Off Hours: Finding memories of Puerto Rican food in Des Moines, a mac and cheese snack attack and dreamy smoothies
Hey everyone! I’m Melody Mercado, the Register’s Des Moines city government reporter, and I’m a "Saturday Night Live" host wannabe.
Welcome to my edition of Off Hours, a free weekly newsletter on all things entertainment from the Des Moines Register. Happy holidays!
Here’s the deal: A Latino Christmas is the best type of Christmas.
I’m Puerto Rican, and if you’ve never been to a Puerto Rican celebration… I feel sorry for you. We know how to eat, drink and be merry. I mean even our Christmas music proves that point — with a baby Jesus thrown in here and there.
Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorite holiday songs "Me Gustan las Navidades," which is often spun in the Mercado household.
Me gustan las navidades (I love the Christmas holidays)
Que sepan a Puerto Rico (With the taste of Puerto Rico)
Comiéndo pasteles y lechón asa'o (Eating pasteles and roasted pork)
Y dándome unos palitos (And drinking a little bit)
Some of my favorite holiday memories include helping my mom cook. OK, my cooking was basically taste-testing, but don't blame me: The aromas from that kitchen would make anyone’s tummy grumble with greed.
My mom's most requested dishes are arroz con gandules, sofrito rice with pork and peas; arroz con leche, a rice pudding; and coquito, our version of eggnog, but without the eggs.
Made from coconut milk, rum, cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla, coquito is served in a small rocks glasses over ice from Thanksgiving through New Year's Eve. Mixing up huge batches while playing merengue in the background, my mom would pour the delicious concoction into empty Champagne bottles and give them as gifts during the holiday season.
If you received a bottle from my mom, you knew you made it.
Now I carry on that tradition with my friends, it’s a labor of love that I truly enjoy every year. We aren’t a family that has written recipes. Everything on our table is made from memory, but, I’ve managed to get my mom to write down her coquito recipe. My mom may be over 300 miles away in Illinois, but just one sip is enough to transport me right back into her kitchen. ¡Salud!
My Top 3: Foods that remind me of home during the holidays
1. Pasteles from El Coqui 515: If you’ve had Mexican tamales, you’re halfway to pasteles, a traditional Puerto Rican Christmas dish. The outer portion of a pasteles is made from different types of root vegetables instead of corn, and the filling is most commonly made of stewed pork, green manzanilla olives and roasted red peppers. El Coqui 515, a popular food truck and my favorite fix for all things Puerto Rican, sells them during a small window in December. If you didn’t make the cut this year, make sure you don’t miss them next year.
2. Sweet tamales from Mama Laura Meals: It's not really the holidays until I am roasting next to my best friend's fireplace and eating her grandmother's homemade sweet tamales. But a close second are the delicacies made by Mama Laura Meals. My favorite is her pineapple flavor, which just melts in your mouth. Watch her Instagram page for announcements and don't sleep on her traditional tamales, tortas and birria.
3. Arroz con leche from Mi Patria: Although arroz con leche is a Puerto Rican favorite, Mi Patria, an Ecuadorian restaurant in West Des Moines, is the only place in the metro where I’ve been able to find this uniquely spiced rice pudding. Order it year-round for just $5.
Eat This, Drink That
Mac and cheese at The Cheese Bar — $7 for a side: When you're feelin' snacky and you're craving savory, The Cheese Bar has your fix. Each bite of this mac and cheese features thick rigatoni noodles covered in a béchamel sauce made with heaping helpings of Frisian Farms Gouda and Hook’s four-year cheddar and topped with breadcrumbs for an added crunch.
Get it:The Cheese Bar on Ingersoll Avenue is open Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Aloha smoothie from The Juice Co. — $5: It feels healthy to grab an Aloha smoothie from The Juice Co., the cute little store at the Shops at Roosevelt. The non-dairy concoction combines strawberry, mango, banana and pineapple for an escape from winter to the ocean waters around Hawaii.
Get it:The Juice Co. pours its smoothies, wheat grass and juices from Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and again on the weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
48 Hours Off
Friday night: If you need to get out of the house to prevent yourself from opening gifts, head to the Waterbury Luminaries on Waterbury Road in Des Moines. At dusk, residents of this west side neighborhood light their candles and let them burn through the night, creating a brilliant twinkling display. Park and walk or drive, depending on the weather.
Saturday afternoon: Head to select theaters to watch the biopic of Iowa native Kurt Warner in "American Underdog." The film follows the former St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals quarterback's rise to fame in the NFL.
Sunday morning: After one too many glasses of coquito, who actually wants to cook? Not me. Head to Drake Diner, which is confirmed to be open, for a chill after-Christmas meal. Best part? Breakfast is served all day, so take your time getting up.
From the Kitchen of: Ana Mercado
A couple years ago, I called my mom and asked her to give me the recipe for coquito so that I could make it for friends. And, again, we don't really measure anything precisely, so to get a handwritten recipe is a pretty big deal. Give it a try and feel free to make it as strong as you'd like — don't forget to taste as you go!
- 2 12-oz. cans evaporated milk
- 2 15-oz. cans coconut cream
- 2 13.5-oz. cans coconut milk
- 1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
- 1 tbsp vanilla
- 1 tbsp cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp nutmeg
- 2 cups of your favorite dark, spiced rum, preferably a Puerto Rican brand like Bacardi. Clear rum will make the drink a little bitter.
Put all ingredients except rum into a blender and blend on high until well incorporated. Add rum and blend on high again. Add more rum to taste. Chill overnight.
Continue the Mercado gifting tradition and pour coquito into an old wine bottle or a re-usable glass bottle like this one at Target.
Make sure to shake before serving; ingredients tend to separate. Serve in a small rocks glass over ice.
Note: This recipe is written for a blender that can hold more than eight cups of liquid. If your blender is smaller, divide the recipe in half.
What's your holiday drink of choice? Shoot me a line (and a recipe) at MMercado@registermedia.com.
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My Day Job
It's budget season for the city of Des Moines, so look for my article on how the city of Des Moines is creating its budget and how the city's ward boundaries changed along with my profile of Zuli Garcia, a person to watch for providing essential resources for the Latino community in Central Iowa through her nonprofit Knock and Drop.
Mark your calendars next week to read something special from the Register's dining reporter Elle Wignall, who will set her intentions for 2022.