The pigeon boys on the rooftop of the tenement building on the corner of Avenue C and East Fourth Street unfurled a red flag over the edge of the parapet. Immediately the cries of “bajando” rose from the lookouts on the street. This meant that a squad car had been spotted and was a warning to the drug dealers to move along. If the pigeon boys had displayed a green flag, the shouts would have been “tato bien” short for “everything is good”, more often than not shortened even more to just “tato”. The pigeon boys bred and trained the birds and kept them in cages on the rooftops. They were kids twelve or thirteen years old. They staged pigeon wars where it was hoped that your lead bird would be strong enough to lead other flocks to your roof and that meant you won the battle. The owner of the hostage flock would have to pay to get his birds back. It was common to see a knot of pigeons swirling in a circular dance lower and lower, hypnotized and lured by a primeval force to land against their will on an alien rooftop. This pigeon dance was so lyrical that I always stopped to watch it. Because the pigeon boys were on the rooftops so much, the drug dealers liked to employ them as lookouts using the flag system. Down below, the squad car would make its way slowly through streets of crumbling burned buildings and empty lots full of broken glass, never stopping, but scattering the junkies like roaches in the light.
The best part of our Christmas Eve dinner is the yuca con mojo criollo. Yuca, (pronouced YooKah) also known as cassava was consumed in Latin America long before the arrival of the conquistadors. It was brought to Africa through the slave trade in the 17th century. It is an important food security crop for millions of people because it grows in poor soil and can withstand drought.
You can find yuca in grocery stores that have Latin American foods. It is a long tuber with a dark woody skin that is coated with a clear wax to preserve freshness. The bark-like skin is thick and it has to be sliced off, almost like whittling a piece of wood. Once peeled and cut into pieces about five inches long, boil the yuca in salted water. Do not cut into smaller pieces as small chunks will turn into mush. This vegetable is very bland and the mojo criollo sauce that is poured over it is for garlic lovers only.
Seville oranges are the second ingredient. They are harder to find and so you can make a similar juice by mixing 1/4 cup of fresh squeezed sweet orange juice and 1/8 cup of combined lime and lemon juice.
Here is the recipe:
yuca – about three 10 inch long tubers peeled and boiled till soft
8 very fat, very good quality garlic cloves
1 tsp salt
1 medium onion sliced super thin
1/2 cup Seville orange juice or the substitute concoction mentioned above
1/2 cup good quality olive oil
Smash the garlic with the salt in a mortar and pestle (or food processor) until it forms a thick paste. Put the garlic, onion and orange juice in a bowl and let it sit for an hour. Heat the olive oil until it is very hot and then add the garlic and juice mixture for just a couple of minutes (do not let the garlic brown and be careful because it will splatter). Pour over the drained yuca, toss and serve.
A perfect compliment to roast pork with black beans, the yuca is biting and tangy with the sour orange and heady with garlic. It is even better the next day with leftovers, and then the day after that topped with a fried egg for breakfast.
My daughter calls me an ornament hoarder. I’m always on the lookout for the old ones at yard sales. Sometimes I find them at the bottom of big boxes and I know that they’ve come from someone’s attic – someone who has died – someone whose children and grandchildren saw these shiny treasures as junk. I rescue them to hang on a lighted tree again. They have good energy. I like them when they are so old that they start to become translucent and the light penetrates their milky luster. The old glitter looks like tarnished silver. I have handmade ornaments that when they are unwrapped and hung on the tree each year bring an endearment of thought. The wool roving ornaments made at a school holiday fair. The pressed cinnamon reindeer from preschool. The delicate orbs of blown glass from middle school science class filled with colored water. Ornaments brought by our friends through the years are remembered and hung on the tree with love.
In the beginning, we had friends over and just ordered pizza from Two Boots while we worked on the tree. Some years later I got the idea that I should make it fancier from watching a show on the Food Network about holiday hors d’oeuvre and for a couple of years I woke at dawn and stressed myself out in the kitchen until one of my daughters said “Mom, we liked it better when we just had pizza from Two Boots”. This year I did order pizzas from Two Boots and we made three different kinds of deviled eggs – easy and delicious. I tinkered with recipes from epicurious.com. I served the adults Dark and Stormy cocktails – a good wintery drink.
