Feliz Navidad

Puerto Ricans have their own version of the warming, life-affirming chicken soup made by Jewish grandmothers.

Only it’s a drink, which is a heck of a lot more fun, and way tastier.  It’s a spiritous little beverage called coquito.  It’s tempting to say it’s a Puerto Rican eggnog—but don’t.

Sure, there’s egg and dairy in there, and of course booze.  But coquito (little coconut) isn’t just some random carton you grab at the local A&P in early December.  This is a concoction with deep familial roots in Puerto Rico.Every Puerto Rican family has their own super-secret, super-special version.  The recipe for it is normally tightly-guarded and handed down to only the very favorite offspring.

And somehow, I, and by extension you, Gentle Reader, are now in possession of one of those venerated family heirlooms.

A couple years ago I met the then-Durham chief of police, Jose Lopez, and his awesome wife, Becky in line at Costco.  They have become friends, and Becky is now my Puerto Rican food mentor, coach, and head cheerleader.  And in the spirit of friendship for which Puertorriqueños are known, she gave me her family coquito recipe to share. So, here, in her own words, is Becky Lopez’ great-grandmother’s coquito recipe.  And if you’d like to say thanks for her generosity, take a moment and spare a thought or a prayer for the residents of Puerto Rico who are still in dire straits.  If you can do more, visit https://hispanicfederation.org/unidos, where 100% of your donation goes to recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.

Becky’s Family Coquitocoquito ingredients5 fresh cinnamon sticks

1/4 thumb size piece of ginger (about 1/2in.)

2 capfuls of vanilla extract

2 egg yolks (no membrane)

2 cans of evaporated milk

2 cans of coconut milk

1 can of coconut syrup (Coco Lopez)

151 proof dark rum or your choice of dark rum (Important: add only after mixture has cooled down)

Bacardi stopped making 151 last year. I now use Cruzan 151 aged rum.Take cinnamon sticks and smash them in a paper towel with a mallet so that their oils and taste may be released in the boil. Peel the ginger then cut it into thin pieces. Place the cinnamon and ginger in a small pot filled halfway with water and boil it for about 15 min. This should yield no more than 1 cup of liquid mixture.

Open one can of evaporated milk and one can of coconut milk and empty them into large pot. Place egg yolks in this mixture. Stir well until there’s no separation between eggs and liquid. Remove anything floating (remove any egg membrane) and cook on medium for 10 min.  Turn off heat and add the coconut syrup, stir, then add the rest of the ingredients including the vanilla extract, cinnamon and ginger water. Stir well. Cool down and add rum to taste.

Optional: before adding rum, place this mixture in a cold place (fridge or outside) @ 45 degrees or lower overnight then strain the congealed fat from the top.coquitoWhen mixture’s cooled down add rum to your taste.

Because the eggs were slowly cooked this drink can last for years in the fridge. Grandma would always bring out the last year’s Coquito (which always taste better) and served it in shot glasses. With time it thickens and becomes even more creamy.

I have had up to 4-year-old Coquito in my fridge. The trick is to shake your refrigerated bottles at least once a month.

Buen provecho! (Enjoy!)

And from the Matthews’ house to yours, have the most wonderful of holidays, and a happy, peaceful new year.Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at momsequitur@gmail.com.

Nog me

I was pretty young the first time I had eggnog, and since the grownups didn’t want to deal with a bunch of inebriated preschoolers (kindergarteners can be ugly drunks), my glass came from the kids’ hooch-free punch bowl.The flavor reminded me of when Dad would make a vanilla instant breakfast shake and add vanilla extract.  Only the nog had a strong egg flavor, and it was very milky.  I had given up milk after getting a carton of malodorous, lumpy moo juice during snack time at school.  Yeah, no, egg nog really didn’t move me.

Then a million years later, I was working as a bartender at a country club in Raleigh.  This is actually where my culinary fire was sparked.  I was friends with the kitchen staff, and they were my patient, generous tutors.

It definitely wasn’t Bushwood.  I never saw Bill Murray, not once.

I began to learn the traditions, unwritten rules, and rhythm of a professional kitchen.  I picked up how to observe without getting in the way.  I became familiar with, and learned to appreciate, the black humor that is woven through the very fiber of the denizens of the cook house.

And I learned that one of the very best places in the world to be is on the chef’s good side; especially when he or she develops new recipes and recreates old ones.

One night in early fall, Chef Wes came into the bar office bearing gifts.  It was a tall frosty glass full of what looked like a vanilla milkshake.  I got excited.  He told me it was eggnog.I got bummed.He then informed me it was made using the recipe of George Washington.  Yeah, the father of our country, and evidently, enthusiastic imbiber of spirituous beverages, George Washington.

I got intrigued.

He handed me the glass and I could immediately smell the hooch.  It wasn’t teased by some lightweight eggnog-flavored liqueur, it was chockful of multiple types of hangover-inducing hard liquors.

So, practicing enlightened self-protection, I took a small cautious sip.

