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Come Fourth Flavors

By Lynne Eppel

June 26, 2003
Copyright © 2003
SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

The Fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays. The Fourth is about food, family, friends, remembering our historic roots and focusing on relaxation rather than the rampant consumerism of some of our gift-giving holidays.

I grew up in Princeton, N.J. Our family Fourth was usually held at the Jersey shore or in Martha's Vineyard, and the fare never deviated much from deviled eggs, charcoaled burgers and my mom's unbeatable potato salad and baked beans.

When I relocated to Colorado five years ago, the scenery morphed from sandy shores to mountain peaks. But the food stayed pretty much the same. But when I moved to Delray Beach, I was inspired to rethink the food I once served faithfully every Fourth of July.

After all, South Florida is an incredible cultural melting pot. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Florida has this country's third-highest number of foreign-born populations, right behind California and New York. So here, perhaps more than other places, what may have started as a traditionally American holiday is now under a constant state of reinvention due to the diversity of its participants.

Arriving from what some call "beige" Boulder, I see this cultural food fusion as a brilliant phenomena, one I'm excited to learn from and make part of my holiday menu.

I started exchanging food talk with locals who came here from many southern points on the globe -- the Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, Nicaragua, Argentina and Peru. Among the precious things immigrants carry with them are their culinary memories and foods unique to their homelands.

The Fourth of July is not a traditional holiday for them. But, once here, they get into the spirit of things by serving up the ubiquitous hot dogs and burgers, yet always with a flavor spin particular to their ethnic backgrounds.

Out of their memories of eating at home comes my inspiration for the holiday recipes I give you here.

Puerto Rican

My friend Ted Vargas, owner of the sleepy Sandoway Inn in Delray Beach, spent his youth in upper Manhattan immersed in his family's Puerto Rican culture. Ted remembers their building being so close to his grandmother's that they could pass the rice and beans through the window.

"I grew up with traditional food -- rich stews of root vegetables and beef or chicken, roast pork and crispy plantains," he reminisces. And always rice and beans -- red, pink and gandules (pigeon peas).

"Puerto Ricans need their rice and beans like the Italians need their pasta," he says.

The Vargas family Fourths were mostly traditional affairs of grilled burgers, hot dogs and sausages, but never without arroz con gandules and a finale of fruit and sweet guava paste with queso blanco (white cheese). I wasn't sure how guava paste might be received by my holiday guests, but I knew no one would turn down a buttery, sweet cookie filled with guava jelly. So I bring you Guava Cornmeal Thumbprint Cookies to serve on the Fourth.

Ted's sister Olga told me how to make one of her children's favorites, a plantain "lasagna" passed along to her from cousins in Puerto Rico.

"It's perfect for a celebration," Olga says. "It's easy and it's got a lot of Puerto Rican soul, but still with a familiar, American appeal."

If you serve Puerto Rican Plantain Lasagna, you may want to accompany it with her delicious-sounding sangria made from white wine, triple sec, guavas, peaches, apples and orange slices with sparkling apple cider for fizz.


Boca Raton resident Carmen Cartaya Elrod was 16 when she and her family left Cuba for Florida. Carmen is a professed "noncook," but when Cuban holidays come around this doesn't stop her enjoying traditional foods like garlicky roast pork.

"Cuban food is not spicy hot, but very fragrant. Growing up we always used cilantro, oregano, basil, bay leaves and little sweet peppers that smell like nutmeg. My grandpa used lime juice in everything -- fish, chicken, steaks -- they always had a citrusy flavor."

I created the Roast Pork With Lime Mojo recipe with Carmen's memories in mind. Here, roast pork is marinated overnight in the lime juice she loves. And a familiar cast of characters, the seasonings Carmen remembers, add a touch of Cuba to a Fourth of July menu.


Growing up in the parish of St. Catherine, centered on the island of Jamaica, Winston Williams and his family lived off the land, utilizing fresh ingredients.

Williams, a South Florida resident for more than 20 years, still cooks traditional Jamaican food at home and at Nate's Take-Out Restaurant, his small eatery in Delray Beach. On Aug. 6, Jamaicans celebrate their Independence Day. And for Williams' family and friends on that day, the food will be pure Caribbean, redolent with the aromas of onion, garlic, scallion, thyme, fiery Scotch bonnet chilies, coconut milk and fresh tropical fruits like the mangos and papayas that grew in Williams' back yard.

When asked how I might incorporate these island flavors into my Fourth of July, Williams gave me a demonstration of his cross-cultural cooking with his version of Ben Franklin's favorite bird: Turkey Roast With Pineapple Apricot Salsa. It's the all-American bird infused with all the flavors of Jamaica. It's unlikely we'll ever see an across-the-board clamoring for Fourth of July curried goat or stewed cow's foot, but Williams' turkey might jump-start a minor revolution at your picnic table.

    Puerto Rican Plantain Lasagna

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus 1/3 to 1/2 cup olive or canola oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 pound ground beef chuck
  • 1 (14.5-ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
  • 1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
  • 1Ú2 cup chopped cilantro
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
  • 1Ú2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
  • 5 semi-ripe plantains
  • 6 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 12 to 16 strips roasted red peppers from a jar, for garnish, optional
  • 6 to 8 cilantro sprigs, for garnish, optional
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and garlic and cook 7 minutes until softened. Crumble in beef and cook, stirring and breaking up any clumps, 5 minutes until no longer pink. Stir in chopped tomatoes, tomato sauce, cilantro, oregano, salt, black pepper and vinegar. Simmer, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes until some of the liquid has evaporated.
  3. Cut ends from plantains and peel fruit. Cut plantains in half, then cut halves lengthwise into thin slices. In a large nonstick skillet, heat 1/3 cup oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Cook plantains in batches, without crowding, 2 minutes a side until golden brown. With a slotted spoon, remove plantains to paper towels when done (add remaining oil to skillet as needed when cooking batches).
  4. Transfer half the plantains to the baking dish, arranging them in a single layer. Spoon the beef mixture evenly over the plantains. Arrange remaining plantains over the beef.
  5. In a small bowl, whisk eggs with water. Pour egg mixture over plantains, tilting dish so it spreads to edges. Cover pan with foil and bake in middle of oven about 20 minutes; remove foil and cook another 10 minutes until heated through and bubbling at edges. Let sit 10 minutes before cutting into pieces. Garnish each serving with strips of roasted red peppers and cilantro sprigs, if desired. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Per serving: 402 calories, 43 percent calories from fat, 19 grams total fat, 191 milligrams cholesterol, 4 grams saturated fat, 18 grams protein, 42 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams total fiber, 505 milligrams sodium.

Semi-ripe plantains are yellow with some spots.

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