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Comidas Criolas

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    Posted: 29 September 2014 at 19:10

For this month’s themed dinner we’re literally going halfway around the world, from Africa to the Caribbean.

Of course, saying “Caribbean” is hardly limiting. There are numerous countries and territories, and several hundred islands, all with their own culinary influences. So, for no particular reason---other than the fact we knew nothing about its food---we chose Cuba.

Turns out it was a perfect choice. By accident we choose a country whose cuisine is almost unique, and totally different from other Latin American countries. Even those dishes that it has in common with other islands have special twists.

Overall, Cuban food is a fusion of the native Taino culture, with Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences.

Mary Urrutia Randelman, in her really fine Memories of a Cuban Kitchen, pretty much sums it up. “The Cuban style of cooking, commonly called Creole, or comidas criollas, is an amalgam of tropical and European elements. It is based on the white sweet potato, squash, corn, and yucca that had been cultivated y early Taino and Siboney Indian inhabitants and later were adopted by African slaves; on Spanish saffron, rice, beans, and sofritos combining garlic, onion, peppers, and tomato; on Indian and Chinese culinary contributions; and, finally, on the fish, meats, vegetables, and herbs native to our island.”

While “criollo” translates as “creole,” don’t make the mistake of connoting it to the Creole cooking of Louisiana. In the Caribbean, “creole” is a caste designation, referring to native born residents who can trace their lineage to Europe, primarily Spain. Although a major “Spanish” influence on Cuban cuisine, this does not include the many Canary Islanders who were brought to Cuba to work the tobacco fields.

“But overall,” Randelman stresses, “Cuban cooking is a peasant cuisine that is fairly unconcerned with niceties of measurement, order, and timing. Simple techniques and ingredients appear throughout and a cook can improvise, guided by the tastes and textures of the foods themselves.

This simplicity is referred to over and over again. For instance, in a monograph on Cuban cuisine, Denny Phillips points out “the Cuban way of cooking tends to be very natural and made with very specific ingredients such as the sofrito. They like using spics such as oregano and cumin instead of the hotter spices like hot peppers. What is really significant in Cuban cooking is the fried foods, such as fried plantains.

All of which helps explain the ambiguities found in many Cuban recipes, particularly those found on-line. At first I thought this was a problem in translation. To be sure, that is part of the problem. But much of it has to do with this laid-back method of cooking.

All of which simply means you have to read recipes carefully, and, sometimes, struggle to make sense out of unfamiliar ingredients and techniques. But the effort is well worthwhile, as it opens a whole new world of flavors.

One problem, of course, is making choices among this largess. What little I did know about Cuban food made me think it w3as pork-centric, with recipes such as the pernil that’s been covered at FotW in the past (
As it turns out, while pork is a common meat, the national dish of Cuba---Ropa Vieja---is made from beef. And, I felt, we certainly would want to include that dish. Plus we wanted, as much as possible, to cover regional favorites.

It was a struggle, to be honest. But we finally settled on this menu:

Bread: Pan Cubano
Appy: Papas Rellenos (Stuffed Fried Potatoes)
Soup: Sopa de Pescado (Seafood Soup)
Main: Ropa Vieja (Shredded Beef)
          Moros y Cristianos (Black Beans & Rice
          Plantain Chips with Mojo Criollo sauce
Dessert: Flan de Naranjas (Orange Flan)

As has become my habit, I’ll post the bread recipe in the grains forum instead of with the rest of these recipes.
But we hae meat and we can eat
And sae the Lord be thanket
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Despite regional and ethnic differences, Cuban food, overall, relies on a handful of flavorings. These include adobo spice mixtures, sofrito, and mojo criollo. Before getting into the dishes we prepared, I thought it would be a good idea to look at these flavors.

As is to be expected, every chef and housewife has their own recipe. Here are typical ones:

Adobo Spice Mix

6 tbls salt
6 tbls garlic granules
4 tbls oregano
2 tbls freshly ground black pepper
2 tbls turmeric
2 tbls onion powder

Combine all ingredients, blending well. Store in an airtight container. Mixture will last at least six months when stored in a cool, dark location.


