Cuba’s cuisine: tasty and diverse

| April 4, 2015 | 0 Comments
Margaret Dickenson’s Spinach Crêpes with Chicken. See page 82 for the recipe.

Margaret Dickenson’s Spinach Crêpes with Chicken. See page 82 for the recipe.

Last winter, my husband and I flew to Cuba, the Caribbean’s largest country. Located on the northern margins of the region (not far from Southern Florida), the Republic of Cuba consists of one large and several small islands.
Basically, half of the large island features flat lands or rolling hills while a more hilly and mountainous topography makes up the remaining portion, with some swampy and lowland areas along the southern coast. Excluding the mountainous regions, Cuba’s climate can best be described as semitropical or temperate.
As with many countries, Cuban cuisine reflects its history, which began in 2000 BC with the hunters and gatherers of the Stone Age. Later, the Ciboneys (a pre-ceramic culture) introduced small-scale farming and fishing. But it wasn’t until about AD 1100 that the peace-loving Tainos (originally from present-day Venezuela) arrived, after centuries of island-hopping from the Lesser Antilles, and a sophisticated and complex society with a participatory government took hold. The Tainos were skilful weavers, ceramists, shipbuilders, as well as farmers. Indeed, reports claim that 60 percent of crops grown today in Cuba were introduced by the Tainos. These include cassava, (a starchy root, also called yucca and manioc, used to make tapioca and cassareep), maize, beans, squash, sweet potatoes, ajies (peppers) and annatto seed (used for colouring butter, cheese and smoked food).
By pre-Columbus, the Tainos population had grown to about 100,000; however, as Ambassador Julio Antonio Garmendía Peña notes: “Harsh Spanish colonizers wiped out 90 percent of the Tainos within 30 years. Therefore, the Spanish who dominated Cuba’s colonial period turned to the importation of African slaves in the 1520s to work on sugar plantations and in mines.”
Although slavery regrettably endured for 350 years, until it was abolished in 1886, Spanish and African ways of life blended and evolved over these centuries into what has proven to be a strong foundation for today’s highly distinctive Cuban culture — including its food culture. Spanish colonists brought oranges, lemons, rice and an array of vegetables. African slaves, who were unable to bring much with them, quickly acquired a taste for local fruits and vegetables. Several popular dishes in Cuba today reflect this melding of the two cultures. The most prominent example would be arroz congri, also referred to as “Christians and Moors.” Made with white rice and black beans, the name refers to the Spanish Christians’ (white rice) and African (black beans) heritage of Cuban culture and cuisine. However, ongoing waves of mainly French (starting with those fleeing the 1791 bloody slave rebellion in Haiti) and Chinese immigrants, all contributed their own culinary traditions to the mix.  In terms of Caribbean cuisine, Cuban food is not typical, although the ambassador admits that “the food of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic does bear some resemblance to that of Cuba.”
Cuban cuisine tends to be hearty, rather high in calories, frequently heavy and does not make use of the exotic spices normally associated with Caribbean cooking; nor is it spicy. Onions and garlic, the two principal flavouring ingredients, are omni-present in local dishes. They are essential in making sofrito, a type of sauce made with onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes and oregano sautéed in olive oil. Sofrito is not to be served on its own, but to be used as a flavour base for other dishes. Indeed, sofrito and olive oil hold the distinction of being the secret ingredients in cooking black beans, meat, fish, stews — more or less everything.
Root vegetables (particularly potatoes and yucca) tend to be flavoured with mojo, a mixture of olive oil, onions, garlic, cumin and lemon juice. Blanched yucca left marinating in mojo before serving, is said to be exquisite — “a national dish.” Naranja agria (sour orange) or lime juice, garlic and salt serve as a marinade for poultry and meat. Even though slow cooking and sautéing are the traditional styles of cooking, Cubans also enjoy fried or grilled chicken and pork chops. But only certain foods are deep fried: tostones (plantain), vaca (beef),  pescado frito (fried fish), frituras de bacalao (cod fish fritters), masitas de puerco fritas (pork rinds), yucca frita, empanaditas, and croquetas.

The Cuba Libre is a highball made of cola, lime and dark or light rum.

The Cuba Libre is a highball made of cola, lime and dark or light rum.

