The holidays are here and it truly is a wonderful time of year. There is a cheerful spirit in the air that brings people together. Neighborhoods sparkle with colored lights, friends gather for festive parties filled with spiced drinks and sweet treats, and the cooler temperatures revitalize us, bringing an uplifting and refreshing energy to the new year. And on Christmas day, while many families will be roasting turkeys, baking gingerbread cookies, and sipping eggnog, it is an annual tradition in Ryan’s family to cook an authentic Cuban dinner. The centerpiece is a massive roast pork leg, marinated for a week in garlic and spices, that is usually so big it barely fits in the oven. There is always congri on the table (a savory dish with black beans and rice), two kinds of plantains (both the salty tostones and sweet plátanos maduros), and of course our favorite: yuca con mojo, in which tender cubes of yuca are tossed with an intensely-flavored sauce filled with crushed raw garlic, olive oil, and zesty vinegar. And while yuca is not typically thought of as a Christmas dish, it is perfect for the holidays and other family feasts. Anywhere that mashed potatoes are welcome, yuca is a deliciously bright and tangy alternative.
This recipe calls for 20 large cloves of garlic and no, that is not a typo! If the cloves are small, it may take two or three to equal one large one. To mash the garlic, our abuelita would use a mortar and pestle, and we have continued that ancient tradition. If you don’t own one, you can simply mince the garlic by hand or purée it in a food processor. The only other ingredients in the mojo sauce are salt, pepper, olive oil, and vinegar—so simple, yet so flavorful! Yuca is also called cassava in English, and this large root is commonly sold in grocery stores, especially those that cater to a latin-american clientele. The name is pronounced “YOO-kah” and it is completely unrelated to the spiky ornamental plant called yucca (pronounced “YUCK-ah). To make it more confusing, many stores, restaurants, and even popular cooking websites (that will remain nameless) mistakenly misspell it as “yucca.”
This classic dish is easy to make once you understand the prep. The first step is to select yuca roots that are firm and heavy with no soft or dark spots. They are usually sold with a thick coating of wax, and do not need to be washed until after they are cut and peeled, right before boiling. When they are fully cooked, they will be soft and fork-tender similar to a potato, with a silkier and denser texture. They are gently tossed with the deliciously tart mojo sauce that glows like liquid gold. The yuca also reheats perfectly, and is just as wonderful the next day. In fact, whenever we have friends over for a Cuban-themed dinner party, we usually make it the night before! Not only does it save time the day of the party, but it tastes just as good—if not better, as the flavors marinate overnight. We are thrilled to be sharing this family-favorite today, as it comes directly from the notes we took watching our abuelita prepare this several Christmases ago. This Cuban delicacy has a special place in our hearts, and is a warm and welcoming dish on any holiday table.
Yuca con Mojo
serves 6 to 8 as a side
For the yuca:
3 pounds yuca (also sold as cassava)
4 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
For the mojo sauce:
20 large cloves garlic
1 teaspoon salt, divided
2/3 cup olive oil
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
First, prep the yuca. They are usually sold with a coating of wax, and do not need to be washed. Slice the root into 2-inch rounds. Lay the piece flat-side-down, and use a sharp knife to trim off the brown skin and the 1/8-inch-thick cream-colored layer just under the skin. Running down the center of the yuca root is a tough, woody core, so cut the peeled piece in quarters and then remove the core. Repeat for the remaining yuca. Try to keep all the yuca pieces approximately the same size, about 1×2-inches, so they cook evenly. Once they are all prepped, place the pieces in a strainer and rinse them to remove any stray pieces of peel.
Place the yuca pieces in a large pot, and add enough water to cover them by about an inch. Add the salt and lemon juice, and stir. Cover pot, place over high heat, and bring to a boil. When boiling, lower heat to a simmer, and cook, stirring a few times, until the yuca is quite tender when pierced with a fork, 30 to 45 minutes (the time will depend on the size of the yuca pieces). The best way to tell if they are done is simply to taste a piece: it should have a soft, tender texture.
While the yuca is cooking, make the mojo sauce. In a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic well. Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt to the mortar, and continue to mash until it resembles a thick, chunky paste. Transfer the garlic to a medium bowl, then add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, olive oil, vinegar, and black pepper. Stir well to combine.
When the yuca is done, drain it then return it to the pot. Pour the mojo sauce over the yuca, and toss well to combine. Serve hot, and enjoy!
— Yuca is known as cassava in English, and is available at many grocery stores, especially those that cater to a latin-american clientele. It is pronounced “Yoo-kah” and is totally unrelated to the spiky ornamental plant called yucca (pronounced “yuck-ah”).