Cubans celebrate the day before Christmas, and in particular the night before Christmas, which is called Nochebuena, or La Noche Buena, the Good Night, rather than Christmas day. The meal is similar to the US Thanksgiving meal (huge), except that instead of turkey, there is lechón asado, pork that has been marinaded (adobado) in a garlic mix with 3 parts green lemon (you call them limes) to one part orange juice, or if you are very very lucky, naranja agria or sour orange. Here in California I won't be able to find naranja agria so I will have to make do with the combination of regular oranges and limes, to which I will add some oregano, a bit of cumin (comino), and some Worcestershire sauce. Although I no longer eat pork (I am a vegetarian), my son and his partner, especially his partner who is a pork addict, will expect the lechón asado, with plenty of mojito (not the drink, but Cuban barbecue sauce, consisting of about a million chopped garlic cloves with naranja agria, to which you add hot olive oil).
When I was a girl I remember that the family would roast an entire pig, which had been in a marinade overnight, and which was wrapped in plantain leaves to keep it moist. It would be roasted in a pit outside. The men would sit around smoking their cigars and turning the pig, adding marinade to keep it moist. Someone would always be playing a tumbadora or bongó.
The other thing that is a must is black beans and white rice. The black beans need to made the day before, because they have to become thick, and they taste better the next day, anyway. It takes at least two hours to soften them, after having soaked them in water the night before. The beans are cooked with sofrito, which is the start of almost every Cuban dish, and consists of chopped garlic, green pepper and onion, sautéed in olive oil. They are flavored with oregano, laurel (bay) leaves, and wine, and of course some salt to taste. My secret is a small teaspoon of sugar, and some roasted red peppers. Delicioso... If you prefer, you can have the rice and beans cooked together as moros con cristianos (Moors and Christians), which is the mix of the black beans and white rice in one dish.
The smell of sofrito itself is my idea of heaven... surely there is a Cuban heaven, with sofrito and frijoles negros and the lovely taste of plátanos maduros fritos (sweet fried plantains). These plantains have to be almost black... you buy green ones, and let them ripen until it looks like you will have to throw them out, then you fry them. They are naturally sweet! If you don't do fried food, then you stick the whole plantains in the oven for about 20 minutes, and roast them. All the sweetness without the frying.
Of course we will also have yuca con mojo (cassava), a bland root vegetable that cannot be absent at the Noche Buena table. The yuca is boiled until it screams for mercy, and then soaked in the mojo. Mojo is an explosive experience... I don't fry the garlic (a full head), but when you add the heated olive oil to the chopped garlic, to which you've added oregano and something citrusy (naranja agria or that mix of lime/orange), it sings a guaguancó with happiness.
We will have a salad, with plenty of aguacate (avocado) and a simple dressing of virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. My abuelo Gerardo was a great lover of salads and he also taught me to make mayonnaise, which he made with a fork at the table, but I will make with a mixer in a canning bottle. We may not need mayonesa, but you always have to have it available, just in case someone want to add it to a salad...
All Cubans are garlic addicts, and when they start dating they try to find spouses or significant others that also love garlic, otherwise there is a major problem with garlic breath. I buy garlic by the bushel (just kidding), because at any one meal I will use at least six cloves per dish, sometimes a whole head. It is the basis of our seasonings, of our mojo (or mojito), of our marinades. We add it to our beans, our rice, our salads...
For dessert we might have flan de coco (coconut flan) or buñuelos, which are fritters covered in syrup. You make the syrup with sugar and water of course. Don't forget that Cuba at one time was the number one producer of sugar, so we all grew up with an obligation to consume sugar. Our cafecito, for example, stronger than the Italian espresso, is one part coffee to 6 or 7 parts sugar, or as non-Cubans say, we drink coffee with our sugar. I don't do the sugar bit myself, because I find it is cloying, but I can't drink the coffee unless it is very dark and very sweet.
You have to have nuts, and turrones, which come from Spain, and are a type of 'candy,' nougat, I guess. There will be small dishes around the house with green olives stuffed with pimentos, peanuts, and always the different turrones.
Christmas Eve may be the most special night of the year. It starts with a feast, very late at night, at which we may drink Cuba libres or mojitos or daiquirís with the nuts and olives, to start. At dinner we will drink wine, a nice Marqués de Riscal, perhaps. Dancing is a must, and we start with the 'son,' which is the mother and father of everything you know as 'salsa.' For Cubans, salsa is something you eat, whether red, or with clams, or white... while son is what you dance. Just in the son we have so many varieties... el son montuno, el changüí, el sucu-sucu, el ñongo, la regina, el son de los permanentes, la bachata oriental, el son habanero, la güajira son, la guaracha son, el bolero son, el pregón son, el son guaguancó, el mambo, el cha-cha-chá... It started with the prohibited African rhythms mixed with Spanish strains, but is particularly Cuban. I will post some You Tube links for anyone who wants to listen. The dancing and socializing in the old days was followed by midnight Mass (la misa del gallo, or the mass of the rooster).
Although we always eat too much, the dancing takes care of that bloated feeling... And for dessert, if you don't want the delicious flan, you might have simple cascos de guayaba con queso crema (guava shells with cream cheese) or coco rallado, a cloyingly sweet dessert made out of shredded coconut, also eaten with cheese.
I will make a fish dish for myself, perhaps bacalao, perhaps pargo a la brasa (a red snapper grilled in, you guessed it, mojo...), which the kids will eat after they have tried the lechón asado. This year we will have a celebration at Nochebuena and also on the day after Christmas, because two of my kids who live in LA will drive down on the 26th and stay until fin de año, or New Year's Eve.
Here are some links to our music. If you want more details about the food (recipes, etc.), I will post them. Felices pascuas y un próspero año nuevo to each of you, and please feel free to post your own traditions here!
The Buena Vista Social Club... ¡eso es Cuba, chagüito!
The real Guantanamera
(This is one of the first cha-cha-chá songs... I used to dance this, at the age of 6, with my sister, age 3, at a beach club my parents went to...)
(the above is the real rumba cubana, and guaguancó)
Benny Moré, el bárbaro del ritmo