I baked, frosted, and bedazzled 100 cookies to decorate a Christmas tree for Woman’s Day TV segment. I continue to find sprinkles embedded in my living room carpet.
Do you know, it takes an awfully long time to settle back in after being away for Christmas? No? Then you must be much more organized than I, although, I truly did putter about like new wind-up doll stocked with fresh batteries writing correspondence and making phone calls, taking on a Mount Everest-esque heap of laundry, sorting bills, picking sprinkles out from the carpet (see photo above), mailing out belated holiday gifts…Don’t look at me like that—I know I was delinquent in my elf duties. The worst of it is, I wrote a whole blog entry about how 2010 was the year when I would send out cards and presents in a timely fashion. Lump of coal in my stocking.
What did you do for the holidays? Lots of presents, clinking bubble-filled crystal, and manageable family brawls, I hope. For me, it was southern California, which was a complete washout. The sun refused to shine in its usual carefree way, the house windows looked like they were weeping. No matter—I got to spend some quality time with my mom in the kitchen*. We cooked and baked every day, and, while this may seem like a non-vacation, we look forward to our time in the kitchen, and odd ducks that we are, actually enjoy doing the dishes.
And now, the pièce de résistance! Nicas, gather round and take notes, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a very special Christmas gift from me to you. My grandmother’s top-secret family recipe for relleno! My mamamá would surely murder me in my sleep for sharing, but she doesn’t use the internet…Does she?
For those non-compatriots, a brief explanation of Nicaraguan relleno:
Relleno means stuffing, but erase your mental pictures of American bread-cube stuffing and dressing because this version is of an entirely different genus and species. I’ve found no original recipe, no documentation on who made this recipe first, but relleno is a contentious subject to Nicas; recipes are usually closely guarded and unique to each household.
Relleno is made by combining finely chopped pork (I’ve heard of people using chicken, but in my book, that’s sacrilege), panade, and many condiments and stirring everything in a pot for many hours. Mamamá’s recipe is famous and, when she was younger, used to be available for purchase. I remember her standing over a cauldron-like pot in the cement patio in her kitchen in Granada, arduously pushing against a broomstick of a spoon to prevent the bubbling mixture from sticking, beads of sweat wrung out by the deepening furrows in her brow. Granted, she was making at least sixty pounds’ worth, but relleno is labor intensive even in small batches.
This year, my mom and I started with an insignificant two pounds of pork and it still required the use of two large pots and three hours of stirring. Relleno’s consistency is thick, but spreadable in the manner that rillette or refried beans are. Its color is deep, burnt sienna studded with the green and deep purple of olives, capers, and raisins. The flavor is a balanced blend of sweet, salty, and sour. In some areas of Nicaragua, on Christmas Eve the main event at dinner is a roast hen stuffed with relleno, but my family normally serves it alongside a more gringo roast turkey.
Without further ado, the recipe. ¡Les queda la receta para el año que viene!
RELLENO NAVIDENO CHAMORRO BARILLAS
You will need the largest mixing bowls in your kitchen, and your largest pots. I used a Dutch oven and a 12-inch skillet with straight sides. While the depth of the pots is important, it’s not as important as the surface area. Relleno will start as a pale, soupy mixture, but as it cooks, it will reduce and thicken. The larger the surface area of your pot, the more quickly it the relleno will achieve desired consistency.
This recipe is at its core, my grandmother’s, but in every household, seasonings and garnishes vary. In the ingredients list I call for a base amount, but you are free to add more or less salt, Worcestershire, olives, capers, etc., to taste. If this is your first time with the recipe, I recommend following it closely and, on your second and third tries, making additions and subtractions.
And please, don’t contact me if you choose to defile the recipe with outrageous additions like cumin or choose to start with raw ground pork. No. No. No.
For the base: Cooking the Pork
2 pounds pork loin, cut into 1½-inch chunks
Salt and pepper
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut into quarters
1 medium green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and cut into quarters
6 garlic cloves, peeled
2 bay leaves
- Generously season the pork with salt and pepper. Place the pork in a Dutch oven or large pot along with onion, bell pepper, garlic, and bay leaves. Fill the pot with enough water to cover (2 to 3 quarts) and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until the pork is cooked through, about 20 minutes, skimming the surface with a large spoon from time to time.
- With a slotted spoon, transfer pork to a large bowl. Strain the broth into a second large bowl and discard the cooked vegetables.
For the relleno
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium yellow bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and cut into 1-inch pieces
8 garlic cloves, peeled
1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes
2 loaves white sandwich bread, such as Wonder®, about 2 pounds total, torn into pieces
6 large eggs, well beaten
¼ cup Worcestershire, plus additional for seasoning to taste
½ cup sweet gherkins, finely chopped
6 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus additional for seasoning to taste
1 pound unsalted butter
8 ounces raisins
1½ cups pimento stuffed green olives, liquid reserved
1 cup cocktail onions, drained
½ cup capers, drained
- Place the half of the cooked pork, onion pieces, green and yellow bell pepper pieces, garlic cloves, plum tomatoes and their liquid, and ½ cup of reserved broth in a food processor and pulse until finely ground. Transfer to a large bowl and repeat with the remaining half of the pork, vegetables, and an additional ½ cup of reserved broth. Transfer to the large bowl with first batch.
- In a separate large bowl, combine the bread with 8 cups of reserved broth. Mash the mixture with a fork until the bread is completely dissolved. Thoroughly stir in the beaten eggs, Worcestershire sauce, gherkins, and sugar. Add the ground pork mixture and thoroughly combine.
- Divide the butter between two large, deep pots. Melt the butter over medium-high heat. Divide the relleno mixture between the two pots and begin stirring. After about 45 minutes of cooking, the relleno should begin to thicken and acquire a bronze tint. Stir in the raisins, olives, cocktail onions, and capers and continue to stir. Taste and season with salt, Worcestershire, and/or sugar (I like to add some of the reserved olive brine in lieu of salt). Two to three hours of stirring later, your mission is completed.
- Serve relleno as a side at the Christmas table. Leftovers are great on toast or crackers, or may be frozen in a zipper-lock bag for up to two months.
*I say “quality.” Mom might have other qualifiers to describe the experience. Pobrecita.