My Adventures with Cuban Cooking
Upon my arrival in Cuba, I had this fantastic theory that I would combine my Italian cooking flare with Cuban ingredients and throw in a few traditional Cuban sides like yucca and sweet plantains for good measure. The result of this approach was about 3 weeks straight of pasta and very little success in developing my Cuban culinary skills. If for no other reason than fear of carbohydrate-induced obesity from all the pasta, I opted to start taking notes on Cuban cooking. I have been extremely
fortunate in having 3 beautiful and talented cooking instructors among the women in my new Cuban family. In the past months I have hovered in their kitchens, learned techniques, copied recipes in my fancy Moleskine recipe book (Thanks, Katherine!!) and asked questions.
I now have about a dozen 100% Cuban meals that I am able to prepare unassisted in my own kitchen that receive the approval of real Cubans J …though occasionally my Italian-Cuban dishes, like chorizo and onion pasta in fresh tomato sauce with basil and garlic, are requested as well…
I now have a substantial enough collection of photos and recipes gathered that I am able to begin sharing some recipes that can be recreated in US kitchens.
For those of you who plan to try out these recipes on your own, here is your guide for essential tools and pantry and grocery items that will be used in almost all of the recipes I provide. If you have these tools and pantry items on hand, the most you will need to get started on the Cuban dish of the day is a quick run to Jewel, Harris
Teeter, HEB, Kroger, or whatever your local grocery store may be depending on
your geographic location. However, since these are traditional recipes from the Caribbean, a few of these may require trips to specialty stores like Whole Foods or World Market pantry section… and I always recommend farmers markets for produce when available. (I will provide tips for cheats for people who simply do not have time or budget for this, but fresh is always best.)
Tools for the Cuban Kitchen
- Electric Pressure Cooker- La Reina (the queen)
This is the single most important item in the Cuban kitchen, so important and significant in the lives of Cuban women, in fact, that I am currently working on a post dedicated solely to “The Queen” of the Cuban Kitchen. Once popular in US kitchens as well, pressure cookers have all but disappeared in the US cooking scene. With this in mind, I will offer prep alternatives in my recipes that will achieve the same result,
only in more time.
- Electric Rice Cooker-arrozera
I will give most of you a break on the pressure cooker, since they are hard to find and you would likely only ever use them for these katieincuba recipes, however, in my personal opinion everyone should own a rice cooker. These can be found super cheap at Walmart, or you can find “fancy” ones at specialty Asian Markets. These can be used to cook more than rice, and many models also come with a veggie steamer basket!
- Blender- Batidora
Nothing fancy needed. If you can use it to make a margarita…er….I mean milkshake….then it will do just perfectly.
- Gas Range Stove
If you have electric, I realize there is no way to change that. The best tip for this is to be sure your unused burners are always clear so that if a recipe calls to go from high to low heat you can move the pot to an cool burner for a moment while the coils cool to avoid burning. Also please note that ovens are not mentioned on this list. While ovens and charcoal grills and other charcoal-fueled, Cuban-rigged doohickeys exist, they are not common in the average Cuban kitchen. Therefore, practically all of my recipes will be made on the stove or in the reina or arrozera…this includes breads and pizzas (…yes, pizza from scratch on the stove in a frying pan, my most recent accomplishment!)
- Large non-serrated knife
This must have a strong, sturdy, sharp blade and good handle. If you have a mini-machete, that would be ideal ;)…just kidding!
- Saucepan with lid * Meat Mallet
- Frying pan with lid * Cheese/Veggie Grater
- Soup Pot with lid * Cutting Board
- Ladle * Colander
- Slotted Spoon *Garlic Press
Pantry Staples in the Cuban Kitchen
- Soy or Canola Oil
The majority of these recipes will call for oil. Cuban oil is pretty much exclusively soy oil. Olive oil does exist, but it is difficult to find and prohibitively expensive for most
Cubans. Therefore, no fancy oils if you are trying to be authentic with these!
*However, if I choose to include a few of my Italian-Cuban inventions you will notice the presence of e.v.o.o., parmesan cheese, excessive garlic and crushed red pepper that are not present in the Cuban recipes, just in the casa de Katie…until my stash runs out…
- White/White Wine Vinegar
General rule of pantry stocking here is that you can only use what you can find…so while white wine vinegar is not my favorite condiment, I must continue to use it until I can find something else. Here, I think any form of white vinegar will do.
