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.
It is almost September, and I am nearing one year of residence in Tennesse (wow!). These last few months have been a whirlwind. Between starting a new job, finally getting to move in with my husband, and buying a house, life has seldom slowed down. But the onset of Fall brings wonderful things, and this time it has brought a small spot of peace and quiet in an otherwise crazy life. Today, I want to share with you a recipe that I learned from my mother. When I was little, this was one of our “tag team” recipes. When you have to bread meat, it is a good idea to have a ‘little helper’ to be the dry hands or the wet hands, depending on your preference. It’s not only a great bonding experience, it’s also a good first lesson on working with raw meat (which, let’s face it, can be pretty off-putting at first).
Growing up, I was a little confused by the term “steak.” You see, in our household, steak was a very thin slice of meat, well-seasoned, and well-done. Imagine my surprise when I encountered the barely-seasoned, thick-cut steak that is the American standard. Where were the garlic, the onions – why was the meat so thick? Wait, people actually eat this stuff RAW (to me, ‘pink’ was raw)?! Needless to say, I have come a long way in my steak eating adventures. And, yes, now I will also eat medium-well steaks.
But, let me take you on a little trip to our Cuban home, where breaded and fried Cuban steak was the ultimate ‘treat’ meal. It’s an aroma that inundates the house – you know it as soon as you walk in. As a kid, the smell of ‘Bistec Empanizado’ triggered an instant run-to-the-kitchen-just-to-verify. It was glorious. To this day, I’ve never met a person who didn’t love this dish (save a few vegetarians who, to be fair, have never tried it). It is a staple at Cuban restaurants, and it is a traditional dish in Cuban homes.
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!