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La Cocina Cubana
I grew up eating better than most kids. I didn't know it at the time, but as I've gotten older and heard friends' horror stories of their moms' botched attempts at "dinner," I've come to feel very lucky. My mom was, and is, a great cook. And cook she did. She always seemed to be in the kitchen. We always had large meals at dinnertime -- four or five items on the table, plus dessert. It's not that we all had insatiable appetites. It was more of a cultural thing. In our case, Spanish culture. Specifically, Cuban.
My grandparents were from Spain. Both sets of grandparents made their way to Cuba in the early 1900s. Cuba was a land of opportunity back then, with cigars, sugar cane, and tourism being the major industries. My parents were born and raised in Cuba. Not in Havana, though. They were from the eastern provinces of Oriente and Camaguey. In the late 1940s, my parents decided to get married and move to the US, that other land of opportunity. They moved to Connecticut and started a family several years later. My older sister and I grew up straddling both cultures, Cuban and American. In the kitchen, however, the culture was strictly Cuban. That's how dad wanted it, and good thing, because the food sure tasted good. Every meal was a feast, and I think even back then dad, my sister, and I sensed that we were lucky that mom was at the helm -- or the stove, to be exact.
My dad passed away when I was eight and the family relocated to Miami. My sister and I had typically rebellious teen years. Among the things we insisted on was that mom make more American food, like meat loaf, sloppy joes and fish sticks. The other kids were eating it, and we wanted to fit in. My mother learned to make a mean meat loaf. Fortunately, we wised up after a few years and asked mom to go back to the basics, the food of our early youth. I've since moved to San Francisco, but when I plan a visit to mom's in Miami, I start planning the menu about a month ahead of time. I must drive her nuts. Sometimes I call her on Sunday evenings just to hear what she fixed for Sunday dinner. I listen carefully, savoring the words and reminiscing about how good it all tasted.
On a recent visit to Miami, I decide to take my mom and one of her sisters, who also happens to be my favorite aunt, out to lunch. A Cuban lunch. It can't possibly be as tasty as mom's cooking, but I'd feel guilty if she was in the kitchen for every single meal during my visit. We settle on Versailles in Miami's Little Havana district, a restaurant which is considered by many who should know to be the quintessential Cuban eatery.
We arrive at Versailles shortly before noon. The place is quickly filling up. The dining room is large and bright, and filled with a kitschy combination of formica tabletops and chairs with the kind of vinyl upholstery that sticks to your legs if it gets too hot. This is Miami, so the air conditioning is on full blast. The walls are covered with either a swirling wallpaper or mirrors, depending on where you look. The effect is...busy. And busy pretty much sums up the restaurant. Versailles is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and till 4:30 AM on weekends. It's packed with people most of the time. A lot of these folks are Cuban, and they love to talk, laugh and socialize. Versailles is one lively place, which is half the fun. The other half is the food.
My mom and aunt are nice enough to let me order for the three of us. My reason for doing so is somewhat selfish; I want to have a taste of what everyone's having, and, of course, I want to try my favorite dishes. The menu at Versailles is nothing if not long, and as a result, I have a bit of difficulty making up my mind. Finally, I settle on the arroz con pollo (chicken with yellow rice) for my mother, the lechon asado (roasted pork loin) for my aunt and the masas de mero (fried grouper) for myself. I manage to choose something that everyone likes, or at least my mom and aunt are polite enough to say so. We start to reminisce about Cuba and Cuban food. I love hearing the old stories, stories I've heard countless times, but they always sound fresh to my eager ears.
Mom was the oldest of eight kids. She learned to cook from her mother, and helped out in the kitchen from about the age of twelve. Growing up, mom and her siblings had typically large meals, usually consisting of white rice, black beans, a starch and some type of meat. A green salad was always on the table, and the meal was followed by dessert and coffee. The names of the dishes always sounded so lyrical to me: bistek empanizado, fricase de pollo, picadillo. That last one shouldn't be confused with pecadillo. This dish is no mistake. Actually, it's highly-seasoned ground beef. Some of the dishes had funny names. Bola perdida was my favorite. It translates to "lost ball" and is a round mound of picadillo covered with crushed crackers and deep fried.
