December 28, 2012

Our Honduran Christmas Eve

Roasted fresh pork leg
after its rest, just before carving
(that little flap of fat at the bottom makes this look like a giant turtle!)

Our main celebration was Christmas Eve, which El Jefe tells me is the Honduran traditional day to really celebrate, at least in his family. That's a time when people go to visit friends and family, who always have plenty of food on hand for expected or unexpected visitors. Christmas Day is similar, but more for family and more laid back.

Tamales are especially popular at Christmas time. A big bag of tamales in the fridge can be used for breakfast, lunch or dinner, or for those drop-in guests, often accompanied by a pork or chicken sandwich. I didn't make any tamales this year but I've been promising to post my Honduran tamale recipe for years and I really need to do that soon. We did get some from my sister-in-law and some from my mother-in-law so we weren't completely tamale deprived.

Unlike the US, presents aren't a big part of Christmas, especially among the poor and struggling. Children whose parents can afford it generally get a new outfit of clothes and they are as excited and happy to get that as US kids are to find dozens of toys under the tree. Christmas has probably been a lot more commercialized for the middle and upper classes because the newspapers are often more than an inch thick during December with all the ads for toys, clothes, appliances, and electronics.

El Jefe and I seem to rotate our traditional foods with one year having American style roast turkey with all the trimmings and the next the traditional fresh pork leg served as sandwiches. Since we recently barbecued a turkey breast, this was a roasted pork leg year. I was excited to make it, but not half as excited as J was. This was the third time I've made a pork leg. The first time I used/modified my sister-in-law's recipe. The second time was a boneless leg because that is all we could find. On that one, I modified the marinade further. Both were good, but I wanted to do something slightly different this time. My cookbooks didn't have any recipes for whole fresh pork leg so I searched for recipes on the internet. I settled on three different recipes that sounded good, one was a Martha Stewart, one was a Cuban style, and I forget the other one. I took a little of each to come up with my recipe, which I think I would call a bit of a Caribbean style. Pork legs are easy to do; they just take a loooong time.

Pork leg on the grill, bathing in juices
El Jefe really wanted to do the pork leg on the grill. A man, a grill, a big hunk of meat: What could be better? He bought a new gas infrared grill a few months ago and let me tell you, we've had some really good eatin' lately. Finally, though, my reservations about the timing and ability to keep a low temperature on the grill won out. We decided to do it in the oven and finish it on the grill so we could be assured of it being ready when we needed it and not having to make our guests wait hours to eat. So our 15 pound leg had about 4-5 hours in the oven and a couple hours on a very low temperature grill.

When we finally thought it was ready, we cut some little chunks to test it. It was so good that we cut some more pieces and passed them around on a plate with toothpicks as an appetizer. Yummy! So flavorful and juicy, it practically melted in the mouth. It was really the best one I've done yet. The guests were impressed and El Jefe says it just may have been the best one he's ever had. I'll post the recipe if anyone is interested. In the US, you probably have to order a pork leg in advance, but it's great party food for a big crowd. What is a pork leg? Well, it is the whole ham cut, the back upper leg, but it is fresh meat, not smoked or cured. It usually ranges from about 10 to 20 pounds uncooked.

Homemade bread
Light whole wheat and sourdough breads
The rest of menu was simple: deviled eggs, cole slaw, lettuce and tomatoes for the sandwiches, two types of fresh homemade bread, a sourdough and a light whole wheat, and Baked Alaska for dessert. I mixed up the typical Honduran mayo-ketchup dressing but couldn't resist flavoring it with a little liquid chile picante and lemon juice. I served the deviled eggs as appetizers. I have yet to find a Honduran who doesn't like deviled eggs – a lot! I had about 50 egg halves for 13 people and had to ration them to keep the guests content until the meat was ready. Next time, I think I'll double that. No worries about cholesterol here. Everybody wanted more. Every time I walked through the room with the tray of eggs, I had kids tugging on my shirt asking for another.