- Coarse Salt
I have tried making a few of these recipes with the table salt I brought with me and it does not compare to the coarse Cuban salt, so I recommend investing in coarse salt. Costco has HUGE sea salt grinders for super cheap, and you can almost always find sea salt grinders in the pantry section at the dollar store too.
- Coarse Sugar
Sugar in Cuba is a serious thing. Cuban history is tied to sugar as closely as other Caribbean islands are to bananas. Therefore, it would be a severe offense to
Cubans and their food if it were to be prepared with our boring, tastless, tiny-grain sugar. Try to find big, white sugar….or the caramel colored pure cane works as well.
- Dry Noodles
There will be three types of noodles used in these recipes: plain spaghetti noodles, macaroni noodles, and fideos, which are EXTREMELY thin noodles (like vermicelli) used only in soups.
- Vino Seco
This is a staple for all recipes involving meat, where a splash or two of vino
seco is the final step in the cooking process. I really want to say this is marsala wine…but since I have no access to mushrooms and good butter to test this theory, I can
not be 100% certain. This can always be omitted with little harm done, if not, 1-2 tsp of marsala wine in the pan right as you turn off the flame will do perfectly.
- White Rice
Do not get health-conscious here and try to substitute with brown rice. It will not taste the same.
Cuban flour is called wheat flour, though it does not resemble our wheat flour.
However, Cuban bread does not taste like white bread either… My recommendation if you are a wheat person is to use half and half. If not, all white is fine.
- Tomato Puree
Another staple in Cuban cooking, tomato puree is used in a number of recipes I would have never imagined in the past. Tomatoes are only available in season, so for the rest of the year puree is the only option.
- Instant Yeast
Again, as this is all I have been able to find, my recipes will all involve instant. If one day I am lucky enough to come across regular I will be sure to stock up.
- Adobo Seasoning
Adobo is a traditional Mexican seasoning very popular on chicken. While this does not exist in real Cuban pantries, it does include the basic staples of Cuban prep (lime, garlic, onion, salt, peppers). Therefore, if you are low on these produce items or do not feel like all the peeling and chopping, you can substitute if absolutely necessary.
- Stick Margarine or Butter
Habana has been playing “hide the butter” with me since August, but I have been told it exists. However, for the few recipes that do call for it, I have substituted with stick margarine that is available everywhere. Therefore, anything from Land ‘o Lakes to I
Cant Believe its not Butter to Smart Balance will work just fine.
- Picante sauce
If you are like me and like a little (or a ton) of heat in your food, you will be saddened to learn that Cuban food in just not spicy. However, picante, which is just any form of hot sauce you can find, is available and used in many homes. So if you want to add a little kick to one of these dishes with Texas Pete or Tabasco, don’t be shy!
- Lime Juice
While I personally cannot stand the taste of bottled lime or lemon, I understand that not everyone shares my citrus obsession and has a stash on call at all times.
Bottled lime juice exists in Cuban households and you are welcome to substitute at times if need be.
Just always remember that these recipes call for LIME, not lemon. There
is no lemon here and the tastes are different enough that it would result in a
- Baking Soda
- Ground Cinnamon
- Chicken Bouillon Cubes
- Canned tuna in oil
Common Grocery Items
- Onion (cebolla) – green, red and white
- Garlic (ajo)
- Non-Spicy Peppers (ají)
Unfortunately, there is no adequate substitution for the ají in US grocery stores.
Ajíes are tiny peppers used to make the Cuban mirepoix, called Sofrito, that involves ají, ajo, aceite and cebolla. These are not spicy and should not be substituted for the little hot peppers, nor are they quite like bell peppers. Every once in a while Trader Joes has little colorful peppers in the stand near the heirloom tomatoes that would be perfect, otherwise the yellow or orange bell peppers will do well. (For scale, though, 3 or 4 ajíes, which is what goes into the sofrito, is about 1/8 of a bell pepper, so have some ranch or hummus around to snack on the rest of it while prepping
- Fresh Cilantro (cilantro)
- Pork (puerco)
About 3 weeks ago I went to the butcher in Arroyo Naranjo and for less than 30 CUC bought an entire pigs leg up to the joint that was sliced and bagged and arranged very nicely for me by the Cuban butcher with amazing knife skills…I watched in awe the whole time (Though the experience would have likely been enough to turn my sister off pork for a year.)
