Today many Christians around the world celebrate the Epiphany day, when the Baby Jesus was revealed to the humanity as the Christ to the Magii, and thus, the world. It marks the end of Christmas (the Twelfth Night), and the start of the Carnival season (bring out the king cake!).
Here in Puerto Rico, this celebration is just as important as Christmas Day. It is an official government holiday, so right in the middle of the week we get a day off from work to spend with our families and enjoy traditional Christmas food, music, and gifts. Children are waking up to find that the boxes of grass they left the night before for the Magii’s camels have been eaten, and they have left a gift to celebrate the day with. When I was little, we used to live in a condo without access to a yard for grass, so my parents always had us leave bowls of corn flakes around for the camels’ sustenance. What a mess would they make! They would go on to make bigger messes when we moved to a house with a yard. It was a wonderful time while the innocence lasted. One year – I don’t remember exactly if it was while I was back from college or even after that, my siblings and I left our little boxes of grass. After the boxes of grass, and all through the night/ early morning, we sneaked to try to one-up each other’s displays by adding typical musical instruments (maracas, tambourines, güiros, bongos…), poinsettias, even six-packs of beer and bottles of Puerto Rican rum! Every time I would come out to see if mine was still the best I would find something new in the other two. I think my brother even took down a framed mosaic my parents keep by the doorway and propped it in his corner. Obviously we didn’t wake up as early as we used to when we were little to see what the Magii had left for us, and my parents absolutely cracked up when they saw our works of art. It’s one of my favorite memories from this holiday.
Today we are gathering at my sister’s house for lunch. This year I’m being lazy and just bringing in the salad, but last year I made a green pigeon pea risotto to go with the roast pork and morcillas we brought in from our favorite lechonera within the greater San Juan area. Rice with green pigeon peas (gandules/gandures) is one of the traditional Puerto Rican holiday dishes, now being almost as pervasive in the Thanksgiving table. One of my co-workers had fresh peas from her farm, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to make a really tasty dish. Unfortunately I didn’t have access to the fresh peas this year. I really liked how the rice turned out after cooking it this way, so I adapted the methodology later in the year for a Jambalaya risotto.
Since I was working onsite at my sister’s, I made most of the prep the night before. I made about a gallon of ham stock out of a couple of ham hocks (lacones), onions, garlic and bay leaf. This stock was to be used for the risotto and for cooking the peas in before adding them to the risotto. I also made about a cup annato oil for color, by steeping annato seeds into olive oil. Once on site, this is what I (think) I did:
Simmer the fresh pigeon peas in ham stock for about fifteen minutes. If you are using canned pigeon peas, skip this step and add the liquid from the peas to the remaining stock, which should be simmering to be ready for use in the risotto. In the meantime, chop a large onion, smoked ham, and spanish chorizo (the small reddish links). I got enough ham and chorizo to taste/’oomph’ the risotto but if you are making this as a one-pot meal rather than a side dish, go crazy. Make sure the stock is well seasoned before starting to add to the rice pan.
Sautée in a very large skillet or the most appropriate vessel you can find the onion, about five sofrito ice cubes, and the meats in some annatto oil until the onions are soft, and everything is fragrant. Fish out the chorizo and the ham and reserve until the end. If you are not completely sure about what sofrito is, I give a basic description in the rice with squid recipe, and a post on it is already in the works.
Add the arborio rice and the pigeon peas and toss with with the sofrito, onions, and oil. If your rice looks pale, add a little bit more annato oil. Stir for about a minute or two – it all depends on the amount of rice to be cooked.
Add a couple of ladle-fulls of the ham stock into your rice and pea mixture and stir… and keep going until the rice is cooked ‘al dente’. Right before you get to that point, add back the meats and stir until well combined before adding the last dose of stock.