selected six months or so ahead of the observance of the Epiphany in January when the roasting takes place. "The night before, everyone meets to drink pitorro and season the pig and prepare it for the ritual of cooking it the next day. For my family that is the biggest tradition."
Speaking of pitorro… While pernil certainly topped everyone’s list, there’s plenty of room to fill out your own Christmas menu with a bevy of other Puerto Rican eats and drinks. Here are a couple more holiday musts:
Coquito and Pitorro
The traditional cocktail of the holidays in Puerto Rico, Coquito is basically eggnog that’s been (much improved) by the addition of coconut. Oh, and, of course, rum. "Coquito is like eggnog without the egg, so you avoid that spoilage," explains Ninotchka Daly Gandulla who put together the cocktail menu for the Beard dinner. "We don’t buy the coconut cream, we make it at home, but there were no coconuts last year," she recalls. "It was like having a dish without the compliments, like having a paella without the saffron."
With that said, Coquito is clearly something you don’t want to miss out on this or any other year from now on. Thankfully, due to the Puerto Rican influence up and down the East Coast and across the U.S., the drink is becoming more available nationwide and more of a staple of Yuletide bar menus and parties. (You can find an easily-sourced recipe for Coquito here).
Then there’s pitorro — essentially moonshine rum that’s not really legal to make but traditional around the holidays nonetheless. And with the addition of various fruits and other flavors, it’s a uniquely personalized addition to any home bar. "There’s pitorro that’s fermented all year and it comes out around Christmas — there’s so many flavors and variations of it," Pirro said. "It’s something I associate with the campo — you need to know somebody who ferments it." Naturally, the pitorro often makes an appearance in Coquito, offering a bespoke take on the beverage. I won't encourage you to attempt to distill your own pitorro, but infusing some rum with holiday flavors wouldn’t be completely out of the question.
The third food tradition every chef brought up was pasteles, the boiled packets wrapped in banana leaves and filled with a mix of some kind of starch (plantains, green banana, yuca, or squash) and a well-seasoned stew of pork, poultry or seafood. Once again, it's a dish that can vary from kitchen to kitchen, and with a labor-intensive preparation process, it's often a family affair to produce a large batch around the holidays. (If you don't already have a family pasteles recipe, here's a yuca pasteles recipe from our partner AllRecipes.com.)
"You need pasteles for sure," Caraballo Moll said, but also warning, "There’s a fight if you should eat them with ketchup, hot sauce, or limón. people are divided. I’ll put hot sauce, a little ketchup and a squeeze of lime. That’s a debate that’s been going on for decades. Another fight is whether to use olives or raisins. If I see a raisin I’m like ‘you ruined my pastel.’" Of course, it’s the holidays so, "You’ve got to have something to fight about."
While last Christmas was difficult for many residents, with much of the island still lacking electricity and access to reliable food and water, this year, the four chefs tell me that things are looking brighter. They may not be back to normal yet, and they may never be at all, but Puerto Ricans’ resilience and creativity in the face of hardship is yet another reason to visit or revisit. "I’m excited to see what the restaurants are doing. When things aren’t available, and it makes it more difficult for bartenders and chefs, they’re forced to create new amazing things," said Daly Gandulla who currently resides in Chicago. "I want to go there and support them. I want to find a new version of what Puerto Rican culture and food and cocktails can be."
Recovery is an ongoing process, but Christmas is still a major source of joy, fellowship, and, of course, food among Puerto Ricans living on and off the island. "I’m looking forward to collaborating, to the positiveness and finding the light, maintaining our traditions. I’m happy for this awakened moment the island is having in terms of agriculture, farm to table, and cooking in general, Vallejo, who is opening Cocina al Fondo inside a Santurce art gallery in January.
"We need the tourists to come here to support us because the locals can barely afford to go out, so I think it’s important to create awareness that the hotels are beautiful, the beaches are ready, we have the coquito, it’s going to be okay," Mercedes Grubb added. "We’re always going to be there with a smile inviting them to eat our food and drink our pitorro."