The Sweet Life : Pretty in Green

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I wanted a green dress. A bright green dress.

My mother tried to dissuade me.

"You don't wear green when you turn 15. You wear pink, white, beige . . . maybe a nice pastel blue," she said helpfully.

I would have none of it. And so, on the evening of my fiesta de quince in my native Colombia, I wore a bright green dress with a long pleated skirt and a rose at the base of my decolletage. Years later, when I look at the picture, it still makes me cringe.

It's an eventful date for Latino girls, the day you turn 15. In Los Angeles the parties are known as quinceaneras and are grand, even religious affairs, usually preceded by a Mass.

In Colombia, they are called fiestas de quince-- 15-year-old parties--and the birthday girl is the quinceanera. And while the parties are a big deal, they are less ceremonious, more about just having a good time.

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Even so, fiestas de quince are a big deal, a kind of prelude to a wedding.

If you're a girl growing up in Colombia, you're bound to have a party when you turn 15. If parties are not your cup of tea, parents usually offer a trip or a lavish gift as a substitute.

Despite the way it sounds, however, fiestas de quince are not a spoiled-brat tradition. Rather they are a part of coming of age in countries that value social connections and family ties. And in Colombia, the fiesta de quince is the kid's first grown-up bash, an all-out affair where the best china and crystal are taken out, the prettiest dresses are worn and the best food is served in honor of the birthday girl.

When the time came to plan my sweet-15 party, my mother was already a seasoned pro, having done my sister's a few years before.

She ordered my green party dress from a shop in Miami and had printed invitations hand-delivered. The site: my parent's house on a Saturday night. The time: of course, 8 p.m.

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Music was to be provided by a miniteca , which is short for mini discoteca , which is short for mini-discotheque. Go figure. At any rate, what it really meant was that a deejay would bring lights and play all kinds of music, from salsa to cumbia to Spanish pasodobles to rock and disco. In Colombia, a party with no dancing is no party at all.

On the big day I was all ready to go by 7 p.m., the time the photographer was scheduled to shoot "the family pictures."

All the traditional shots were fired away: by the mirror, by the cake, with my parents, brothers and grandmother, surrounded by the floral arrangements which had arrived by the dozens, but not by the food, a practice my sister deemed "hokey."

Finally, it was 8 p.m.--but no one had arrived. An hour later, with just a handful of people there, I was getting antsy. But by 9:30 p.m., in true Latin-time tradition, the kids were all there, nearly 100--the boys in suits and ties, the girls in evening-length dresses.

I really can't remember who I spent most of the night with at my party. If I had a boyfriend, he couldn't have been too important. I have a crystal clear image of dancing "The Blue Danube" with my Dad, though. He's a wonderful dancer who had been training me in the intricacies of the waltz for weeks. The waltz officially set the party in motion, and after that, the evening zipped by in a hazy blur.

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Despite the "kiddie" drinks (for the boys: rum and Coca-Cola; for the girls: sweet pink cocktails made from condensed milk, aguardiente--an anise-based drink similar to tequila--and a pink cola) no one got drunk, nobody made a scene and happily, due to an abundance of boys (Mom's rule for parties), there were no wallflowers. At around 1 a.m., parents started dropping by to pick up their kids, and at 3 a.m. we were still happily opening presents.

At the end of the party, I got the ultimate proof of my party's success, when one of my racier friends whispered in my ear: "I was going to escape to a disco but your party is much more fun."

It wasn't just the music, the "kiddie" drinks or the ambience. I knew that parties at my home were also coveted for their food.

"Remembered for: her lunches," reads my senior yearbook, in honor of my mother's delicacies, a product of her Syrian-Lebanese background.

By the time my fiesta de quince rolled along, my classmates knew to expect cheese and spinach turnovers folded into filo dough, fried kibbeh (ground meat and wheat shells filled with ground meat and pine nuts), sfihas (pizza-style crust topped with ground meat and yogurt), stuffed grape leaves and, naturally, desserts: ghraibehs (creamy butter cookies); date and nut turnovers, maamoul , and, of course, baklava.

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In order to feed 100 ravenous kids, my mom enlisted the help of a local Colombian cook named Elisa, who somehow knew (and still does) how to prepare Lebanese food better than most of the Lebanese families who regularly hired her.

Tray after tray of food was cooked and frozen a month in advance, but just in case, Mom also ordered a huge chicken-and-shrimp paella.

Big mistake.

After the waiters passed around Lebanese food (my mother's idea of hors d'oeuvres), which were later included in the dinner buffet, nobody felt like eating paella.

We had to freeze two trays of the stuff--it took us nearly a year to eat it all.

The cake didn't fare much better.

Fiesta de quince cakes are like wedding cakes: Big, dark, fruity and nutty with white pasty icing and elaborate sugar flower arrangements. The only difference is the figurine, which depicts a quinceanera instead of a bride.

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They're usually served at the beginning of the party, after the waltz is danced, and of course, nobody ever has seconds. But what the heck, the frozen cake went nicely with the frozen paella in the months to come.

Other than the paella, the most lasting memory I had of my party was dozens and dozens of gifts, ranging from necklaces, earrings and rings to books and useless knickknacks that are still in my closet 15 years later.

SFIHAS

1 teaspoon dry yeast

1 1/4 cups warm water

1/2 teaspoon sugar

4 cups sifted flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

Melted butter

Sfihas Filling

1 egg, beaten

Dissolve yeast in 1/4 cup water with sugar. Let rise about 15 minutes. Mix with sifted flour and salt. Knead. Slowly add remaining water as needed to form soft dough. Cut in about 25 small pieces. Let rise, about 30 minutes.

Dip fingers in melted butter and press dough into 3 1/2-inch diameter circles. Spoon approximately 1 tablespoon of Sfihas Filling on top of each dough circle. Brush edges with beaten egg. Pinch 4 corners together around meat to form basket shape. Brush outside edge of dough with more butter.

Place on greased baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees 25 to 30 minutes until crust is brown and meat is entirely cooked. Serve immediately. Dip in yogurt to eat, if desired.

To freeze, bake only about 10 minutes, cool, and freeze on baking sheet. When completely frozen, remove from sheet and seal in airtight plastic food freezer bag. To serve, defrost in refrigerator. Then bake at 350 degrees until crisp and hot. Makes 25 to 30 sfihas.

Each sfiha contains about:

157 calories; 168 mg sodium; 22 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 20 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.17 gram fiber.

Sfihas Filling

1 pound lean ground beef

2 cups chopped white onions

1/2 cup laban

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup pine nuts

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons lime juice

In large bowl mix beef, onions, laban, garlic, pine nuts, salt, pepper and lime juice together.

Note : Laban can be bought at Middle Eastern markets, or can be made by buying plain yogurt and straining in cheesecloth until all water drains out.

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