|A Cuban Feast|
A few years ago I was lucky enough to travel to Cuba for several weeks. Although staying at an all- inclusive resort in Varadero is a relaxing way to spend a vacation I would not be satisfied with this type of vacation for more than a few days. In true MTBT fashion we travelled farther afield and tried to immerse ourselves in Cuban culture. In Havana we found a glimpse of the true Cuba even if only briefly. Do not leave Havana without visiting one of its private restaurants known as “Paladars”. These are one of the few private businesses the government has authorized to Cubans and some of them are really excellent. What better way to immerse yourslf than to eat in the home of a wonderful Cuban cook!!!
Havana is really one of a few cities in the world that still conserves a very characteristic and unique charm. The Havana city we met was one of fascinating contrasts and the ironies wrought by history and circumstance. In Havana, you'll discover some neighborhoods filled with houses that are crumbling behind their ornate Corinthian columns. You'll see 1950's Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles traveling beside Soviet-made Volgas and Ladas, tiny motor scooter-powered coco-taxis, and ciclo-taxis (bicycle rickshaws) for two. The air can be almost asphyxiating, the heat and humidity is relentless (keep in mind we travelled there in July), and most things are in disrepair. Yet all this only strengthens Havana's allure to me.
Cuba is famed for its beaches, diving, lifestyle and dancing. But one aspect of the Cuban holiday which is often overlooked is the Cuban cuisine, which is unfortunate because the mixture of cultures from Spanish, Chinese, African, Portuguese, French and Arabic combine to make a truly unique combination of flavours and textures. The country’s cultural influences are so diverse and add a unique flavour to the food.
Let me go on record to say that I love Cuba and all it has to offer!!!! "If I get lost look for me in Cuba", wrote the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca. Cuba is the home of simple snacks and light treats. Masitas de Puerco Fritas (lightly fried pork cuts, slow cooked until tender), Pinchos (kebabs) and Fritas (the Cuban hamburger, spiced with shoestring potatoes and onion) all put our own country’s fast food to shame not only in terms of value, but flavour. You will not find a McDonalds or a fast food restaurant anywhere that I could see, and this suits me just fine.
Most of their food is sauteed or slow-cooked over a low flame. From what I have read very little is deep-fried and there are no heavy or creamy sauces as in some cuisines. Most Cuban cooking relies on a few basic spices, such as garlic, cumin, oregano, and bay laurel leaves.
Many dishes use a sofrito as their basis. Sofrito consists of onion, green pepper, garlic, oregano, and ground pepper quickly fried in olive oil. The sofrito is what gives Cuban food its flavour. It is the main ingredient for almost every traditional Cuban dish next to olive oil.
"A Cuban household without olive oil is like a bath without water"
Olive oil and sofrito are their secret ingredients used for cooking black beans, stews, meats, fish, and anything, really. Bren of Flanboyant Eats refers to sofrito as the Holy Trinity of Cuban cuisine. To try and duplicate many of the Cuban specialties you must visit her site!!! Bren will also tell you that the meal is followed by dessert, such as her killer flan, a Cuban caramel-flavored custard, and another shot of cafe cubano. Traditional Cuban cooking is primarily a cuisine that has little concern with measurements, order and timing. A Cuban friend of mine friend says," I'm surprised we don't use sofrito in our desserts, but hey, we must keep some things sacred! When you sniff the air and it smells exquisite, jam your finger into a piece of chicken, puncture it to the core, rip out a piece, taste it and make sure it's not pink inside. If it needs more salt, add it. This is the cooking method/skill I learned from Mami. She's the best Cuban cook in town!"
Meats and poultry are usually marinated in citrus juices, such as lime or snaranja agria juices (sour oranges) and salt, and then roasted over low heat until the meat is tender and literally falling off the bone. What I found out was that Cubans know how to cook slowly till the meat melts in your mouth!!!!!!
