Daisy Martinez Enjoys Christmas, Latin-Style

Published December, 2008

TV chef and cookbook author Daisy Martinez’s New York Navidad is three generations old

Daisy Martinez’s Christmas memories of her grandparents are plentiful and cherished, including Puerto Rican Christmas carols, family, and of course, lavish meals. Growing up on Staten Island, Martinez, hostess of the PBS series Daisy Cooks! and the upcoming 2009 Food Network series Viva Daisy, witnessed her mami (mother) and her abuela (grandmother), Valentina Perez, prepare the Noche Buena meal (the Christmas Eve feast).

Martinez, a 50-year-old Brooklyn resident, fondly recalls her maternal grandparents Clotilde Gonzalez and Juan Rodriguez and her paternal grandmother, Valentina Perez’s obsession with the kitchen. The room signified a nurturing, happy place, a location in the home that forged togetherness, memories, and mouthwatering Latin cuisine, especially around the holidays.

"Aunts, uncles, cousins would all descend to partake in the festivities. Always there would be music and dancing." She also recalls celebrations in Puerto Rico. “My family would go on parrandas, where caravans of cars would spend the night going from house to house with people playing guitars, shaking maracas, stroking guiros, and singing the Christmas songs," she says. "The homeowners would invite everyone in to enjoy steaming plates of pasteles, roast pork, and arroz con gandules, or coquito and rice pudding."

"The lessons I learned at my grandparents' table were that even though our means were modest, the care and love they put into preparing those holiday meals, upholding those traditions, and creating those experiences for their family was the greatest inheritance they could leave us," she says. "The memory of past holidays and meals shared at their table with the rest of my family is at the very core of who I am and the mother that I’ve become."

The traditional Christmas Eve meal got a bit complicated when Ms. Martinez married her husband Jerry. "Puerto Rican roast pork has pride of place on the dinner table on Christmas Eve, but my husband is Italian, and his family had the Feast of the Seven Fishes," says Martinez. "I make sure that my children have always been provided with the best of both worlds and I make sure that it all finds its way to my table."

The Christmas tree is also an important tradition in Martinez’s home. After chopping down their own tree, the family has a little tailgate party, complete with sandwiches, thermoses filled with hot chocolate and hot soup and apple cider. The following day they host a tree party, where friends and family decorate the tree together, feast on holiday treats, and sing Christmas carols.

"It's always great to hear my kids talking about past Christmas tree trips, and all the funny memories that go along with a trek through a Christmas tree farm," she says.

Today, she hosts large Christmas meals, as her mother and grandmothers did. She invites family and friends, and relishes creating new memories for her children, ones she hopes they will want to recreate with their own families, while maintaining the beloved traditions passed down from her grandparents.

Daisy Martinez's Pernil
Serve this succulent roast pork for a holiday feast with an accent from the Isle of Enchantment

"I could never dream of setting a holiday table without serving pernil, the beloved Puerto Rican-style roast pork. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without it," says Daisy Martinez. When Martinez lived with her abuela, the entire family would gather together to prepare the Christmas feast, making sure all the details were perfect. The smell of pernil in the kitchen signified that Christmas was near, so she was always an enthusiastic participant in the preparation of the meal.

"Later as a young woman, I looked forward to the quality family time, spending an entire day in the kitchen with my parents, Abuela, and all four of my siblings grating, seasoning, and laughing. Today as a mother, I employ the help of my children, and relive the joy of my childhood whenever I am able," she says. "With the fragrant pernil roasting in the oven, my house is sure to smell like Christmas."

4 1/2 pound skin-on pork shoulder roast

Wet rub for meats and poultry (Adobo Mojado):
12 cloves garlic, peeled
1 1/2 tablespoons fine sea or kosher salt
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 tablespoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1. To make the adobo: Pound the garlic cloves and salt to a paste using a mortar and pestle. Add the peppercorns and oregano, pounding well after each addition to incorporate them into the paste. Stir in the olive oil and vinegar. Wet adobo will keep 5 to 6 days in the refrigerator.
2. Up to 3 days before you serve the roast, set the roast in a bowl skin side up. With a paring or boning knife, make several slits about 11/2 inches wide through the skin of the roast and into the meat. Make the slits as deep as you can. Wiggle a finger in the slits to open them up a bit, then fill each with wet adobo, using a teaspoon. Turn the roast over and do the same on all sides. If you have adobo left over, rub it all over the outside of the roast. Refrigerate, covered, at least 1 day or up to 3 days.
3. When you are ready to roast the pork, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
4. Set the roast skin side up on a rack in a roasting pan. Roast 1 hour, turn the heat down to 400 degrees. Cook the roast half an hour for every pound and until the skin is deep golden brown and crackly and there is no trace of pink near the bone, about 1 1/2 hours. Let the roast rest at least 15 minutes before carving.
5. To serve, remove the crispy skin. It will pull right off in nice, big pieces. Cut them into pieces — kitchen shears work well for this — and pile them up in the center of the platter. Carve the meat parallel to the bones all the way down to the bone. (It will get trickier to carve neat slices as you get near the bone; don’t let that bother you.)

Yield: Makes 8 Daisy servings, plus leftovers.