I'm a big fan of Festivus, a fake winter holiday created as part of a Seinfeld episode. I skip the aluminum pole and the airing of grievances, and I don't even celebrate it on December 23. For me, Festivus is a great nickname for any dinner party during November or December that's not tied to Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year's. If you invite an acquaintance to a Christmas party, there's an expectation of presents and maybe dressing up and conflicts with other family obligations and whatnot. But a Festivus dinner can include damned near anything, dress can be as casual as desired, and no relatives are going to disown you because you decided to hang out with friends on December 15 or November 30.
This year, dear friends Sally and Terry offered to buy the groceries if I'd do the cooking, and I decided that it was high time to do some Cuban cooking. Memphis has had a couple of Cuban restaurants over the years, but currently there are none. Yes, a few places offer pale imitations of the Cuban sandwich, but if I want lechon asado or vaca frita I've got to do it myself.
Clad in a Hawaiian shirt while listening to mp3s of the Canadian radio host Stuart McLean, I spent a few hours prepping a proper Festivus Cubano. Big thanks to the Taste of Cuba website, source of most of the recipes.
We started things out with an apple/pumpkin soup called sopa de calabaza y manzana, spiced up with the addition of a few tangy cubanelle peppers. At this point the guests were finishing off cocktails, including the Silver Fizz and Manhattan. With the soup served in coffee mugs, it was just enough to whet the appetite and provide a little base for the feast to come.
For the second course, I adapted this recipe and used tilapia. Some amazing canned San Marzano tomatoes really brought an intense flavor to this dish. Since I'll jump at any opportunity to use a sparkling wine with food, I elected to open a bottle of NV Codorníu Original Cava. $15, 11.5% abv, La Mancha region of Spain. For Sally I added a splash of pastis, and for Paul I added a splash of Cointreau; Cava adapts readily to Champagne cocktail recipes. I had mine plain, where it presented a lemon and toast nose with a crisp, clean flavor, balanced acidity, and a short finish. This is a good all-purpose sparkler from a family that's been in the wine business for 500 years.
After a palate-cleansing course of chayote salad (most of the diners had never had a chayote before), it was time for the main course: rabo encendido or oxtail stew. Regular readers will note that I've been on an offal kick for the past few months, and oxtails are a relatively non-scary way to get used to these immensely flavorful parts of the cow/pig/etc. They're also pretty cheap, but rising popularity will surely drive up the price. Accompanying the dish were rice and slow cooked black beans with country ham. All told this was a decadent, rich, savory course that belied the total absence of expensive ingredients.
In keeping with the theme of wines from Spanish-speaking countries, I poured the 2006 Crios Malbec from female winemaker Susana Balbo. $15, 14% abv, Mendoza region of Argentina. Tobacco and coffee nose with blackberry and cinnamon flavors. Bright and smooth with a neat finish.
All in all a successful dinner, and I satisfied my craving for Cuban food. The guests were stuffed, laughter filled the house, and a good time was had by all. Truly a Festivus miracle.