First of all, it was boozy.  But not the throat burn-y thing that takes your breath away boozy.  It was mellow.  The alcohol flavor kind of reminded me of one of those fat, hearty gentlemen from a Dickens novel like Mr. Fezziwig; boozy, but jovial and refined.  Does that make any sense?The texture of this egg nog was very different.  It was thick and creamy, like the milkshake I’d mistaken it for.  And it wasn’t too milky or too eggy.  This cold creamy glass of good cheer made me understand what the whole eggnog fuss was about.  When made right, it was really good.

So, below is what scholars and cooks believe was served at our first president’s table.  And since recipes from that era are notoriously skimpy when it comes to details, the directions are from both me, and Chef Wes (Thanks, Chef).

George Washington’s EggnogeggnogOne quart heavy cream

One quart whole milk

One dozen tablespoons sugar (that’s 3/4 cup for you and me)

One pint brandy

½ pint rye whiskey (bourbon works just fine)

½ pint Jamaica rum (Debbie here-no disrespect to the prez, but I’m partial to rum from Puerto Rico)

¼ pint sherry

12 eggs, separated

Mix the alcohol and set aside.  Place egg whites into mixer and beat until they’re glossy and stiff peaks appear.  Remove from bowl and set aside.  Make sure you do the whites first because if there’s any yolk in the whites, they won’t beat into stiff peaks. 

Place yolks and sugar into the mixer bowl and beat on high until it’s the color of butter and runs from the beater in ribbons.  Stir in alcohols, milk and cream.

Then very gently, fold the whites into yolk mixture.

George recommends at this point to let the egg nog rest in a cool place (fridge) for two days before serving. 

Makes one honking punch bowl’s worth.  Enjoy.I hope you enjoy this Colonial nog.  And I hope you get every gift on your list.

But more, I really hope that you, Gentle Reader, and all of your loved ones can spend a few relaxed hours together having fun, and remembering why these are the people that populate your world.

And to all, a good night.

Thanks for your time.

Get your mojo running

For the last few weeks, this space has been heavily Durham-centric.

Well, not this week.

Today our sojourn will be in the sunny climes of the Caribbean, by way of Brier Creek.

In Cuba and Puerto Rico there is a sauce called mojo (pronounced mow-hoe).  It’s a very strongly flavored marinade.  Along with herbs like oregano and culantro (culantro, not cilantro; it’s an entirely different plant), it’s full of garlic, olive oil, and bitter orange juice.

While different places have different varieties, the most common is mojo criollo.  Criollo means Creole, which is a mixture of cultures.  The cultures in this instance are Spanish, African, and indigenous Caribbean.  Traditionally it’s used in amazing pork dishes.

This will look very familiar to barbecue-crazy folks from NC…in Cuba and Puerto Rico it’s called lechon.  And once you’ve had it, you will dream about this crispy, crispy skin.

A few weeks ago I went shopping to help fill fridge and pantry in The Kid’s new apartment.  After Target, but before we hit Lowes Foods, we stopped at the dollar store.  It’s terrific for nonperishables.  I almost always buy egg noodles and canned beans there.  I’ve also gotten amazing cosmetics there too.  The $1.00 eye liner works better than one from Sephora costing $14.00.

As we were walking down one aisle, I spied a bottle of mojo criollo.  It was a smaller size, but even so, $1.00 is a real bargain.  The Kid picked up a bottle and so did I.

That was the first bottle I bought there.  I used it to marinate pork tenderloin and flavor a pot of black rice for dinner one night.  It was delicious.

Then I went back for a second bottle.

This time, I decided to color outside the lines.  I would do something with it that I’d never heard of.  I was going to make mojo pasta salad.

Mojo chicken pasta salad

mojo pasta

1/3 cup + 1/4 cup mojo criollo

1 cup mayonnaise

Pinch of sugar

Water

1/2 pound tubetti, sea shell, cavatapi, or lumaconi pasta

1 cup frozen peas, blanched and shocked

3/4 cup grape tomatoes or similar

1/4 cup diced red onion

3 cups cooked, shredded chicken

Salt and pepper to taste

Make dressing: Whisk together mayo, 1/3 cup mojo, and sugar.  Add enough water to make it the consistency of creamy salad dressing.  Taste and season.  Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours.

Slice tomatoes in half and place in colander.  Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and let sit out for at least 90 minutes.  This will draw out much of the moisture, so the tomato flavors are concentrated and the juice doesn’t dilute the dressing.

Cook pasta in heavily salted, boiling water until tender.  Drain.  While still hot, put into a large bowl and stir in ¼ cup mojo.  Cool completely.

1 hour before service, gently mix together all ingredients.  Stir in dressing.  Make it a bit wetter than you want the final product, as the dressing will absorb into salad and will dry out as it sits.

Let sit at room temp for one hour.  Before serving, toss and check for seasoning.

Serves 4-6 as a main or 8 as a side.

