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Hallacas is your friend
Jonesing for a holiday waffle? Get thee to a Waffle House, stat

As much as I like the menu at Rancho Alegre, either location, I’ve always been far more intrigued by what Venezuelan–born owner and gourmand Juan Manuel Rodriguez eats when he cooks for himself.

He’s shared plenty of those dishes with me over the years. It’s always a treat.

That’s one more reason I was humbled in the week before Christmas to attend the family gathering to assemble hallacas, an exotic form of tamale that’s a traditional Venezuelan Christmas dish.

It’s a process steeped in tradition and governed by the matriarchs - in this case, Juan Manuel’s wife, Ana Maria, and daughter Melody Rodriguez Schanely. The men have their part – like tying the neat bundle of plantain leaves around the hallaca, or toting heavy pans of prepped leaves ready for filling.

But for this family, the assembly and the attention to heritage, falls to the women to sustain.

The recipe is one handed down in Ana’s family. Recipes vary greatly from family to family. And while hallacas may be shared between families, the true recipe is never swapped – it’s a closely guarded secret.

Without divulging too much of the proprietary information I was entrusted with, the Rodriguez family recipe calls for a dough, masa, moistened specifically with hen broth. Melted lard seasoned with annatto seeds is smeared on plantain leaves and the masa is hand patted into rough circular or rectangular shapes.

Then comes the filling, in this case marinated hen meat, pork tenderloin and beef sirloin with mild seasoning. To that is added a topping of wine–soaked raisins, garbanzo beans, roasted red pepper, capers and Spanish olives pitted with pepper.

The final product is carefully rolled inside a plantain leaf, wrapped with another leaf and meticulously tied, then boiled in water for four hours. The finished product is refrigerated and reheated – keeping Christmas day kitchen duty to a minimum.

In all, it’s a two–day process of prepping, assembly and cooking. It’s a time when the families gather, wine is drunk, meals are shared and family stories pass from one generation to the next.

To read a full–length story and see photos of hallacas–making with the Rodriguez family, download the PDF from–content/uploads/2010/12/hallacas1210.pdf.

Giving grandma a break

My family traditions aren’t so romantic. After a couple of days of our large, exteneded family piling in on grandma’s house, it would be pronounced that it was time to give her a break – at least for breakfast.

And off we would go – to a nearby truck stop or waffle joint.

We didn’t eat out much, so these trips to juke–box fueled dives, rich with aromas of coffee and bacon, were highlights when I was a kid. And to this day, somewhere amid the holiday, I just gotta have a waffle.

Back then, a waffle was an exotic creature, some royal relative of the lowly pancake.

Wanna have your own holiday waffle? Here are some favorites of mine:

Waffle House: Obviously. Here, you meet the hardest working, front line of the food service industry. These waitresses, who generally greet every diner with a “hon,” or “sweetie,” dish out the goods 24/7. Go for the waffle, stay for the smothered hash browns. Coffee? An endless cup my friend, an endless cup.

Pancake Palace: Old school, short order dining at its finest. 24–hour–a–day breakfast, comfy booths – and one day I’m gonna order the quail, really.

Sunny Side Up: Big, loud and bringing a party back to breakfast. I’ve seen plenty of fine dining chefs and foodies in the DeRenne Avenue location. I love to sit at the counter and watch these guys “throw” omelets.

The burger is a winner, too. Just in case you’re in waffle overload.

Did I miss some? Heck yeah! Find your own little breakfast dive, make it a New Year’s resolution. They’re everywhere – and the smaller, the better!