Feliz Navidad

Once a year, Hawai‘i-born children return from all corners of the world, trading snow for surf and flying thousands of miles to spend Christmas with kin.

If you act fast and get lucky, you can get all your friends in one place at the same time.

That rare and wonderful combination of old friends (and  newer ones—husbands, fiancés, etc.)  is really all one needs to pull off a super holiday gathering.  99% of the magic is simply being in the same room.

But why stop at 99?  Especially on an occasion like this.

To finesse the last percent, I put my year-end Pantry Detox project to the test.  My long-time buddy and devoted FIF reader Kristin insisted on this, and I was happy to oblige. Having taken stock of my cupboard shelves (sundried tomatoes, polenta, epazote, Arborio rice, rye berries, shallots, garlic, onions, ancho chiles, pepitas, couscous, dried hominy, sunflower seeds) and the weather (torrential, historic, bone-chilling rain), I settled on “Feliz Navidad” as the theme for the meal, and pulled out some old and new recipes that spoke to my vision: festive, wint’ry, spicy, nourishing dishes from Spanish-speaking countries.

The menu could shake and shimmy to my two favorite genres of entertaining music—jazz and salsa.  I queued up Christmas standards from Diana Krall and Charlie Brown, and some cork-poppers from Tito Puente et al.

The only catch was when I realized that ten of my best friends were coming over for dinner on a work day… which I would be spending in Kona.

Slow cooker to the rescue.  I chose David Tanis’ super-tempting recipe for Kid Goat cabriza, from his new cookbook.  Subbed boneless lamb legs ($4.99/lb) for goat and swapped the recommended three-hour roast in the oven for twelve hours, on low, in the slow cooker.

I got back from the airport, with an hour to pull dinner together.  Before my key was even in the door, I could smell the sizzling lamb, rubbed in ancho chiles and garlic, and roasted with cinnamon and onions.  It melted at the touch of a fork.

It went into tiny tacos with a cilantro rice dish—a slight variation on Heidi Swanson’s excellent pumpkin rice salad, with roasted shallots and butternut squash.  I cut and cubed the shallots and squash the night before and they were ready to jump into the oven (with a splash of oil and sprinkle of chili powder and cumin) at Go Time.

Two green dishes brought seasonal balance to all those red chiles.  The first was a bright tomatillo pozole, an old favorite from Cooking Light.  I bought a whole smoked chicken at Whole Foods for $2.50 (!!) in the bargain bin on Sunday and separated its meat from bones; made stock; then had a perfectionist friend tear perfect little shreds of chicken into the soup as it warmed up.

For the last dish, caramelized Brussels sprouts.  Maybe a little out of place on the menu, but to me they just look like little Christmas trees…and I wanted to test-drive a Food & Wine recipe that would use up some bacon in my freezer and a half jar of sun-dried tomatoes.

Mexican beer seemed like a better pairing than a sparkling wine.  Friends brought wonderful home-baked desserts: iced sugar cookies monogrammed for each guest, and unbelievable cocoa caramel cuts (in the Punahou nomenclature; in Kamehameha parlance, they’re “haole brownies”, or “blondies” in the rest of the world) by the infallible Rosie.

I’ll post recipes for the pozole and lamb shortly.  Here’s a link to the cilantro rice.


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