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A Taste of Cuba in Miami

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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!

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About Lazaro Cooks

  • A wonderful tribute and a warmly drawn potrait of your family! Reading this, I feel as it I almost know them. I can see where you inherited your passion from and your Abuela reminds me so much of my own wonderful grandmother, the woman responsible for my fascination with the kitchen and everything it represents to me.

    Your dishes are beautiful and fire my curiosity more and more, about Cuban cuisine, which apart from a Cuba Libre, I’ve never tasted!

    I must try your recipes, one day. If only you weren’t so intimidatingly accomplished a cook!

  • LITO Q

    Abuelita is very proud of you and I bet she would love your chicken thight dish with lemon pepper! I remember she use to make the best lemon pepper chicken when Angi and I would go over here house! Keep up the good work, I really liked this article and I am sure I am not alone!

  • What wonderful dishes you have shared with us Lazaro. I’m sure your Abuela is extremely proud of you. I was too young to learn any of my Grandma’s cooking before she passed away, but many of my favorite dishes are dishes of her’s. I am so glad you have not completely forgotten everything of your heritage and will pass that on to your children. I was raised in Canada almost all my life but am really glad that my parents kept teaching me things about my heritage so I can now pass on to my children. It is always important to remember where you came from no matter where you physically live now. Great article my friend!

  • crowley

    Go visit Cuba for heaven’s sake. I’m American born 100% gringo but I’ve been 3 times in the last 3 yrs. I fly direct from Miami as I am also an EU citizen. I have friends in Cuba and there is no way I plan to wait 50 years to see them or share my life with them. To hell with both governments.

    If the US and Cuba can’t figure out a solution to this over the last 50 years don’t count on it happening soon. This is a disgrace on both sides.

    The only one you are short changing is yourself.

    When I go I bring them (my friends) medicines, foods and candy. None of which they could easily get without me. I also bring them my knowledge of the world.

    You should go! Don’t be so silly. Those people are miserable – a smiling face from someone who knows how to really cook in a creative manner would be a welcomed sight I’m sure.

    They are starved for creativity and hearing from the outside world.

    This old Hialeah mentality is RIDICULOUS

  • I’ve never been to Cuba and barely know the history of it. This article opens my eyes and introduces me to a great interesting cuisine. The dishes look succulent! Well represent the culture.

  • Thank you for sharing a warm, personal part of your life. Very sweet.

  • Oh, my. Your descriptions of the food are making me want to go to Cuba. How lucky you are to have such a family tradition.

  • Lili Q

    Laz, you have truly described how as an immigrant to this great country we can still be true Americans without leaving behind our heritage, which is so important in creating the blueprint of our family for our children. We need to infuse the smells tastes amd sounds that make us so rich in our culture.
    The aroma coming out of Abuela Esperanza’s kitchen always enveloped us with love and oh so good, and I dare say that you have truly perfected it. She IS very proud of you!

  • Yvette R

    Wow! That is truly an amazing article. Laz your grandmother had a way to make cooking look easy and with the warmth of “abuelita” love it made it even easier to embrace! As I believe your grandmother and the the Cuban clan are sure proud of you and your talents!

  • Raquel

    She was always proud of you…..will always be proud of you as am I. xoxo

  • Angi

    Abuela would have been totally in love with your cooking and tribute to what she taught you! You are such a talent, Laz, and we’re lucky to be able to experience it. You know she’s looking down on you with admiration and love primo!

  • Kim A

    I commend you for sharing your memories and your recipes with us. What a great way to bridge the gap between cultures! You have such a rich heritage and, while reading your blog, I can almost smell the aromas, see the people, and believe that I am fortunate enough to be a part of your extended family. The best thing is that I can follow your recipes (you make them sound so easy!) and experience that wonderful flavor – magnifico!!

  • Cuba Libre! Not just a great drink but a great notion too…and hopefully one that is coming.

    I’m sure your grandmother would be very proud of the kind of cook and young man that you are, Lazaro. I’m sure. I want some crispy calamari in tangy tomato sauce by the way! That sounds so extra wonderful to me right now…

  • Cook with Madin

    Hi Lazaro, I enjoyed this post. Thank you for sharing all your wonderful memories and your rich heritage. I’m sure your loving Abuela is so proud of you that you became a great cook. You have wonderful varieties of dishes here, especially the crispy squids. Actually I cannot make up my mind, everything looks great. A few months back I made the stuffed roast pork in the oven, I don’t have caja china. It was great, but I still have to make it again to perfect it.