I don’t know why this never ceases to surprise me, but most people I meet have never eaten Cuban food. Now, considering the sum total population of 11MM people on the island, you would think “hey, Damaris – that’s to be expected.” Now, whenever I meet someone, it feels like it is my mission from the universe to make sure they experience Cuban food, Thai food, Korean food, Japanese food, and Vietnamese food – at a minimum (and in that order). It isn’t always the simplest thing to quickly cook up some Cuban black bean stew or some ropa vieja – but gosh darn it, I will at least fry up some Cuban empanadas.
If you have experienced at least a simple (and incredibly, crazy delicious) street food from each of these places, I feel like my universe debt is paid. Because we need to cover our bases in order – we’ll start you off with Cuban. Empanadas were one of the first Cuban dishes I ever learned to make. My mom taught me, and this was one of our tag-team recipes, where she would prepare the filling, and then I would shape and close the empanada. If you have little ones of your own, you might find this is a great recipe for keeping those little hands busy without making a lot of mess.
There are so many different doughs and fillings you can use to make empanadas that this recipe is just the way to open a door to a world of creativity. You can go sweet, salty, gooey, crunchy. Our personal favorites use either picadillo, or guava paste and cream cheese. The Cuban kitchen is all about being resourceful – using what’s available, using up leftovers, making the most of everything. These are a great way to enjoy the heck out of some leftover meat, veggie, or rice dishes. Do me a favor – help me ease my debt to the universe, and go make yourself some empanadas. I promise this is one debt that’s actually very fun to repay.
Whenever I’ve tried to describe malanga to someone in the past, it’s usually limited to: “well, it’s kind of like a potato.” Do you like potatoes? If you don’t…I just, I don’t know what to do with that. But if you do, think of malanga as potato’s long, thin cousin (because we all have one). It’s a starchy root vegetable with a good deal of nutritional value and a lot of digestive benefits. In Cuban cuisine, this style of puree is typical for a lunch meal, and would commonly be eaten for lunch with an egg over-medium on top.
Growing up, I heard countless tales of the miraculous healing powers that this puree has for the stomach. You’ll have to be the judge on that, but, whether or not it has the power to heal, it can definitely be a deliciously fluffy side dish to many a Cuban entree. That being said, this is probably not the first thing I would make for someone trying Cuban food for the first time. This is more of a second-date dish (if you date your food, that is). My husband just laughed out loud at that last sentence – apparently “dating my food” is very me. Well, ain’t no disguising the truth.
Now, as a proper Cuban, I have a love affair with garlic. I do my best to dial it down for the sake of everyone’s breath, but let’s face it, garlic is a wonderful thing. I’ve included just a hint of garlic in this recipe, but it really makes all the difference between a bland puree and a tasty side dish – don’t skip it! As always, I’d love to know what changes/additions/subtractions you have found to make tasty twists on this recipe!
It’s raining outside. And as the sun goes down in a long, white stretch across the sky outside my window, I can’t help but think that this is what peace looks like. There is some inexplicable thing about the sky and the rain that makes them seem to exude life. Or maybe they do actually exude life. I’m not sure I’ll ever know, but I’m pretty content to just sit here and watch. The thing is, life is just so exciting if we learn to explore new things.
This week has been a project for me. I’ve been challenged to limit my carbs to one meal per day, either breakfast or lunch. If you have any idea how much I cherish dinner, the one time day I actually have time to make a proper meal, you know this is a significant sacrifice for me. Well, at least, that’s what I thought, too. I spent most of Monday dreading dinner-time, sad that I would be missing out on a normal meal.
You see, it’s hard for me to think that any meal without carbs could be worth eating. It’s a mindset that has been proven wrong over and over again, but I have a hard time believing it each time. Anyway, as the day progressed, I thought of some of the things I enjoy the most that would be easy to make and would somehow disprove my skepticism. Cuban “picadillo” is a ground beef dish that I’ve made for many friends of many different backgrounds – and it always goes over well. The best part about it is that it goes together so quickly, but that you still end up with a meal that looks like it took hours of laborious effort. Typically, picadillo is served over white rice. But, in this low carb variation, the meat is combined with steamed napa cabbage, where the picadillo’s tasty sauce happily complements the flavor of the vegetable. I promise you, this is one dinner you won’t soon forget.
I’ve recently decided I would really like to avoid ever being called a “great person” or a “nice person.” I’ve found that every time I hear those phrases, they are swiftly followed by an insult. You’ve heard it, right? “She’s a nice person, but…” It is the northern equivalent to the Southern “Bless her heart. [insert backhanded insult here].” So, in support of that effort, I won’t bother explaining how addicting these things are. I won’t be nice and warn you that you’ll never want to go back to the frozen variety. I won’t do it.
The average American will look at you sideways if you mention anything about “ham paste” or “ground ham.” It’s a concept that’s different – but very normal for Cuban food. And it’s been my experience that the average American will also love these croquettes. Been there, tested it. Trust me. This recipe is tried and true, authentic, and delicious. For a typical Cuban lunch, grab yourself some amazingly soft rolls (or Cuban bread, if you have access to it), and make a sandwich out of these croquettes. Some people like to add ketchup or some other condiment to the sandwich. Personally, I like mine with the core ingredients: croquetas and bread.
I used to think these were so hard to make, or time consuming, or something! There had to be some reason even the best hispanic chefs I know kept buying the frozen croquetas, which almost always carried an unpleasant hint of freezer-burn. But no – the majority of the time spent in this recipe is just waiting for the filling to cool. Waiting. That doesn’t even count. These could not be easier to make. They require little to no ingredients, and there is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t go make them right now.
When you get done eating, let me know what you liked about them, what tweaks you made, how you made them your own. I’d love to know!