This article originally appeared in the Edible DC Early Winter/Holiday 2014 issue and is reprinted with permission.
Washington, DC, is a crossroads where palates, customs and cultures collide and evolve. Predictably, holiday tables in this area—whether Thanksgiving, Hanukkah or Christmas—showcase a global smorgasbord.
In the Arlington, Virginia, household of Stacey Viera and husband, Luis, dishes that meld their Jewish and Puerto Rican backgrounds are de rigueur year-round but especially during the holidays.
“We’re all about integrating our traditions and customs,” says Viera as she helps 3-year-old Myer spoon flour into a mixing bowl for plantain latkes, a Latin twist on the Hanukkah staple. “Having that influence from both sides of the family has enriched the flavors we have in our home.”
Viera’s grandmother, Tillie Singer, or Big Mama, supervises from her perch at the kitchen table. “You should never break an egg right into what you’re cooking,” Big Mama reminds her. Then she quips, “I don’t ever recall making (latkes) with plantains.” Everyone laughs.
Although Viera hardly cooked hands-on with Big Mama growing up, she is now the proud owner of Big Mama’s kitchen tools—from a mid-century Farberware deep-fryer to a burnished cast-iron pan, with her grandmother’s handwritten recipe collection and notes-filled cookbooks also taking pride of place on a kitchen shelf.
Viera admits her interest in cooking only blossomed after she married Luis, and since Big Mama lived in Maryland and she in Virginia, the telephone was her lifeline. Now she’s giving her own children a head start, with Myer and 16-month-old Dagny often in the kitchen with her, elbow-deep in age-appropriate cooking activities.
Her children love to make and eat Big Mama’s kugel, so that recipe is a mainstay, says Viera. She boils the noodles and melts the butter, while Myer helps measure out and mix the ingredients.
But the fun part is at the end, says Viera. “The kids take the cornflakes and crunch them up in their fingers or in a bag and spread them out over the top with cinnamon and sugar.” While Jewish dishes are at the core of Jewish celebrations, the Viera Thanksgiving feast is biased toward Latin flavors.
The centerpiece is usually a turkey rubbed with spices à la lechón (roast pig), which starts a few days before Thanksgiving: “You’ll find Luis on that Tuesday massaging the bird, cutting holes and sticking garlic paste (made with garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and bitter orange juice) in.” Rice and beans, plenty of vegetables and salads, and a dessert such as Big Mama’s pumpkin bread complete the spread.
The latest addition to their repertoire is pastelon de carne, a Puerto Rican lasagna, if you will: layers of pan-fried plantains, seasoned ground beef and French-cut green beans held together with egg. Myer is often tasked with scattering green beans and pouring the egg. Viera also likes to mix-and-match dishes from both sides of the family: “One year, I served Big Mama’s brisket with a side of Cuban rice and beans and my family was very confused!”
With culinary expansion comes experimentation. Fusion dishes like plantain latkes, guava bar cookies and yucca knishes stuffed with adobo-seasoned beef have all emerged from Viera’s kitchen.
In the end, she says, “Staying true to the original dishes but honoring both Jewish and Puerto Rican backgrounds is what matters most to Luis and me.”
Top photo: Three generations of the Viera family sit down together for a meal blending traditions.