Anecdotes aside, all that nicely sliced meat now lives in my freezer and portions are removed and thawed every afternoon for that evening’s dinner. This is the pork used in most Cuban kitchens…a segment of meat that once resided somewhere on the leg. Basically that is to say, any thinly-sliced portion of pork will do for these recipes. I will only say “pork” in the ingredient list.
This is a traditional mildly-spicy Spanish sausage common in Mexican food and also often used in Cuban dishes including pizza and tortilla.
- Chicken (pollo)
We are not talking boneless, skinless here. Go buy a chicken…alive or dead, depending on the work you are up for… chop it into segments, put it in the freezer, and remove as needed. Some recipes call for skin, some not, so leave the skin on until you receive further instructions.
- Ground Pork or Chicken (picadillo)
- Eggs (huevo)
If you have access to farm eggs great! If not, no worries.
- Milk (leche)
Cuban milk is powdered whole milk. There is no taste distinction when it is used in recipes, though I have yet to develop a taste for drinking it straight. I recommend whole milk for these recipes. However, for things like batidos (Cuban milkshakes) you are welcome to substitute for 2%.
- Cassava/ Yucca (yuca)
My new favorite food in the world, Yucca is a starchy vegetable that is a staple in the Cuban diet as well as many countries in Africa and other places around the globe. Yucca is rich in nutrients and easy to cook, but prep is a bit of work and takes practice, and it may be difficult to track down in US markets.
Just call around, it will be worth the effort.
- Plantains (Plátano)
Different than regular bananas, plantains are perhaps the most recognizable element of Cuban cuisine in the US. When this large banana-ish fruit is green, it is starchy like a potato, and can be prepared in soups or used for tostones.
However, allow it to ripen until black and the starch converts into delicious natural sugars, allowing you to prepare fried sweet plantains. ummmmmmmmmmmmyyyyyyyyyyyyyy……………..
These are available in normal grocery stores in the produce sections, often by the pineapples or whatever they consider their tropical/rare fruit display.
- Black Beans (frijoles)
Black beans are a daily staple in some Cuban kitchens. Rich in protein and fiber, they are a nutritious and tasty addition to rice and stews and simple to make. If you prefer to use canned that is always an option, but soaking and prepping the beans on your own will leave you with better flavor and more liquid to use while cooking.
- Potato (papa)
The potatoes here in Cuba are normal russet potatoes, nothing fancy.
I am desperately trying to think of a translation or worthy substitute for the malanga,
but I am afraid it may be futile. Kind of a potato but with a skin that looks more like yucca, this starchy veggie is a common companion to meat dishes.
(I am certain a 2-minute google-search could get me an answer here, but alas….no internet. Could one of my faithful readers please google malanga for me and find out
what it is (or if it is) in the US and post it as a comment to this post?)
- Sweet Potato (Boniato)
Clarification- The boniato is NOT a sweet potato…but it’s the best comparison that can be made. Boniato is shaped like a white potato and tastes like a sweet potato. Boniato fries taste like sweet porato fries, but boiled boniato is more like a slightly sweet boiled potato. It lacks the slight nutty flavor of the sweet potato, it does have the same texture as the sweet potato when boiled and it is white, not orange. Therefore, let us
define the boniato as a white-sweet potato hybrid (….as my plant pathology friends in North Carolina roll their eyes at my ignorance of plant biology and terminology).
- Squash (calabaza)
In Cuba if it is a squash, its calabaza. There are no fancy variations like summer,
acorn, butternut, pumpkin, what-have-you. Squash is squash. Sadly, I fear that due to obvious climate restrictions I will not see winter squashes here…but any typical summer squash should do for these recipes.
- Green Beans (habichuelas)
- Cucumber (pepino)
- Okra (quimombo)
- White Cabbage (col)
- Avocado (aguacate)
- Baby Green Lettuces (ensalada)
- Banana (platanico)
- Pinepple (piña)
- Papaya (frutabomba)
- Guava (guayaba)
Improvising and Adapting for US Cooks
If a recipe you want to try out calls for malanga and you cannot find it, or you have extra potatoes you want to use, or you want to leave out tomato sauce or add more vino seco, go for it! Cuban food is not about recipes, it is about making good, nutritious food with what you have at the moment. If you want to substitute or improvise, that is welcome as long as you are substituting within the list of ingredients that exist in Cuban markets, just to keep it authentic.
And now… ready your rice cookers, katieincuba readers, recipes for authentic Cuban food are coming your way!