Another common staple to the Cuban diet are their root vegetables such as yuca, malanga, and boniato, which are found in markets all over the island. These vegetables are quite often flavoured again with mojo marinade, which includes hot olive oil, lemon juice, sliced raw onions, garlic, cumin, and little water.
While on the island we started our day with a typical Cuban breakfast of a tostada and cafe con leche. The tostada is a portion of Cuban bread which is buttered then toasted on an electric grill. The cafe con leche is a combination of strong, espresso coffee with warm milk. Cubans break the tostada into pieces, then dunk them into the cafe con leche, the same as we would dunk our doughnuts into our coffee. A shot of pure cafe cubano, Cuban coffee, would revive the dead!!!!
Lunch was usually quick and easy so we could carry on with the rest of our adventures and consisted of empanadas, chicken or meat turnovers, or Cubano sandwiches. The sandwich could be a media noche (midnight sandwich), consisting of a slice of pork, ham, and swiss cheese and then topped with pickles and mustard on sweetened egg bread. The pan con bistec is a thin slice of palomilla steak on Cuban bread garnished with lettuce, tomatoes, and fried potato sticks. We always had a side of mariquitas, thinly sliced plantain chips.
Sometimes we just snacked on finger foods, such as pastelitos, croquetas, bocaditos, and empanadas. Pastelitos are small flaky turnovers in various shapes filled with either meat, cheese, guava, or a combination of guava and cream cheese. Bocaditos are small bite size sandwiches layered with a ham spread.
I’ve barely scraped the surface of Cuban food and drink here. The beverages are unique and the desserts (unsurprisingly for an island with so much sugar cane) are some of the sweetest I’ve ever tasted. Hopefully this should convince you that a holiday in Cuba can be just as focused on the food as a vacation on any island paradise and not just bringing back your quota of Cuban cigars and rum.
For our virtual trip to Cuba with Joan I decided to fix a traditional Mojo Chicken. When the hint of warmer weather starts to tease me, I like to fix a batch of this island-inspired chicken and toss it on the grill for a preview of the warmer months ahead. It is excellent with the Cuban Black Beans seen here (with or without the rice) and a Jicama Slaw. This was all washed down with copious amounts of daiquiris and mojitos. The recipes below come from Table Magazine. Check it out the next time you need a culinary vacation!!!
**Cuban Grilled Chicken Breasts with Mojo**
Juice from two oranges
Juice from two limes
1 orange, zested
1 lime, zested
½ cup finely chopped fresh oregano
12 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
½ cup olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Mojo Dipping Sauce:
8 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves
½ cup orange juice
¼ cup lime juice
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
6 chicken breast halves, boneless and skinless
Place chicken breasts in a zip top bag. Combine marinade ingredients and pour over chicken. Seal bag, pressing out as much air as possible. Place in refrigerator and let the chicken marinate for 2 hours.
To make Mojo sauce, smash garlic and cilantro with a few pinches of salt to make a paste. This can
be done in a mortar and pestle or on a cutting board with the side of a large knife. Place paste in a
small bowl and add orange juice, lime juice and olive oil. Stir to combine and place in the refrigerator
until ready to use.
Once chicken has marinated, heat an oiled grill or grill pan over medium-high heat. Remove chicken
breasts from marinade and place on grill. Cook for 4-6 minutes on each side or until juices run clear.
Serve grilled chicken breasts with Mojo sauce.
**Cuban Black Beans**
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small sweet red pepper, finely diced
1 small onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon oregano
2 cups vegetable broth
2 cans black beans, drained and rinsed
salt & pepper
fresh cilantro leaves
Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add diced pepper, diced onion, garlic, cumin and oregano. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 3-5 minutes or until the onions and peppers soften.
Add beans and vegetable broth. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve in small individual bowls and top with a dollop of sour cream, sliced scallions and cilantro leaves.
NOTES: To make a classic Cuban dish, serve the black beans over white or yellow rice as I did here. Delicious!!!!
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