Cuba, the pearl of the Caribbean, is situated in the Caribbean Sea, about ninety miles south of Florida. Christopher Columbus discovered the island in 1492 and claimed it for Spain. Upon claiming it, the Spanish began a brutally systematic agenda of abusing, exploiting, and whacking the native population. Now suddenly in need of someone to do the work, they began importing black slaves from Africa to operate mines and work in plantations. Thus, the Spanish and Africans formed the basis of what would become Cuban cuisine. After the 1959 Cuban Revolution of Fidel Castro many of the island's best chefs and restaurant owners fled. As a result, food shortages were frequent and the quality of the food available was quite poor. Many people who I know that have recently visited the island tell me that nothing has changed.
I have never set foot on the island of Cuba. My family emigrated in the early '70s to the United States and laid down root in Miami. There are divergent fiercely held convictions on whether any of us should visit the island. My father, who left in his teens, is strongly opposed to setting a boot on Cuban soil until the communist government is overthrown. On the other hand, his mother, who still has a large family contingent there, has gone a few times in the last five years. My brother and I stand with our father in this debate. Just broaching the topic with the old man you can feel the pain he carries inside. There is absolutely no way for me to relate to that pain. Being born in Hialeah, a suburb of Miami, where the population was 95 percent Cuban immigrant, I was afforded the best of both worlds. Most of my friends growing up were in the same boat. Looking back now we can reflect on how propitious we were to enjoy all that our culture had to offer without the political persecution. There are many things that I will lovingly pass along to my children, whenever they come along, such as speaking Spanish, dancing Salsa Casino, a deep love of baseball, and obviously Cuban cuisine.
My Grandmother Esperanza, on my mother’s side, was the person responsible for my brother and me being cooks today. Abuela, as we called her, was not a professional chef, she was a devoted, soulful Cuban home cook. I can remember coming home one afternoon after school, when I was in the sixth grade, and having a yearning for Enchilado de camarones, or Creole style shrimp. This dish traditionally is a protein, mostly seafood, cooked in a tangy, tomato-based sauce. On this day, there were no shrimp in the refrigerator. Growing up in a working class family, seafood was a rare treat. Oddly enough, there was some squid for her to work her magic on. She proceeded to introduce me to the notion of "cook enchilado for an 11-year-old boy, he eats for the day; teach said boy to cook enchilado, he eats for a lifetime." In the coming years, Abuela would proceed to pass down her knowledge and love for Cuban cuisine to me. I think she would be proud to see the cook that I have become.
In my version of her dish, pictured above, I kept the essence of the tangy tomato sauce intact. When done right the sauce is a harmonious balance of acidity and a hint of sweetness. The squid used in creating this dish is an 8-12 inch tube and tentacle. The body of the squid was cut into rings, the tentacles diced, and the head I do not serve. There are two different cooking methods for the squid, producing two different textures on the plate. The diced tentacles are cooked traditionally in the tomato sauce, rendering them soft and tender. For the rings, I wanted a contrasting texture, so they are coated in light peppery coating, and quickly flash-fried. Serve with aromatic basmati rice, freshly chopped oregano, and edible flowers.
Arroz con Gandules, or pigeon peas and rice, is the national dish of Puerto Rico, the birthplace of my wife. Puerto Rico and Cuba are practically sister islands, the national flags are almost identical. More importantly, this dish can be found in countless Miami restaurants. I practically grew up on this. First we want to create a strong flavor base with bacon, andouille sausage, vegetables, spices, and white wine. In order to gain a strong intense flavor, the wine must be reduced completely. White extra long grain rice works best for this preparation. The garnish is cooked chorizo, gold pearl onions, edible flowers, and cilantro.
Pork is central to the cuisine of Cuba. We ate loads of it in our household, especially during the holidays. Cuban cooks have a magical way with pork and seemingly limitless preparations for it. For this final dish, I braised a pork shoulder for about eight hours in the oven on a low temperature. The braising liquid was comprised of onions, leeks, celery, carrots, potatoes, spices, and malta. Malta is carbonated non-alcoholic malt beverage, brewed from barley, hops, and water. The finished product is meltingly tender pork with that flavorful and complex malta sauce. Serve with rice, black bean puree, pork rinds, and fresh chopped marjoram.
Living in Miami many weekends are spent on a beach gazing longingly into the horizon. The fact that the island homeland of my family is only 90 miles away and I cannot enjoy it is infuriating. One day I will be on Varadero, sprawled on my beach chair, Cuba Libre, a cocktail of Havana Club rum and cola, in one hand and a Cohiba Robusto cigar in the other. As the brilliantly talented Cuban singer Willy Chirino proudly sings, nuestro dia ya viene llegando — our day is coming!