Much of Cuban cooking relies on a few basics. This is a Spanish-based cuisine, and as in the mother country, many of the dishes have tomato-based sauces. These sauces, as well as the black beans, many stews and numerous meat dishes, use a sofrito as their basis. Loosely translated as "fried," the sofrito is a quick-fry of onion, green pepper, garlic, oregano, and ground pepper in olive oil. The sofrito is what gives you the flavors, according to my aunt. Most Cuban food tastes light and flavorful. The essence of garlic, cumin, oregano, and bay laurel leaves graces most dishes. Root vegetables are also a common staple, many of them unknown to the American palate. You might not find yuca, malanga, or nyame at most supermarkets, but you can buy it at most Latin or ethnic markets, and it's a key element of the Cuban table. These vegetables are often enhanced by a mojo, a marinade made with hot olive oil, lemon juice, sliced raw onion, garlic, a splash of water, and a dusting of pepper and cumin.
Although Cubans are used to a table full of food, my impression has always been that it's a healthy table. Much of the food is saut»ed or slow-cooked over a low flame. Not much is deep-fried, nor are the sauces creamy and heavy. A typical Cuban breakfast consists of pan Cubano, an airy loaf of bread eaten in chunks which are dunked into a cafe con leche, a combination of strong coffee and warm milk in equal proportions. Lunch is a comida, a variation on the word comer, which means "to eat." Basically, the comida is the usual table-full of food. Dinner is also a comida. My mother is quick to point out that as long as you change the beans you're eating from one meal to the next, you've made a different meal. So black beans at lunch should be followed by red or white beans for dinner. Menu planning should always be so easy. As we wait for our lunch, my mother reminds me that one of her brothers always ate his meals from a huge serving dish, because he believed that seconds didn't taste as good as firsts. Somehow I think that in a family of eight kids, he wanted to be sure he got seconds.
Our meal arrives, and I close my eyes for a moment, the better to appreciate the wonderful smells. "Que sabor!" my aunt exclaims as she tastes her pork loin. She is obviously pleased with the flavor. She is also kind enough to deposit a large piece of the pork loin onto my plate. My mother is silently enjoying her chicken and rice and I do the same with my fish. My aunt and I also have rice and beans on our plate, and we all have a root vegetable as an accompaniment. Mom finally looks up from her plate and announces that "la persona Latina vive para comer," or that "Latins live to eat." Judging from what I've seen and heard, I think she's absolutely right.
As we finish our meal, the general manager of Versailles, Raul Alonso, stops by our table. My aunt had remembered on our way into the restaurant that she and Raul had a good mutual friend in Cuba. Senor Alonso has a seat with us and he, my mom, and my aunt start to talk about the old days. Cubans are often nostalgic about the old days, since the new days in Cuba aren't worth discussing. Safe to say that times have changed. I ask our guest about the secret of Versailles' success.
"It's the meeting place in Miami," he tells me. Not only do the locals frequent Versailles, but visitors to the area can rest assured that if they're going to bump into someone they know in Miami, it will probably happen at Versailles. With a seating capacity of nearly 400, there's plenty of room. About a third of the restaurant's patrons are Anglo, and things are busiest late in the evening, from 8 PM on. That's when people like to eat, mingle and tell tales. Cubans love a good story, and it always goes better with a good meal.
For the uninitiated, the scope of Versailles' menu can be daunting. My suggestion is to choose one of the daily specials. However, there are twenty-one daily specials. You can simplify things even further by choosing one of the two "Cuban samplers," which are small portions of the most typical Cuban dishes. The price range of the menu, considering the quality of the food, is surprisingly low. Most full meals will only set you back six or seven dollars. Versailles also has its own walk-up cafe for a bite on the run, where you can choose from over thirty sandwiches. As if this weren't enough, there is also a bakery on the premises. You may find it nearly impossible to fit in dessert after a meal at Versailles, but make the effort. It's well worth it. On this particular day, despite our protestations, Senor Alonso insists on bringing us a few of his favorite desserts to try. We sample the flan de dulce de leche, flan de turron, and helado de mamey. The first two are a delightful variation on the classic creme caramel. Our flan is a dense, semi-sweet dream. "Que maravilla!" my aunt exclaims. I don't think I need to translate. The last dessert is a creamy, fruit-flavored ice cream. Mamey is a fruit which is commonly found in the tropics. I've never even seen it on a stateside menu outside of South Florida.