I buy them at the Durham Coop, and almost always have some in the fridge.

I served this with a large handful of pea shoots on top.  They’re exactly what you think; tiny shoots from a pea plant.  Fresh and green, with a mild peppery bite, they’re perfect for sandwiches and on top of dishes that need a hit of something bright.  They’re perfect on scrambled eggs and avocado toast.

We also had some bread with our meal.

While I was at Brier Creek picking up the mojo, I stopped by Earth Fare for one of the best deals in town.  They have freshly baked baguettes for only 98 cents, every day.  Right before we eat I run it under some water, and toss it in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes or so.

This little trick brings bread back to bakery freshness.  I keep rolls and buns in the freezer, and with this method, we have fresh bread on demand (when frozen, they go for 13 minutes).  For yeasty dinner rolls, instead of water, I spread a thin layer of butter over the whole surface.  They come out crispy and buttery.

Plate up some of this pasta salad, pour a glass of rum, and turn on the salsa music.  You’re in Puerto Rico with no plane ticket required.

Thanks for your time.

Eat like a hummingbird

I’ll bet you think this is going to be about dieting, don’t you?

Nope, this is pretty much the opposite.  I’m going to talk about Thanksgiving desserts.  We’ll return to the hummingbird presently.

Last month the Sylvan seniors at Mt Sylvan Methodist Church (5731 N. Roxboro Road) asked me to speak to the group.  I said yes, but was terrified.I’m a talker, not a speaker.  The last time I gave a speech was in junior high, when I ran for 7th grade class president.

I lost.

My talk went well.  I didn’t freeze, or faint, or puke.  And afterward they gave me dessert.  There were many homemade treats, so I enjoyed a sampler plate.  My favorite was a pumpkin bar.  Which is crazy, because I don’t normally like pumpkin. It had great flavor, a delicious gingerbread crust, and a very thin, very crispy top, kind of like a brownie.It was made by Bess Hunnings Smith, the pastor emeritus at Sylvan.  When I requested the recipe, Bess started laughing.  She told me it came from a box.  It was Krusteaz Pumpkin Pie Bar Mix.  It’s available in local stores.

So if you or any of your Thanksgiving guests usually dislike pumpkin, or you desire at least one easy dish for the day, give it a try.When I was a kid, there was a neon-green goo that came in a mini-trash can.  This ‘toy’ really didn’t do anything except gross out adults.  It was called ”Slime”.

When we lived in Puerto Rico, my mom got a fruity gelatin recipe that also was a rather unfortunate shade of green.  My brother christened it Slime.   Even though it isn’t the most appetizing looking dish, it’s really yummy, and everybody in the family loves it.

Ross Family Slimeslime 21 large package lime jello, prepared according to directions, but not set

1-14.5 ounce can of pears, drained

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 envelope Dream Whip (not Cool Whip), prepared according to directions

Put warm-ish prepared jello, cream cheese, and pears into blender or food processor and blend until smooth.  Gently fold in Dream Whip.  Pour into 9×13 dish or ring mold and refrigerate until completely set.  Serves 12-16.And now we’ve circled back around to the hummingbird (cake).

You’ve got two simple desserts so far.  This next one is a show stopper that is also simple, but deceptively so.

*Note-no hummingbirds are harmed in the making of this cake.  Rather, it’s full of things that might attract a hummingbird.

Double-glazed hummingbird cakehummingbird cakeCake:

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 8-ounce can crushed pineapple with juice

1 cup canola oil

3 large eggs, beaten

 2 bananas roughly chopped, not mashed

½ cup toasted pecan pieces

2 teaspoons vanilla

Glazes:

hummingbird glaze

2 tablespoon melted butter

1 tablespoon rum

1 can cream of coconut (make sure you get coconut cream, and not piña colada mix)

2 ½ cups sifted powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 325.  Generously grease 10 cup Bundt or tube pan.

In a large mixing bowl, stir together flour, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, and salt.Remove 2 tablespoons juice from pineapple.  Set aside for glazes.

Add pineapple, oil, eggs, banana, nuts, and vanilla.  Stir by hand until just blended—don’t beat.

Pour batter into Bundt.  Bake for about 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until toothpick inserted comes out clean, but moist.  Place cake, still in pan, onto cooling rack set on a cookie sheet for 15 minutes.Mix glaze #1: Whisk 1 cup of powdered sugar with 1 tablespoon pineapple juice, rum, and enough butter to make glaze that can be drizzled.

Invert still hot cake onto rack, and remove cake from pan.  Drizzle with glaze #1.Let cake finish cooling completely.

Glaze #2: Into powdered sugar whisk 1 tablespoon pineapple juice and enough coconut cream to make glaze.  Spoon over cooled cake.  Allow glaze to set before serving.Serves 16.

Any (or all) of these desserts would be great for turkey day.   They’re quick, and can be prepared well in advance.

And to retain some sanity during the holidays, it’s wise take any opportunity to cut yourself some slack.Thanks for your time.