Beef, pork, chicken and fish represent the staple protein foods in the Cuban diet. (Cubans love meat, especially pork.) Black beans and rice, the primary source of carbohydrates, can be cooked together; however, the beans are frequently a thick soupy-like mixture of beans, onions and garlic, and presented separately. Local markets sell fresh fruit and vegetables, but unfortunately, the selection remains limited.
Traditional main course dishes include arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), ropa vieja (shredded beef, directly translated, means “old clothes”!), ajiaco (meat, garlic and vegetable stew), pollo con quimbombo y platanos (chicken with okra and plantain served over rice), picadillo (Cuban beef served over rice or as a filling for empanadas (fried or baked stuffed bread or pastry) and fu-fu (mashed plantain or boiled mashed green bananas mixed with pieces of fried pork). Eggs are served as omelettes or fried (sometimes deliciously over rice with fried plantain). Ambassador Garmendía Peña says that although many types of sandwiches may be referred to as “Cuban sandwiches,” the authentic version consists of slices of Cuban bread (similar to French bread) spread with butter before adding slices of cold roasted pork and frequently pickles, and finally cutting it diagonally in half.
And for a traditional dessert, the choice ranges from flan (baked custard), tres leches cake (3 milk cake), arroz con leche (rice pudding), pastillas (pastries filled with guava) to sweet and salty combinations such as poached guava cups (with the interior scooped out and the remaining cups cooked in a sugar syrup) or shaved fresh coconut in sugar syrup (coco rallado con queso) — both of these desserts are eaten with simple white cheese. Popular as these are, ice cream (made more decadent when drizzled with chocolate or caramel sauce) has eclipsed them as Cuban’s favourite dessert these days.
When it comes to street food, snack food stalls offer mainly pizzas and sandwiches, while carts fry up syrupy pastries on the spot. Some locals also sell take-out food directly from the windows of their homes
Holidays call for special foods. For example at Christmas, Cubans celebrate with open-fire roasted pig (marinated  in garlic, salt and sour orange juice) served with black beans and yucca, then rice pudding or flan for dessert. Normally, a Cuban breakfast consists of tostada (grilled Cuban bread) and cafe con leche (espresso with warm milk). Some locals enjoy dipping their tostada into their coffee much like one might do with a biscotti. Lunches, too, tend to be something simple such as some variety of a Cuban sandwich or pan con bistec (a thin slice of steak on Cuban bread, lettuce, tomato and fried potato sticks), generally served with mariquitas (thin plantain chips). However, in rural areas, Cubans typically prefer a hearty soup, or cornmeal with milk topped with a fried egg. Dinner features meat, chicken or fish dishes accompanied by white rice, black beans, fried plantain and perhaps a salad (e.g., lettuce, avocados, tomato and onion).
Although this nation has felt the sting of the U.S. trade embargo, imposed in 1961 and now being reconsidered, and later, in 1991, the sudden withdrawal of Soviet subsidies, Cubans today are resiliently rebuilding — even in terms of their food culture. This applies to both government-run restaurants as well as small family paladares.
Quite understandably, government-run restaurants did not tend to inspire the concept of “celebrity chefs.” However, the opening up of the private sector in 2011 sparked a new and dynamic culinary revolution, particularly in paladares, many of which have chefs offering first-class dining experiences, serving unique dishes or giving traditional fare an exciting innovative twist. It was most impressive, as our own evening of superb and romantic dining confirmed.
Yes, the dilapidated mansion, now more of a tenement building, in a rather uninviting area of Havana, caused us to hesitate, but not to be discouraged. At the top of a dusty, bleak, old-world, marble staircase, we opened the door to discover a gem — the paladare La Guarida. The ambiance of old Cuba, the spectacularly creative and beautifully presented food on mismatched antique china plates, a very good Pina Colada and great service will forever endure in our memories and on our palates.
The following recipe represents my interpretation of “Spinach Crêpes Stuffed with Chicken,” an example of New Cuban cuisine served at La Guarida and executed with international flair. Note: La Guarida gained worldwide fame as the setting for Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberries and Chocolate), the 1993 award-winning Cuban film. Bon appétit! Buen provecho!

Spinach Crêpes with Chicken
Makes 5 appetizer servings

Chicken filling:
Makes 1 cup or 250 mL

½ tsp (3 mL) minced fresh garlic
2 tbsp (30 mL) chopped onion
1 tbsp (15 mL) butter
2 tbsp (30 mL) diced (1/4 inch or 0.6 cm) orange sweet bell peppers
2 tbsp (30 mL) diced (1/4 inch or 0.6 cm) yellow sweet bell peppers
½ cup (125 mL) diced (1/4 inch or 0.6 cm) fresh mushrooms
To taste: salt and crushed black peppercorns
5 oz (150 g) seasoned and roasted/cooked chicken
3 tbsp (45 mL) chicken broth
½ tsp (3 mL) corn starch
3 tbsp (45 mL) heavy cream (35 percent fat)
½ tsp (3 mL) ground cumin
½ tsp (3 mL) crushed dried tarragon leaves
1. In a medium non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, sauté garlic and onion in melted butter, stirring constantly, until onions begin to appear golden.
2. Add mushrooms and sweet peppers; season with salt and crushed black peppercorns to taste, and stir continuously for 2 minutes.
3. Add chicken and sauté for 2 minutes. Add chicken broth and stir for another 2 minutes.
4. Whisk cornstarch into cream to form a smooth mixture. Add to skillet, stirring constantly until mixture thickens and bubbles.
5. Add cumin and dried tarragon leaves; season to taste with salt and crushed black peppercorns.

Spinach crêpes:
Makes 1 ½ cups or 375 mL batter

1 cup (250 mL) baby spinach leaves, tightly packed
3/4 cup (180 mL) milk
1 egg
½ cup (125 mL) all-purpose flour
1 tbsp (15 mL) butter, melted
Pinch of salt

1. In a blender, process spinach and milk until smooth. Add egg and blend.
2. With blender on low, gradually add flour. Add melted butter and salt, and process to form a smooth batter.
3. Place a non-stick crêpe pan (or skillet) over medium-low heat and rub surface with a touch of butter (extra).  Pour 1/4 cup (60 mL) of batter into centre of pan; tip and swirl pan to make a 6-inch (15 cm) diameter crêpe.
4. When top surface is no longer moist, carefully peel crêpe from the pan, flip crêpe over and cook the second side for just 15 seconds or so.

Assembly: Chive stems and sour cream.

1. Place crêpes on a clean surface; add a 3 tbsp (45 mL) mound of chicken filling to centre of each. Gather edges of each crêpe up and over chicken mixture to make a “purse-like” effect. Tie with a chive stem.
2. Serve crêpe purses on a streak of sour cream and pass extra sour cream at the table.

Margaret Dickenson is a cookbook author, TV host, menu/recipe developer, protocol, business and etiquette instructor. (www.margaretstable.ca)

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Category: Delights

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Margaret Dickenson wrote the awardwinning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining (www.margaretstable.ca).

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