Sofrito is the base flavor for many Cuban dishes. It’s either made ahead of time, and added as an ingredient, or the individual ingredients are added to a dish as its being prepared (see ropa vieja recipe for an example). This pre-made version from Sonia Martinez will keep about a week in the fridge.

21 cherry tomatoes, chopped
2 green peppers, chopped
2 large onions, chpped
8-10 garlic cloves, chopped
1-2 bay leaves
Touch of ground cumin
Touch of dried oregano
¾ cup Sherry, or to taste
4 tbls olive oil
Salt to taste (optional)

Sauté the tomatoes, peppers, onion, garlic, bay leaves, cumin and oregano in the oil until all vegetables are limp. Add Sherry and set simmer. Adjust seasoning with salt, if desired. Yields about one quart.

Mojo Criollo

As with many Cuban dishes, mojo originated in the Canary Islands. Along the way it suffered a sea change, and in Cuba it refers to any sauce made with garlic, olive oil, and citrus---primarily the ubiquitous sour orange juice (naranja agria).

1 full head garlic (10-12 cloves)
1 cup olive oil
1 cup naranja agria
1 tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper

Finely chop the garlic. Add the salt and pepper and mash everything together to create a paste. Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic mixture and cook just until the garlic is soft. Add the naranja agria and cook just until thoroughly heated.

An interesting variant comes from the restaurant La Caja China:

1 cup sour orange juice
1 tbls oregano
1 tbls bay leaves
1 garlic bulb
1 tsp cumin
3 tsp salt
4 oz water
4 oz pineapple juice (this is La Caja China’s “secret” ingredient)

Peel and mash the garlic cloves. Mix all the ingredients and let sit for a minimum of one hour.

Naranjo agria is available at Latin markets or via mail order. Or you can make a fair substitute by adding two ounces of lime or lemon juice to six ounces of fresh orange juice.

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Papas Rellenas
(Stuffed Potatoes)

Very popular as either an appetizer or main dish, papas rellenas is one way of using up any leftover Picadillo, which, itself, is an incredibly popular beef hash.

5 potatoes, cubed
1 tsp salt
1 tsp garlic granules
2 tbls warm milk
Picadillo (see recipe below)
3 eggs beaten with a tablespoon water
1-2 cups fine breadcrumbs
Oil for deep frying

Boil potatoes in salted water until very tender. Drain. Return to pot and toss over heat to evaporate all the liquid.

Mash the potatoes with the salt, garlic, and milk. Set aside to cool.

Using an ice-cream scoop or your hands, shape the potatoes into a ball. Using your finger or a spoon create a hollow in the ball, extending well into the middle. Fill the hollow with about a teaspoonful of the Picadillo. Seal and reshape the ball, which should be 2-3 inches in diameter.

Roll each ball in the egg mixture, then in the crumbs. Repeat a second time. Cover and put in the fridge for at least an hour, or up to overnight.

Remove from fridge and let warm to room temperature. Meanwhile, put enough oil in a pot to reach at least halfway up the sides of the rellenas. Heat oil to 350F. Fry the rellenas, turning frequently, until golden brown and crisp, a total of about four minutes.

(Beef Hash)

Picadillo is found throughout Cuba, served as a main dish, with rice, or used to create snacks and appetizers such as Papas Rellenas. It’s a great way of using a less expensive cut of meat to make a delicious, filling meal.

¼ cup olive oil (approx.)
1 large onion, finely diced
1 large bell pepper, seeded and finely diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 lb lean ground beef
½ cup tomato paste
Pinch black pepper
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp oregano
½ cup pimento-stuffed green olives, chopped
¼ cup capers, drained
1/3 cup raisins
1-2 bay leaves
2 tbls dry red wine
Salt to taste

Heat the oil in a heavy pot. Brown the meat, stirring to break up any clumps. Add the onion, pepper and garlic, continuing the browning process. Add the olives, raisins, bay leaves, tomato paste, wine, capers, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer until meat is very tender, about 30 minutes, stirring often and adding a bit of water if necessary.