It was a relatively stress-free meal, as far as party meals go. I was able to prepare and assemble the dessert (minus the meringue which only takes about 5 minutes) and store it in the freezer ahead of time. I made the bread ahead of time, prepared the cole slaw (minus the dressing) and cooked the eggs a day ahead. The marinade was prepared the day before and the meat marinated overnight. The morning of the party, I put the meat in the oven, finished the cole slaw and deviled eggs and had time to goof off while the pork was cooking. I even had time to sit and chat with the guests before we started eating.

Ultimate Baked Alaska
The Ultimate Baked Alaska
I wanted to do something special for dessert so this Ultimate Baked Alaska it was. The photo shows the ingredient layers – definitely decadent. The cake was Julia Child's sponge cake recipe. The lower layer of cake got flattened from the pure weight of the ice cream! The ice cream, of course, was homemade. I renamed the Baked Alaska to 'Olancho Horneado' which got a big laugh from everyone. Let me tell you, this Baked Alaska was about as big as Olancho (the largest state in Honduras). I made it in a 4-quart corningware roasting dish that is approximately 11" by 14", and it weighed at least 20 pounds. I normally mold it in a large bowl so it has a bombe shape which I like better, but it's a lot harder to cut that thickness of solid ice cream and harder to cut in neat slices for a crowd.

Baked Alaska - 'Olancho Horneado'
Meringue on the 'Olancho Horneado'
I usually have the kids surrounding me in the kitchen at dessert time and this time was no exception. They took turns trying to lift the pan and were suitably impressed, though they were extremely leery of "baking" ice cream. They also took turns making the meringue which was really fun for them since they had never used an electric mixer before and meringue whips up to such a big volume in such a short time – like magic. I had a little too much ice cream in the pan and too little cake to seal it in properly so it developed a little volcano of melted ice cream leaking on to the bottom of my oven, but otherwise it came out great and most of the ice cream was still solid. The room got very quiet during dessert time – the only time the room was quiet the whole night. Lots of wide eyes and thumbs up all around. Two people couldn't finish their pieces and asked me to put them into the freezer for later. They didn't forget to ask for them later. ;-) When they were finished, some of the kids tipped their plates to drink all of the melted ice cream.

The whole afternoon and evening was filled with lots of talking and laughing and many tall tales. It was really fun. The talk got off track a couple of times to some gruesome murders that had happened in one guest's neighborhood in the past month and I had to go "Psst! Not today! Not in front of the niños!", who were listening wide eyed. Some of the guests had family waiting for them elsewhere and some stayed late to play the card game Uno. Uno is a really popular game with adults and children. I highly recommend it if you are looking for a gift for older children.

I like to tease the children by telling them what a great ice cream we are going to have but I tell them they can't have any unless they can guess the type of ice cream. With each guess, I pause a long time, make a sad face, and give a "Millionaire-style" response to keep them in suspense for as long as possible. "It makes me sad to say that....your answer is not.....incorrect!" It sounds mean, but it's fun and everyone laughs! The kid team from the first family to arrive guessed pretty quickly with several wrong guesses. They all agreed that peanut butter ice cream is not that common and congratulated themselves for finally guessing. Then a 22-year-old man came and I asked the kids if we should make him guess, too, and they agreed that he must. He was feeling the pressure but came through with his pride intact. When the second team of kids got there, we did the same with them, but I think there might have been some tipping off involved behind the scenes as the nine-year-old guessed all three in only three guesses. It may have been because we made peanut butter ice cream with those kids last year and he remembered. I told them that next time I would have to make something harder to guess, like bacon ice cream or onion ice cream. "NO! NOooo! Ack!", they yelled.

I was so busy that I couldn't get any photos during the dinner so these food photos will have to do. We had so much fun that we're talking about having another party soon. The next time I want to have a pizza party. We've started doing grilled pizza and it's really the best pizza I've ever had. Everyone loves pizza and it gives J a chance to show off his grilling skills. El Jefe thought I was crazy when I suggested grilling pizza but he's so into it now that he had his own manly-sized pizza peel made by a metal worker here in La Ceiba. I doubt we'll ever make pizza in the oven again.

I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas! Here's a piece of Olancho Horneado for you!

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