In Cuba, where tropical breezes blow year-round, it is not plummeting temperatures but tantalizing aromas that usher in the holiday season. The rich smell of roast pork at festive family gatherings has symbolized tradition and merriment for generations.
Families and feasts are large, as is the pig roasting in a pit over glowing coals. City dwellers and small families can roast a leg of pork in conventional ovens with the same good results, with the advantage of easy preparation.
In addition to roast pork, there are black beans and rice, yucca, and bunuelos, a deep-fried dessert, to grace the Cuban holiday table.
While preparation is not difficult, it is time consuming; the dishes need to cook slowly, with constant care. But just a few exotic staples, available at Latin supermarkets, will serve you well in an extensive array of delicious dishes.
The first necessity is a bottle of mojo (mo-ho) criollo, a cloudy, forbidding-looking marinade that adds pizazz to whatever it covers. Next is naranja agria, or ''sour orange'' - if you can't find this in the produce department, a bottle bearing the same name should be located near the mojo.
You'll need a bag of dried black beans, not canned, and some yucca, found in the frozen food section in a bag marked ''cassava.''
Malanga, a dark, skinny, potato-like vegetable, is used to make the bunuelos. Or if a slightly sweet dough is desired, replace the malanga with a pound of boniato, the Cuban equivalent of the sweet potato.
Set aside an entire day to immerse yourself in these ethnic delights and enjoy the following recipes - family favorites throughout Cuba and beyond. Pierna de Puerco Asada a la Criolla 1 pork leg (4 to 6 pounds) or pork roast 2 to 3 garlic cloves, chopped 1 cup mojo criollo 3/4 cup juice of sour orange 2 tablespoons salt 1 teaspoon oregano 1/2 teaspoon pimento, optional 2 medium onions
With sharp knife, make small incisions in pork and insert chopped garlic cloves. Add mojo, sour orange juice, salt, oregano, and pimento.
Slice onions thinly and place on top of pork. Cover and marinate 12 hours or overnight. Remove meat from marinade and place in roasting pan, fatty side up.
Cook in oven that has been preheated to 325 degrees F., allowing 35 to 40 minutes per pound. Serves 6 to 8.
Variation: Remove excess fat from pork with sharp knife. Cut meat in chunks, as for stew, and marinate overnight in mojo and sour orange juice.
Brown in skillet with a small amount of oil, add sofrito, a basic Cuban sauce , and cook until tender, about 1 hour.
While not as formal as a roast, it is satisfying and has lots of flavor.
A simple sauce used in many dishes, sofrito is easy and quick to prepare. Sofrito (Basic Cuban Sauce) 1 1/2 medium onions 3 to 4 crushed garlic cloves 2 bay leaves 1 medium can tomato sauce
Place onions and crushed garlic in skillet with small amount of hot oil. Saute until onions are translucent. Add bay leaves and tomato sauce. Simmer 10 minutes. Black Beans and Rice 1 pound dried black beans (frijoles negros) Water to cover 1 bell pepper, green or red, sliced Sofrito 1 tablespoon sugar 1 to 2 teaspoons vinegar 2 teaspoons olive oil
Wash beans, place in bowl with water to cover, and soak overnight. Next day, discard soaking water; put beans in heavy saucepan with sliced bell pepper, seeds removed.
Add water to cover and boil over medium heat. Cooking time varies from 4 to 8 hours, depending on freshness of beans. Placing a lid on saucepan will result in more tender beans.
High heat will not shorten cooking time; the beans cannot be rushed. Stir occasionally and add water when necessary.
When nearly soft, add sofrito, using only half the sauce if making pork variation. Add sugar to taste. Cook until thickened. Remove from heat. Add vinegar. Stir to blend. Add olive oil. Serve over white rice. Approximately 8 portions. Bunuelos 1 pound yucca, peeled and quartered 1 pound malanga or boniato, peeled and quartered 1 egg, beaten 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup flour Pinch of anise, optional Oil for frying
Place vegetables in boiling water about 10 to 15 minutes.
Remove from heat before they soften. Pull away and discard fibrous strings in center of yucca.
Puree or grind finely the vegetables.
Add beaten egg, salt, flour, and anise. If mixture sticks to fingers, add more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time.
While dough is still hot to the touch, form into balls the size of large meatballs and place on floured board. Roll balls into snakes approximately 8 inches long, then shape into figure eights and place on wax paper.
Pour vegetable oil approximately 1 inch deep in heavy skillet, and heat to 375 degrees F.
Fry bunuelos until golden.
Sprinkle thickly with powdered sugar or serve the favored way, rolled in the following thick sugar syrup flavored with cinnamon, lemon, or anise. Bunuelos Syrup 1 cup sugar 1/2 cup water 1 cinnamon stick, optional Pinch of anise or lemon peel
Combine ingredients and boil 5 minutes, or until sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and pour over bunuelos.