Sopa de Pescado
(Cuban Seafood Soup)

Being an island, you’d naturally expect seafood to play an important role in Cuban cuisine. Yet the references are ambiguous at best. One source says, yes, seafood is a crucial component, while another says seafood is overly expensive and hardly used. I’ll leave any conclusions to others.
     I discovered this soup, however, while Ron and I were, coincidentally, having a discussion about international fish soups. So it worked out well on several levels; it fit right into that discussion; it became a welcome addition to our Cuban themed meal; and it’s just plain delicious.
     A note on the fish used: Although this is the recipe as I found it, both experience and other Cuban fish soup recipes indicate that just about any combination will do. Cod and sole is common, for instance. As I told Ron, let your pocketbook, rather than the ingredients list, be your guide.

½ lb shrimp, peeled and cleaned
1 small bell pepper, cut in strips
1 medium onion, chopped
1 lb red snapper
3 tsp olive oil
½ tsp curry
1 lb swordfish
1 tsp paprika or saffron
1 bayleaf
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp dry cooking wine
1 tsp salt
1 cup cherry tomatoes
4 cups water
1 lb potatoes, cut as for gratin
*pinch of parsley

Heat oil and fry garlic until golden; remove garlic. Add onion, bell pepper and shrimp. Fry for three minutes. Cut fish into big chunks. Pour water in a large pot and add all other ingredients. Toast saffron slightly and dissolve in a small amount of the liquid, add to pot. Cook for about 25 minures and add cooking wine. Cook for addition five minutes.

This soup is served with French bread cut in triangles and fried in hot oil, preferably olive oil. This can also be done by brushing with olive oil and broiling.

Ropa Vieja
(Shredded Beef)

Ropa Vieja (which translates as “old clothes” because of its appearance) is comparable to the pulled pork of the American south. And for similar reasons: it’s inexpensive to make, using a cheaper cut of meat; it’s flavorsome; and it’s filling.
     As with so many Cuban dishes, the origins of ropa vieja---which, btw, is considered the national dish of Cuba---are found in the Canary Islands, and, before that, with the Sephardic Jews of Spain. Which means it was probably popular with the Moors as well, until their expulsion from Spain.

¼ cup olive oil
2-lb flank steak
2 bay leaves
1 large onion
1 med green bell pepper
1 med red bell pepper
4 garlic cloves
¾ cup dry white wine or Sherry
2 cups drained, chopped canned tomatoes or tomato sauce
1 tsp ground cumin
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet. Divide the steak in half lengthwise, and brown the meat in the oil. Transfer the meat to a large saucepan, along with one of the bay leaves, and cover with salted water, reserving the oil and skillet. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover the pot, and simmer the meat until very tender, about 1 ½ hours.

Remove the meat from the stock. Let it cool. Cut into chunks two to three inches long. Using your fingers, shred the meat. Season with salt and pepper.

Cut the onion in half lengthwise, peel it, and cut each half into thin half-moons. Seed the bell peppers and cut into thin strips. Chop the garlic fine.

Reheat the oil in the skillet. Add the onions, peppers, and garlic, and cook until onions are tender, 6-8 minutes. Add the tomatoes, wine, and remaining bay leaf, and cook, uncovered, another 15 minutes.

Mix in the shredded beef, cover the pot, and simmer over low heat 30 minutes. Remove the bay leaf before serving.

Moros y Cristianos
(Black Beans & Rice)

Likely the most iconic emblem of Cuban cuisine, Moros y Cristianos actually are more popular in the western part of the island. In the east, red beans are far more popular, reflecting the influence of other Caribbean countries. The combination of red beans and rice is called congri.
     In Cuba, rice and beans are either cooked separately, and then combined, or are cooked together as a one-dish meal. Which method is best is hotly debated.
     If you can’t find smoked ham hocks just substitute a smoked turkey leg. The flavor will be slightly different, but still delicious.

