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Spice up your holidays with Steven's festive recipes.

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Noche Buena
By Steven Raichlen

It's the day before Christmas in Miami and the sky fills with smoke from a thousand backyard barbecues. Not just any smoke—it's the fragrant aroma of lechon asado, pork marinated in a garlicky marinade called adobo and roasted over an ember filled pit. It's an aroma you'll experience in Hispanic neighborhoods everywhere this time of year, for preparations are underway for Noche Buena, the traditional Latino Christmas Eve feast.

Let the Party Begin!

Catholics around the world honor Christmas Eve, but Latin Americans have made it one of the most festive days (or more accurately, nights) of the year. A traditional Cuban Noche Buena, for example, begins with a late night feast, followed by drinking, dancing and socializing. At midnight, people attend a missa del gallo, "rooster mass,"—so named because it finishes in the wee hours, around the time the first rooster crows. Noche Buena combines the belt-loosening largesse of an American Thanksgiving with the conviviality of a Fourth of July barbecue.

Regional Flavors

Noche Buena foods vary from country to country. Puerto Ricans enjoy special pasteles (tamales cooked in banana leaves), for example, while Mexicans serve bacalao a la vicaina (salt cod with potatoes and chilies). Even in a single country, the menu depends on the region, from the stewed guinea fowl and turkey fricassee popular in the eastern Cuban province of Oriente to the roast pig enjoyed in Havana. Christmas Day is something of an afterthought, at least gastronomically speaking, as that's when you eat the Noche Buena leftovers.

Of course, any meal that centers around roast pig and fried plantains poses some serious challenges to the health-conscious eater. But by making some subtle changes, you can enjoy a Noche Buena brimming with explosive Latin flavors that won't break the nutritional bank.

Noche Buena Basics

First thing's first—the pork. Forget about roasting a whole hog, which is intimidating and time consuming to prepare, not to mention off the scales in fat grams. A pork loin contains just a fraction of the fat and cooks in less than two hours. What gives lechon asado (roast pork) its unique flavor are the adobo (marinade) and mojo (sauce); the former a pungent mixture of garlic, cumin, and lime or sour orange juice; the latter flavored with fried garlic. To make a healthier mojo, I replace some of the oil with chicken broth.

Plantains are another mainstay of the Hispanic holiday table. These jumbo cooking bananas are enjoyed at every degree of ripeness: green (which taste starchy and not the least bit sweet), yellow (which have just a hint of sweetness) and fully ripe (which are candy sweet like ripe bananas). To trim the fat here, I use a technique called "bake-frying". The plantains are sprayed with a little oil and baked until golden brown on a nonstick baking sheet in the oven. You can probably find plantains at your local supermarket (or at least at an ethnic market), but they'll most likely be green. Ripen them at room temperature until the skins are completely black. Plantains reach maximum sweetness at about the point when they look like you should throw them out.

Throughout Latin America, some sort of beans and rice would be served with the roast pork and plantains. For our Noche Buena feast, I've chosen gallo pinto, the red beans and rice of Nicaragua. To reduce the fat here, I substitute lean Canadian bacon for the traditional bacon or pork rinds used to flavor the rice.

Sweet Finale

Flan is a confection enjoyed throughout the Spanish-speaking world—and nothing brings a meal to a luscious close like this smooth, creamy caramel custard. To slash the fat in the traditional recipe, I use fat free sweetened condensed milk and replace some of the egg yolks with egg substitute.

Here, then, is a heart-healthy Noche Buena feast. Christmas Eve will never be the same!

Spice up your Christmas Eve with Steven's fenomenal recipes:

Lechon Asado (Mojo Marinated Roast Pork Loin)
Maduros (Bake-Fried Ripe Plantains)
Gallo Pinto (Red Beans and Rice)
Lemon Flan (Ginger and Orange variations)

About Steven Raichlen

Steven Raichlen is the author of 21 books, including the IACP/Julia Child Award-winning Barbecue Bible and the new Barbecue Bible Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades (both published by Workman). His latest book, Healthy Jewish Cooking, was published by Viking in September. He also runs a Barbecue University at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. You can reach him at his web site: www.barbecuebible.com.

He has appeared numerous times on national television, including The Today Show and Good Morning America as well as CNN and The Discovery Channel. Raichlen lives in Coconut Grove, Florida, with his wife Barbara.

 

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