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December – Nitza Rivera

Short and sweet…that’s the best way to describe the last edition of “A Yummy Year: Cultural, Cooking & Connections.”  As you know, December is a busy time for many. While families and friends are recovering from large Thanksgiving gatherings, thoughts race forward to preparations for the upcoming holidays of Christmas, Hannukah and Kwanza.  Gifts, travel arrangements, seasonal bake goods and festive decorations make the holidays special, but they also add to the hectic pace of everyday life…work, family responsibilities, childcare, school assignments, and so much more!  

That’s why when Nitsalis Rivera, my cultural chef for December, suggested we make Coquitos, I said, “Sign me up!”  Nitza, as she is called by friends and family, explained that her family’s Coquito recipe is a delicious, easy to make beverage that perfectly reflects her Puerto Rican heritage and is a beverage she lovingly prepares and shares throughout the winter holidays.  Coquito which means “Little Coconut” is sometimes referred to as Puerto Rican Eggnog and according to Nitza can be made with or without alcohol. 

Nitza pulled the coquito ingredients out of a bag (except for the rum…I supplied that) and placed them on the counter. Next to the cans of coconut milk, cream of coconut, sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk, she placed whole cloves, star anise, cinnamon sticks, vanilla, and powdered cinnamon.  “First step,” Nitza said, “Brew a dark tea. Combine the whole spices in a pot, cover with water, bring it to a boil and let it simmer until nice and dark.” As the delicious and spicy aroma filled the kitchen, I was transported back to my childhood when my mother made wasil, one of my family’s favorite holiday treats. 

As the tea brewed, Nitza and I chatted. Born in New York, Nitza moved with her parents back to Puerto Rico at 11 years of age. As she said, “It was difficult. My first academic language was English so when we moved to Puerto Rico I had to learn to read and write in Spanish.” But she immersed herself in the culture, graduated from school, pursued her college degree, and had her first child.  At 30 years of age, after winning a scholarship through the Rotary Exchange Program, Nitza moved to Washington County where, in no time at all, she was offered a full-time teaching position with Washington County Public Schools in Western Maryland. 

Nitza said, “I was thrilled with my new job but very homesick. I missed The Island, terribly! It was during this time that I first made coquitos, using my grandmother’s recipe.”  Of course, like everything else, coquito recipes have evolved and can include chocolate or even pistachio flavoring.  Except for her friend’s coquito recipe which uses almond liqueur, Nitza prefers the traditional recipe we made together. 

While Nitza poured the dark, aromatic tea through the strainer, I added the coconut milk, cream of coconut, sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk into the blender. Two tablespoons of vanilla and a little cinnamon to taste and we were ready to create an amazing holiday drink! I pushed the button on the blender and voilà…before us was a tasty beverage that smelled and tasted like a festive holiday extravaganza! 

We poured the delicious concoction over ice and, as adults celebrating the holiday season, I added a bit of rum! As we sipped, we chatted. Nitza talked about her work as an educator and her business, Spanish 4 All, where she strives to support children, like herself, who are bicultural. Nitza knows, from firsthand experience, the importance of feeling comfortable and proficient with one’s cultural heritage as well as the culture of the country in which one has settled. I replied, “My life has been greatly enriched over the past year as I’ve had the privilege of cooking with women from so many different countries, ethnicities, and religions. I am grateful to all of them for sharing their recipes, stories, memories, and traditions…in short for celebrating our shared humanity!”

Nitza’s shared holiday memories about Christmases in Puerto Rico and the U.S. and her holiday stories from her childhood, early parenthood and as a grandmother revealed her positive outlook, her desire to make a difference in her community and her love of family.  Like the delicious beverage we sipped, her stories were sweet, flavorful, and very memorable. Happy holidays, to all!


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