Chipotle Deviled Eggs
7 eggs (makes 14 halves0
1 chipotle pepper from a can (with adobe sauce) seeded and chopped fine
salt and black pepper to taste
Mayo – good quality or homemade
Hard boil the eggs and cut in half. Scoop out the yolk into a mixing bowl. Smash up the yolk, add the chopped chipotle and salt and pepper. Add enough mayo for a consistency like dry frosting. Stuff lightly into the halved whites.
Tarragon and Capers Deviled Eggs
7 eggs (makes 14 halves)
1 tsp fresh tarragon chopped fine
1Tbs shallot or green onion chopped very fine
1 Tbs capers
Salt and pepper to taste
Same as above, but add the chopped tarragon, capers and mayo. Stuff lightly into the egg whites and add one caper on top for a garnish.
Regular Deviled Eggs
10 eggs (makes 20 halves)
½ tsp dry mustard
½ tsp cayenne pepper or smoked paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
Same as above, add the mustard, pepper or paprika, mayo and salt and pepper. Stuff lightly into whites and sprinkle with paprika on top.
Dark and Stormy cocktails
Splash of Goslings Dark Rum in a tumbler over ice
Fill with Reeds Ginger Beer or other good quality ginger beer
I make chocolate fudge sauce every year for my kid’s teachers. This is an easy recipe and very delicious. I now make industrial quantities of the stuff because the teachers from the grade before, beg my kids for the sauce and so some of teachers have been grandfathered in. I’m now cutting them off after 2 years. Term limits for chocolate sauce. This recipe is originally from Martha Stewart’s Living magazine and yields 2 cups of sauce. I did the math and have increased it to fill fourteen half pint mason jars for the teachers and three pint jars for home and special friends. A total of 17 half pint jars.
For two cups of chocolate sauce:
1 cup heavy cream
2 Tbs light corn syrup
12 oz semisweet chocolate chopped
2 tsp vanilla
In a saucepan over medium heat bring the cream and corn syrup to a boil. Remove from heat (or lower) and whisk in the chocolate chunks until melted. Stir in the vanilla. Pour into jars and cool completely before covering or refrigerating (otherwise the sauce will become granulated). To reheat, microwave it a little or put the jar in a bowl of hot water.
The proportions for a massive quantity detailed above for gift giving:
6 cups heavy cream
12 Tbs light corn syrup
72 oz semisweet chocolate
12 tsp vanilla
We spoon the chocolate sauce over vanilla ice cream – divine. We love it on my mother’s bread pudding and drizzled on pie. It’s good to have on hand for the holidays to make any dessert special. Heat some up and pull out a box of shortbread cookies to dip in the sauce – and voila, you have a beautiful dessert.
Some years we make fancy labels and wrap ribbons around the jars. Some years we just cap the jar. This is one of those years.
Smells are important. They say that smells are what most easily triggers the memory. A smell will transport you to another time and place immediately and sometimes against your will. At times you don’t even know where you’ve been taken, only that you’ve been there before. In our home there are smell memories for Christmastime. Shortly after Thanksgiving, ever since my children were very small, I have been buying thin-skinned oranges and a big jar of cloves to make pomanders. We sat around the table with a bowl of cloves and a pile of oranges, spearing the cloves right into the orange – sometimes in fancy patterns and sometimes just plain around it. When the clove pierced the skin with a satisfying pop, orange oil would bead up around the fresh wound. Soon the apartment would be filled with the scent of spice and fruit so strong that it wafted into the hallway and delighted the neighbors too. By Christmas the pomanders would be cured and we tied them with red and green ribbons and hung them from the doorframe so that you could smell them the strongest when you walked into the house.
I’d never heard of paperwhites until one day shortly before Thanksgiving, a co-worker asked me if I wanted to chip in on a bulk order of the bulbs for Christmas. I did and every year since I put paperwhite bulbs in water and I keep them blooming in batches through the deepest dark winter months. The first batch is timed so that it blooms right before Christmas. I remember that when I started this tradition, I wondered if the earthy and very un-floral scent of the paperwhite would become a smell memory for my children. When they were grown up and far away, if they smelled a paperwhite flower, would they be transported home at Christmastime? Would they remember?
The sun is starting to bid farewell at around 4 o’clock so it was time to wash the windows to let in as much sunlight as possible and string up the xmas lights. I also went to the green market and bought small evergreens and Christmas Rose helleborus to put in my windowboxes.