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.
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!
Today, I have another wonderful family recipe for you. It’s one of my all-time favorite foods (and let me tell you, I’ve tried a lot of food). But today, in return for this treasure of a recipe, I’m going to ask that you do me a favor. Go get to know one of your friends a little bit better, and let them get to know you better. Intentionally strengthen a friendship with someone you don’t naturally get along with. Why this request, you ask? Well, let me explain.
I used to envy watching guys in their friendships – it was so often like watching a band of brothers. They were loyal to each other, almost family. They were real and weren’t afraid to laugh, fight, and, in a way, to claim each other. They would beat their chests and play their stupid games, and the girls would roll their eyes (and do a jealous double-take in their own minds). How could they be so real and unaffected? As a young woman, I watched from the sidelines hoping to one day have that kind of friendship, too. But this year, I’ve discovered sisterhood. I’ve been challenged by a group of women who are both real and intentional in the relationships they create, a roommate who is so open she unknowingly has the power to break down every last defense of the reticent, and best friends who manage to make a difference in my life even from hundreds of miles away. And I’ve never felt anything like this.
To have a community of people that really knows you is as wonderful as it is risky. Yes, there are reasons people keep to themselves. If you ask me, those reasons aren’t good enough. This world needs more community, because community brings challenge, growth, hope. It encourages real love and not just the superficial affectations of the cowardly. So, do yourself a favor, go make a friend if you don’t have one. Start a real friendship with someone you’re only acquaintances with. It will take effort, but it will be amazing. And so you say, “But, Damaris, how can I possibly break the barriers with [insert name of stranger here]?” Easy! Make them some Ropa Vieja, some white rice, and head on over to their side with a homemade Cuban lunch, courtesy of you, their-new-best-friend-to-be.
***************RECIPE UPDATED 11/22/16***************
When I was first learning to cook, I used to follow my mom around the kitchen, writing down everything little thing she did. The difficulty of learning to cook from any seasoned Cuban chef is that they rarely measure anything. So, as she was about to toss a handful of something into the pot, I would grab her hand and pour whatever she held into a measuring cup. Believe it or not, these were the beginnings of my Cuban cuisine education. After years of learning through studying, cooking, and a lot of trial and error, I can at least say this: I finally understand my mom.
Admittedly, I have been delaying posting Cuban recipes – and this one in particular. It’s hard to explain, but the Cuban kitchen has a lot to do with learning how flavors complement each other and adjusting to your audience. It has very little to do with careful measurements. That being said, you will find over time that experience with Cuban cuisine will allow you to make your own adjustments.
Now, as this is a post about a black bean stew – let me start by saying this. I have known many people who claimed they didn’t eat beans – that they didn’t like them. To this day, I have never met a person who wasn’t converted by this dish. This recipe belonged to my grandmother. In Cuba, she was famous for her black beans. She passed it on to my mother, who passed it on to me. I am delighted to be able to share it with you. In Cuba, dishes vary by the region from which they originated. Some Cuban black bean stews include pork or other meats for flavoring, but this one (my favorite) is completely vegetarian and emphasizes the decadent taste of the actual bean without being boring like so many bean dishes are.