- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Miami may lie at the southeastern tip of the United States, but living here often feels like being in a foreign country. Meet a stranger, and you’ll as likely be greeted with “Buenos dias” or “Bom dia” as “good morning.” Your utility bill will come in English, Spanish and Creole. The truth is that while this seaside metropolis is in the United States, its heart beats to the tempo of Latin America and the Caribbean.

For many of us in Miami, breakfast means tostada (pressed Cuban toast) and cafe con leche (dark, strong, supersweet Cuban coffee with steamed milk). At lunch, we’re as likely to eat pupusas (Salvadoran stuffed tortillas) or arepas (Colombian corn-and-cheese cakes) as sandwiches.

Even the french fry has a Latino analogue here. It’s the plantain, which is like a jumbo cooking banana. We eat it as tostones (twice-pressed and fried green plantains). We eat it as maduros (candylike fried sweet plantains). We even have a plantain version of a potato chip known as a mariquita.

Miami’s supermarkets abound with ingredients that would seem exotic in other parts of the country: sapotes and mameys (both tropical fruits; the former tasting like a maple-syrup-sodden pear, the latter a cross between cantaloupe and sweet potato); tasajo (Cuban corned beef) and bacalao (salt cod); and for dessert, there is tres leches (meringue-crowned “three milks” cake). And that’s the commonplace stuff.

Nowhere have I felt a sense of disconnect as profoundly as during my first Thanksgiving in Miami.

My wife and I had come from New England, where Thanksgiving was born, or at least where it remains a Norman Rockwell-esque ideal. Thanksgiving meant frost on the windows and a crackling fire in the hearth. Miami offered palm trees, flamingos and 80-degree beach weather.

A proper New England Thanksgiving began with roasted chestnuts and included sweet potato casserole and pumpkin pie. But here in Miami, we find that folks were just as likely to eat empanadas (meat pies) as an appetizer and Moros y Cristianos (black beans and white rice) as a side dish. Sweet potatoes mean boniatos (Cuban sweet potatoes) and pumpkin or, more properly, calabaza, a Caribbean squash, is as often as not served in flan.

Even that centerpiece of Thanksgiving, the turkey, gets a complete Miami remake. Gone are the traditional sage seasoning and Madeira gravy. In their place are the Spanish-Caribbean marinade called adobo and an electrifying Cuban citrus sauce called mojo.

Adobo is a seasoning found throughout the Hispanic world. Literally. Versions turn up in Spain, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and even the Philippines. The core elements are garlic, cumin and some type of acid. Vinegar is used in the Old World; some sort of citrus juice, such as lime, in the New. The citrus of choice in Cuba would be naranja agria, sour orange, which is a greenish fruit that looks like an orange but with juice that is sour like lime juice with a hint of perfumed orangey sweetness.

Traditionally, the ingredients for the adobo — garlic, cumin, dried oregano and lots of salt — would be pounded to a paste with a mortar and pestle. If you visit a Cuban home in Miami, you may still hear the thump-thump of a wooden pestle against the mortar. But you can certainly combine the ingredients in a blender. The important thing is to start with fresh garlic, not the horrid pre-chopped stuff sold in jars.

As for mojo, it starts with similar flavorings, but the garlic is fried in oil and the sauce is cooked. This mellows the acidity and mutes the garlic’s pungency. Think of mojo as the yin to adobo’s yang.

Our Cuban housekeeper, Elida Proenza, took charge of our first Miami Thanksgiving turkey. She pounded the garlic and cumin in an ancient wooden mortar and pestle. Next, she loosened the skin from the bird by tunneling one finger, then two, then three, then her whole hand under the skin at the neck end, gently lifting the skin from the meat.

A third of the mojo went under the skin, a third into the front and main cavities, and a third was spooned over the bird as a marinade. She did this did a day before Thanksgiving so the bird would marinate in the refrigerator a full 24 hours before cooking.

This procedure flavored and cured the meat, a process not dissimilar to brining. What emerged from the oven was one of the most flavorful turkeys I have ever tasted. And for an oven-roasted bird, it was spectacularly moist.

I’m guessing that you already have the ingredients for adobo and mojo in your kitchen. (All right, so maybe you need to buy a couple of fresh limes and oranges.) As for placing the marinade under the turkey skin, it may feel a little awkward the first time you try it, but with practice, it’s no more difficult than putting on a tight glove.

You don’t need a degree in table hopping to know that Latino cooking is one of America’s fastest-growing food trends. No matter how cold it is outside, the following Cuban Thanksgiving turkey adobo will give your holiday a blast of tropical Miami.

Turkey adobo(Miami-style Thanksgiving turkey)

This recipe is fairly quick and easy, but you need to start it the day before, so budget your time accordingly.

8 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped

2 teaspoons salt, plus salt for seasoning

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning

3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

½ cup fresh lime juice

½ cup fresh orange juice

1 10- to 12-pound turkey

Salt

4 tablespoons salted butter, melted

2 cups mojo for serving (recipe follows)

Fruit for garnish, if desired

The day before, prepare the marinade. Mash garlic and 2 teaspoons salt to a paste in a mortar and pestle. Pound in the cumin, oregano, pepper, cilantro, and then the lime and orange juices. (If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, puree the ingredients in a blender.)

Remove giblets and any lumps of fat from the front and main cavities of the turkey. Season the inside with salt and pepper. Loosen the turkey skin from the meat.

Start by worming your finger into the neck cavity between the skin and the breast meat. Insert one finger, then two, then three, then your whole hand, gently loosening the skin from the meat to create an air pocket. (Work gently; you don’t want to tear the skin.) While you’re at it, slide your hand down to loosen the skin from the thighs and drumsticks.

The process will feel weird at first, but it becomes old hat with a little practice. It’s worth mastering because you can also use it to marinate chickens, ducks and game hens.

Add 1/4 cup of the marinade to the main cavity and 1 tablespoon to the front cavity. Stand the turkey upright in a deep bowl, and pour most of the remaining adobo under the skin. Work over a roasting pan to catch any runoff from the marinade.

Transfer the turkey to a large plastic bag (a clean garbage bag works nicely here) with any excess marinade, including the stuff that gathers in the bowl. Place bag in a bowl, and marinate the turkey overnight in the refrigerator, turning it several times to marinate evenly.

Place oven rack on the lower level and preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Remove turkey from bag and drain off most of the marinade. Arrange the bird, breast side up, on a rack in a roasting pan. Drizzle a little melted butter (about 1 tablespoon) over the breast, then spread it over the skin with your fingers.

Roast bird in preheated 350-degree oven until thoroughly cooked, 2½ to 3 hours. (Use an instant-read thermometer to test for doneness. The turkey is ready when the thigh meat reaches 180 degrees.)

Every 30 minutes or so, baste outside of turkey with remaining butter and any juices that have accumulated in the roasting pan. If the skin starts to brown too much, tent the bird with foil.

Meanwhile, make the mojo and set aside. Transfer turkey to a cutting board, and let rest for 10 minutes before serving garnished with fruit, if desired. Carve and serve with mojo on the side. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Mojo (Cuban garlic sauce)

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

12 cloves garlic, thinly sliced crosswise

1 cup fresh lime juice

1/3 cup fresh orange juice

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground oregano

2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Heat olive oil in a large deep saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until fragrant and pale golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Do not let brown too much or the garlic will become bitter.

Stir in the lime and orange juices, 2/3 cup water, cumin, oregano, salt and pepper. Stand back because the sauce may sputter. Bring sauce to a rolling boil. Correct the seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. Let cool to room temperature, then stir in the cilantro. Serve mojo in a bowl, stirring well before using.

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