For the rice:
1 cup long grain white rice
1 tsp olive oil
2 cups water

For the beans:

1 lb dried black turtle beans, soaked overnight in water to cover
4 cups water
3 garlic cloves, peeled and mashe3d
1 med onion, chopped
¼ lb salt pork or slab bacon, chopped
1 lb smoked ham hocks
2 tsp paprika
3 tsp ground cumin
2 bay leaves
4 cups chicken stock
1 tbls vinegar
Salt & pepper to taste.

Drain the beans, transfer to a large pot, and add all the ingredients except the vinegar, salt, and pepper. There should be enough liquid to just cover the beans. If not, add some water. Bring the liquid to boil, lower heat, cover the pot and simmer until beans are tender, about 1 ½-2 hours.

Meanwhile make the rice. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add the rice, stirring, until it turns opaque and releases its fragrance. Add the water all at once, cover the pot, reduce heat, and cook 20 minutes without lifting the lid. Fluff rice with a fork. If there’s too much liquid left over continue cooking until it evaporates, stirring constantly. Set rice aside.

Remove the ham hocks from the beans. Strip the meat from the bones and return to pot. Add the vinegar, salt and pepper.

To serve either combine rice and beans in the pot, or spoon rice into serving bowls and ladle beans on top.

Plantain Chips

A very popular snack and side dish, fried plantain chips are often served with a dipping sauce, such as Mojo Criolla.

To make them, cut green plantains into coins about 1/8 inch thick. Using the same oil you used for the Papas Rellenos, fry the plantains until they are crisp and golden. Drain well and serve with a small dish of dipping sauce.

Flan de Naranjas
(Orange Flan)

As in much of the Spanish-speaking world, flan is the most popular dessert in Cuba. This variation, from Mary Urrutia Randelman, uses oranges to flavor the flan, and as a garnish.
     Only heavy whipping cream is available locally. But it works just as well as the light cream called for in the recipe

1 cup sugar
2 cups light cream or half & half
½ tsp vanilla extract
6 large eggs
¼ cup fresh orange juice
1 tbls finely grated orange peel
Pinch of salt
Canned mandarin orange sections, drained, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350F.

In a small, heavy skillet over medium heat, cook ½ cup of the sugar, stirring frequently after it begins to bubble, until golden brown, 6-8 minutes. Be care3ful that it do3s not burn. Remove from the heat, divide the syrup among 6-8 custard cups, or put into a 2-quart mold, and swirl to coat the bottom.

In a small, heavy saucepan over medium heat, combine the cream, the remaining sugar, and vanilla; heat until bubbles begin to form around the sides, and remove from the heat. In a mixing bowl, combine the eggs, orange juice, peel, and salt, and whisk until smooth and light. Add the cream mixture and mix well.

Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into the caramelized custard cups or mold, place in a large pan, and fill the outer pan with lukewarm water two thirds the height of the cups or mold.

Bake one hour for a large mold or slightly less for custard cups, or until a cake tester inserted in the flan comes out clean, then remove from the water bath, cool to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate.

To unmold, run a knife along the edge of the mold and invert it onto a serving platter. Spoon the caramel over the flan and serve at once, garnished with the oranges.

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And sae the Lord be thanket
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote HistoricFoodie Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29 September 2014 at 19:12

A simple internet search, using “Cuban Cuisine” yields all sorts of great information and recipes. A few sites I found particularly useful:

As usual, Wikipedia can be very useful, so long as you confirm the data through other sources.

I used two cookbooks as well:

Memories of a Cuban Kitchen, Mary Urrutia Randelman and Joan Schwartz, Macmillen Publishing, New York, 1992.

A Taste of Old Cuba, Maria Josefa Lluria de O’Higgins, HarperCollins, New York, 1994

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