Friday, October 19, 2012

Week 41: A Journey to Cuba

After living in Miami for five years, a week of Cuban food for a project celebrating World Cuisines almost felt like cheating.  Cuban food is so much a part of Miami culture that I don’t even think of it as exotic or different anymore.  Having previously written about the cuisines of Cuba’s neighbors, such as Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Haiti, it seems like a bit of a repeat to write about the same influences and seasonings, so I decided to explore some of my favorite Cuban comfort foods.  My sister, brother-in-law, niece, and nephews, were visiting for the week, and I decided that introducing them to Cuban cuisine would be an interesting way to rediscover the flavors of these dishes.

Cuban Sandwich, Frijoles Negros, and Rice
Cuban sandwich
The Cuban Sandwich made its way to the United States via cigar rollers and their families who lived in Tampa, Miami, and Key West.  In Cuba, this sandwich evolved over years of influences from Spanish settlers.  Linda Stradley wrote a great article, “History of the Cuban Sandwich,” which includes excerpts from Cuban-Americans in Tampa and Miami with close ties to the sandwich.  Of course, in Cuba, it was just called “a sandwich” and in the United States, its name became The Cuban in reference to a sandwich made with Cuban Bread (a soft, airy, white bread with a papery thin crust), filled with roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, and a thin layer of yellow mustard, and pressed to both warm the sandwich and compress it.  (In Tampa, a layer of Genoa salami is layered into the sandwich, which is a nod to the Italian community there.)  I set out to make an authentic version at home.  I slow-roasted a pork shoulder in sour orange juice and garlic for several hours.  Then, I piled the roast pork onto Cuban bread with Swiss cheese, Serrano ham, and yellow mustard.  Typically, a Cuban press is flat, but I forgot to change out the plates on my press, so you can see the “grill mark” grooves on the sandwich.  Otherwise, my Cuban Sandwich was the real deal!  It was good, too. 

frijoles negros
To accompany our Cuban Sandwiches, I made a big pot of Cuban Black Beans and white rice.  I’m not exactly sure what makes Cuban Black Beans authentic, because I found several different recipes claiming to be authentic.  I'm pretty sure that most people's idea of "authentic" is however their mothers or grandmothers made it.  I made the recipe posted on the Three Guys from Miami website, because I was intrigued by the list of seasonings for the beans:  onion, bell pepper, garlic, oregano, cumin, bay leaf, vinegar, dry Spanish wine, olive oil, and a little sugar.  Interestingly, my family enjoyed the beans as much, if not more than, the sandwiches.  We all agreed that the little bit of sugar added an interesting twist to our expectations.  It’s a recipe I will definitely make again.

Ropa Vieja, Arroz Amarillo, and Platanos Maduros
ropa vieja, arroz amarillo,
platanos maduros
Ropa Vieja is my absolute favorite Cuban dish.  On the rare occasion that we have a cool winter night in Miami, ropa vieja hits the spot!  Having eaten the dish out in restaurants on several occasions, I always thought it was traditionally made with chuck roast, but this week, I discovered that the dish’s most authentic presentation is made with flank steak.  The dish originated in Spain’s Canary Islands, the last stop on the way to the Americas, and those on the Spanish ships traveling through to the Caribbean introduced the dish to Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.  Its name means “old clothes” which references the fact that ladies remarked that its appearance was akin to that of old, torn rags.  A basic ropa vieja recipe is braised, shredded beef in a tomato sauce base with onions and peppers.  Sometimes olives, pimientos, chickpeas, potatoes, and capers are added, and in Mexico, the dish is actually made with mint, garlic and eggs.  I made a straightforward recipe from Mark Bittman that included onions, peppers, garlic, cumin, and diced tomatoes.  Without question, this was the best version I’ve ever tasted, and I attribute that to Bittman’s treatment of cumin in the dish.  Whereas other recipes include ground cumin, his recipe calls for cumin seeds and garlic paste to be fried in oil, and then the onions and bell peppers are sautéed in that oil.  This results in an aromatic, cumin-centric dish, which I loved.  I made yellow rice and fried some ripe plantains to accompany the dish.  The family loved it, especially the plantains.  I’ve become so accustomed to ripe plantains that I forget they are not so “everday” in the rest of the country.  The Ropa Vieja was so good that I found only a few stray pieces of shredded beef and a couple of bell pepper slices in my refrigerator when I was seeking out leftovers.  Definitely a hit with the family!

Pastelitos de Guayaba
pastelitos fresh from
the oven
Upon moving to Miami, it took me a while to figure out that what I called a “turnover” is actually a pastelito in Miami.  While a pastelito is basically a turnover, it represents so much more culturally.  It’s a snack enjoyed by strangers at a Cuban coffee window or a treat shared amongst friends and family at a casual gathering or for breakfast.  The pastry is similar to puff pastry, and by all means can be made with puff pastry, but when you bite into an authentic pastelito, you can taste that the pastry is not all butter…you can taste the lard.  The most traditional sweet filling is cream cheese and guava, although pineapple and coconut are also popular.  Pastelitos can be savory, too, and filled with meat and/or cheese.  In the case of both sweet and savory pastelitos, the pastries are topped with a thin sweet glaze.

guava and cream cheese filling
I made a batch of guava and cream cheese pastelitos using puff pastry, and I could not believe how amazingly delicious they tasted when they were fresh from the oven.  Plus, they are so easy to make.  Puff Pastry, a slice of guava paste, and some cream cheese mixed with a little milk, fresh lemon juice, and sugar create a perfect little pie.  I put an egg wash on them, baked for thirty minutes, and brushed them with simple syrup five minutes before they finished baking.  Perfect, delicious pastelitos!  I took some to work the next day, and we all agreed that these were some of the best pastelitos we’d ever tasted.  Another Y’all Taste This victory!

All in all, my week of Cuban cuisine was more comforting than enlightening, but I enjoyed making these dishes that I have grown to love.  Making them taught me about the layers of flavors used to create them, and introducing them to my family gave me an opportunity to rediscover their charms.

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