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On This Day in JBF History: JBF Award Winner Maricel Presilla's Caribbean Christmas

Maggie Borden

December 15, 2015

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Over its nearly three decades of existence, the James Beard Foundation has charted the ever-evolving progress of American cooking through the chefs it has welcomed to the Beard House kitchen and our national events. Menus and themes reveal the trends of yesteryear, the hot-button items (lava cake, endless truffles, fusion cuisine) that provide culinary carbon-dating. In our ongoing series, “On this Day in JBF History,” we fire up the DeLorean and spin the clock back to platings past, to note the tired tropes and the dishes we still find ourselves hungry for.

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On December 15, 1994, JBF Award winner Maricel Presilla presented a special Caribbean Christmas dinner to Beard House diners. The multiple nominee wouldn't claim her first medallion until 18 years later, but even in 1994 Presilla was an accomplished author, academic, television host, and chef. Now overseeing restaurants Cucharamama, Ultramarinos, and Zafra in New Jersey, the acclaimed Latin and Caribbean culinary expert last cooked in the Beard House this past February, where she added her signature style to a decadent brunch. Read on for a glimpse of the event theme and menu from her holiday fête, full of mouthwatering dishes that still inspire cravings.

Special Event: A Caribbean Christmas
Maricel Presilla, author of Feliz Nochebuena, Feliz Navidad: Christmas in the Hispanic Caribbean (Henry Holt)
Thursday, December 15, 7:00 P.M.
Members $75, Guests $95

A holiday table spilling over with roasted pork, crispy yucca and juicy sweet mangos can mean only two things: Christmas in paradise or, better yet, a return visit to the Beard House by noted food historian, author, and reigning queen of Cuban cuisine, Maricel Presilla. With her authoritative handle on Hispanic food and history, Presilla spices up this season to be merry with a not-to-be-missed Caribbean Christmas Dinner. 

Born in Cuba, raised in Miami and schooled in New York, Presilla rarely finds a free moment these days. When she’s not developing her 26-part TV series on Latin cooking for PBS, authoring a cookbook, or working the lecture circuit, Presilla can be found at Victor’s 52 Café in New York or Miami, where she serves as a consulting chef for the sister Cuban restaurants. 

Food enthusiast Presilla earned a Ph.D in Spanish medieval history from New York University in 1989 and began teaching at Rutgers following graduation. All the while she has managed to marry her interests in Hispanic history with the foods of Spain, Latin America and the Caribbean, emerging as an accomplished chef with a modern approach to her native cuisine. “As a food historian, I’m always looking for authenticity, but I’m also looking for good health boundaries,” Presilla says. “I try to make my interpretations [of recipes] simple and full of good flavors. Most of the original recipes for instance, started with lard-that’s totally eliminated from my recipes, as are thickeners.” 

In her newly published children’s book, Feliz Nochebuena, Feliz Navidad: Christmas in the Hispanic Caribbean, Presilla recalls her Caribbean childhood, highlighting her memories with an appetizing treat at every turn. “As a child growing up on the crocodile-shaped island of Cuba,” Presilla writes, “I could always tell Christmas was coming by the blooming of my favorite mango tree.” Meanwhile, at the Beard House we know Christmas must be on its way as Presilla gears up to serve a scintillating slice of the Caribbean to our own island of Manhattan. 

Menu

Bacardi Welcome Cocktails:

Daiquiri Mulata Mojita and Costa Rican Sorrel Flower–Ginger Wine

Criollo Tidbits:
Dominican Yucca Bread Crisps with Smoked Salmon, Central American Cream, and Salmon Roe
Yucca Fries with Cilantro Sauce
Plantain Gourds Filled with Shrimp in a Spicy Beer Enchilada Sauce
Empanaditas with Three Tropical Salsas 

Festive Tamalitos:
Puerto Rican Green Banana–Yautia Pastel and Venezuelan White Corn Hallaca with Rice and Green Pigeon Pea Salad, Ajilimojili Sauce, Chile Habanero–Red Onion Relish
Vin Gris de Cigare 1993

Quintana Roo’s Bacalao a la Vixcaina (Mexican-Caribbean Salt Cod Hash with Olives and Chiles) with Greens in Almond Cream
Big Red 1993

Santiago de Cuba’s Christmas Eve Roast Suckling Pig, Seville Orange Adobo with Ripe Plantain Filled with Christmas Day Monteria, Three Pepper Cilantro Sauce and Avocado-Watercress Salad, Lime–Olive Oil Dressing
La Cigare Volant 1991

Nougat and Marzipan Platter
Cashew Apples in Bacardi Rum with Colombian Panela, Venezuelan Cheeses
Star Anise Malanga–Yucca Beignets
Fresh Tropical Fruits
Coquito of Puerto Rican Coconut Milk-Bacardi Rum Eggnog
Bustelo Espresso and Cuban-Style Coffee

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Maggie Borden is assistant editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.