There are a few delicious reasons turkey serves as the centerpiece of so many Thanksgiving celebrations.
The versatile bird is adaptable to a multitude of preparations and comfortable with all sorts of ingredients. Long before it fed those Pilgrims at a harvest meal nearly 400 years ago, this native American bird was showing up at feasts throughout Latin America.
“Turkey is an important celebration food,” says Maricel Presilla, the author of “Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America,” ticking off a handful of preparations, from Mexico's moles to Guatemala's soup-stews.
“It's what you serve to people when you care about them,” she says.
But were you to visit Cuba these days, and more Americans reportedly do, don't expect to find a glistening gargantuan roasted bird. Instead, Presilla told us, the traditional preparation involves braising the bird after seasoning it with Cuba's beloved garlic-herb-and-spice paste, adobo.
Presilla's first Thanksgiving in the U.S. was in 1970, when her family arrived from their hometown of Santiago de Cuba. Here the “golden turkeys of television commercials and magazine ads beckoned,” she writes in “Gran Cocina Latina.” “More poignantly, the story of the Pilgrims began to resonate in my mind as a symbol of hope in the face of our own tribulations. … Like most newcomers to this country, we turned Thanksgiving into a hybrid feast.”
Presilla and her family tweaked their Thanksgiving feast. “The Thanksgiving meal is perfect for us because Cubans like the sweetness of it,” she says. “If we don't have ripe plantains, we will have a ripe banana and eat it with our meal. So it's the sweet potatoes, the sweetness of the cranberry sauce.”
These days, she spices her cranberry sauce with slivers of hot peppers and fruit juice. And the turkey? “The turkey always comes with a marinade, an adobo,” she says of the mix of bitter orange juice and spices, including allspice which is used in Santiago de Cuba. “If I have leftover adobo, I keep basting the bird with it.
“The secret here is the juices will collect in the pan, and you really must baste the turkey with those juices. Just keep basting it.”
And whether Presilla celebrates Thanksgiving in Hoboken, N.J., where she is chef and co-owner of restaurants Zafra and Cucharamama, or in Miami with family, there will be congri (rice and red beans) or its cousin, black beans and rice, and the white-fleshed sweet potato called boniato.
Much like the way families with Italian roots may serve lasagna at the holiday meal or, as my family does, the liver dumpling soup of my Czech grandmother, Presilla's menu reflects her family's roots and celebrates Thanksgiving in America.
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 3-4 hours
Makes: 15 servings
Adapted from recipes in Maricel E. Presilla's cookbook, “Gran Cocina Latina” (W.W. Norton & Co., $45).
1 large head garlic, separated into cloves, peeled
1 tablespoon each: ground black pepper, ground cumin, ground allspice, dried oregano, salt