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Navidad Borinqueña / Puerto Rican Christmas at the James Beard House

  • James Beard House 167 W 12th St New York, NY (map)
 Maria, Paxx, Kelly, Natalia. Photos by Natalia de la Rosa.

Maria, Paxx, Kelly, Natalia. Photos by Natalia de la Rosa.

The chefs of Puerto Rico have continued to innovate even as they’ve had to show incredible resilience following Hurricane Maria. In a Christmas dinner at the James Beard House, four brilliant chefs with different styles will merge for a meal. Maria Grubb, Paxx Caraballo Moll, Natalia Vallejo, and Kelly Pirro will bring the island to Manhattan for this one night event.

The Menu

Considered by many to be the crown jewel of Puerto Rican cuisine, pasteles are one of the most important dishes of the holiday season on the island and throughout the diaspora. Pasteles in their earliest form were first made by the native Taínos, and evolved to what they are today after the arrival of the Spanish and African newcomers. With its production usually reserved for one day out of the year, either directly before or after Thanksgiving, making pasteles is an all-day affair which involves the entire family and marks the beginning of the very long Puerto Rican holiday season. Typically made with a base of green unripened bananas, a mixture of tropical root vegetables, stuffed with stewed meat, usually pork, and wrapped in banana leaves, no two families’ pasteles are alike. Some families add Spanish olives and garbanzos, some swear by the addition of raisins, and the choice to add ketchup upon serving has been known to result in heated debates. Our pasteles will be topped with a fragrant saffron rabbit fricassee.

Alcapurrias are a common street food found throughout the island, especially along the coasts, with slight regional differences. Its base is much like that of a pastel, but instead of being wrapped in banana leaf and boiled, alcapurrias are shaped into torpedos and deep fried. The fillings for an alcapurria are endless. Our alcapurrias will be served with fried oysters and topped with a gochujang mayoketchup, a special tribute to Puerto Rico’s growing Korean community.

Plantains are used in many forms throughout Puerto Rican cuisine, and the pionono is a prime example of the plantain’s versatility. Piononos are sliced sweet plantains wrapped around a meat filling. Our piononos will be filled with a morcilla mousse, a traditional blood sausage steeped in Spanish tradition.

Asopao is to Puerto Ricans what gumbo is to Cajuns. A blend of African and European traditions result in a comforting rice-based stew filled with plantains and langostines and served alongside Caribbean avocado.

Serenata de bacalao is one of the purest expressions of Spain’s mark on Puerto Rican gastronomy. Enjoyed throughout the year, especially during religious holidays, serenata is a delicate salad consisting of salted cod, tomatoes, avocado, onions, and boiled eggs. Our serenata will be served Niçoise style with quail eggs.

For Boricuas, Christmas is celebrated the night of Christmas Eve, known as Nochebuena. In addition to pasteles, a traditional Christmas plate consists of pernil, a roast pork shoulder, and arroz con gandules, an annatto and pigeon pea rice. We’ll be rethinking the traditional Christmas meal as a sticky annatto rice served with popped pigeon peas and a pernil-style pork belly.

There are many desserts in the island’s culinary tradition, most of which are made only around the holidays due to the amount of work which they require. Cazuela can best be described as a cross between custard and fudge made from pumpkin, root vegetables, coconut milk, sugar, and flavored with ginger and warm spices.

The Chefs

 Paxx, Natalia, Kelly, Maria; Photo by Natalia de la Rosa

Paxx, Natalia, Kelly, Maria; Photo by Natalia de la Rosa

Maria Grubb of Gallo Negro
Maria Grubb worked in New York City, at restaurants such as Pastis and Maialino, for many years before returning to her home city of San Juan, Puerto Rico, to become executive chef at Gallo Negro in the Santurce neighborhood.

Their dinner and brunch programs have made it one of the city’s must-visit restaurants, landing it on lists at Eater and New Worlder, and her work has been covered in Grub Street, Food & Wine, Munchies, and more. She has been instrumental in bringing continued attention to the city’s culinary scene from beyond the island.

Paxx Caraballo Moll of JungleBaoBao
Paxx is the chef and owner of El Baoricua, which was located inside Lote 23 gastro park cooking asian-rican-inspired steamed buns from December 2016 until November 2017. They had to close following Hurricane María, we relocated in December 2017 to a funky tropical bar named JungleBird, where we go now by the name JungleBaoBao.

While at El Departamento de la Comida, Paxx was covered by the New York Times and Munchies. JungleBaoBao is probably the only spot offering a late-night kitchen menu with farm to table, vegetarian and fresh fish options in our area. For Paxx, cooking is political.

The fact that one year after the hurricane their farmers are thriving makes him proud, and he wants to invest in that and more broadly promote inclusivity. “I am a trans-genderqueer human,” he says, “and I feel to need to make my kitchen one that promotes inclusivity and is against the system.”

Natalia Vallejo
Natalia Lucía Vallejo Rivera was born on July 20, 1984 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 2002, she began her studies in University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus in Nutrition. In 2005, she started her culinary studies at Gato Dumas Culinary School and the Mausi Sebess Culinary Arts International Institute in Buenos Aires, Argentina . In 2007, she came back to Puerto Rico were she worked with Chef Alfredo Ayala; in 2011, she traveled to Barcelona, Spain were she specialized in Basque and Catalan cuisine as Sous Chef of Igueldo Restaurant with Chef Gonzalo Galbete Ciaurriz, disciple of Juan Mari Arzak. In 2013, travels to Valparaíso, Chile to expand her learnings in the Mapuche Community Latinamerican cuisine. She also has continued education at the Erika Silva Online Gastronomic Marketing School. In 2015 returns to Puerto Rico and takes part as a Chef in the Agro-Tourism project; Visit Rico. She joins the Culinary Company 5 Sentidos where she becomes the co-owner and Executive Chef of Finca Restaurant in San Juan. After Hurricane Maria in September 2017, Natalia Vallejo, works independent collaborating and creating a diversity of culinary experiences all around the island.

Kelly Pirro of Mai Pen Rai
Ever since she was a little girl, Kelly Pirro wanted to own a restaurant. She’s been working in the industry since 1998, learning all aspects of restaurant life, to achieve a well-rounded perspective, so that she can one day open her own place. Currently, as Executive Chef if Mai Pen Rai, and co-partner of K-Pop, she is expanding my knowledge of cooking, management, and creating recipes.