What am I getting at here? If you want to eat really good Cuban food, you will find an abundance of it in South Florida, thanks to all of the Cubans that live there. If you can't get to South Florida when the craving kicks in, you might want to fix your own at home. I'm fortunate enough to have some of my mother's recipes. My mother makes the best black beans I've ever had. Now I make them, too. And guess what? I'm willing to share. Several of my mother's favorite recipes follow.
Buen provecho! In other words, enjoy.
Frijoles Negros (Black Beans)
1 12-ounce package of uncooked black beans
2 bay leaves
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1/2 medium green pepper, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons sugar
1. Soak beans in a large (covered) soup pot, with enough water to cover the beans, for at least six to eight hours. Add two bay leaves and a few drops of olive oil to the water.
2. Cook the beans over high heat for 90 minutes, checking frequently to see that there is enough water in the pot. The water should always cover the beans.
3. Once the beans are tender, prepare a sofrito by combining the onion, green pepper, garlic, oregano, ground pepper and olive oil in a small frying pan. Cook over medium-high heat for six to eight minutes, stirring frequently.
4. Add the sofrito to the black beans, reducing the heat on the beans to low. Mix the sofrito well with the beans, pressing some of the beans with a slotted spoon so that the flavors will soak in. Add the salt and sugar to the beans and simmer for half an hour. Remove bay leaves and serve.
Bacalao a la Vizcaina (Codfish Fricassee)
1 pound dried, salted codfish
4 medium red potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 small green pepper, sliced
1 small onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon oregano
dash of ground pepper
1/3 teaspoon bijol*
1/8 teaspoon cumin
1/3 cup dry white cooking wine
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup tomato sauce
3/4 cup water
pimientos for garnish
1. Place codfish filets in a pot of water. The fish should soak all day if possible. Ideally, change the water several times during the day so as to extract the maximum amount of salt from the fish.
2. Boil the potatoes until tender.
3. Prepare a sauce by combining the next 12 ingredients listed. Cook in a large pot (covered) over medium-high heat for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
4. Place codfish in sauce, reduce heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. Add potatoes, and simmer for another 10 minutes. Uncover pot if you want to reduce liquid.
6. Serve, garnishing with chopped pimentos.
Arroz con Pollo (Chicken with Yellow Rice)
1 whole chicken, cut up
1 small green pepper, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon bijol*
3/4 cup tomato sauce
3 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup dry white cooking wine
1 8-1/2 ounce can small peas
1 10-1/2 ounce can asparagus
2 cups rice
1/2 bottle of beer
pimentos for garnish
1. Remove all skin from chicken. Rinse chicken and sprinkle with juice from lemon and orange.
2. Prepare a sofrito by combining green pepper, onion, garlic, bay leaf, ground pepper, bijol, tomato sauce, and olive oil. Cook over medium-high heat in a large pot for five minutes, stirring frequently. Lower heat and add chicken pieces, cooking chicken for three minutes on each side.
3. Add salt, cooking wine, juice from can of peas, juice from can of asparagus and 1 1/2 cups of water. Poach chicken over medium-high heat (covered) for 30 minutes, or until tender. Remove chicken from the pot and set aside.
4. Add 2 cups rice to the pot and bring to boil (covered), making sure that there is enough liquid in the pot to cook the rice (you will probably have to add more water). Reduce heat and cook rice (approximately 30 minutes). When rice is nearly cooked, add 1/2 bottle of beer to rice and stir well. Rice should remain moist.
5. Add chicken to the rice and simmer all for five minutes. Correct salt to taste and serve, garnished with peas, asparagus and pimentos.
* Bijol is a natural food coloring. The powder is available at most Latin and ethnic food markets.