International Cooking: Food from Cuba

Cuba is an island country that includes not only the island of Cuba, but a few smaller islands. It’s located south of Florida and the Bahamas. Culturally, Cuba is considered part of Latin America, but there are heavy influences from both Spain and the Caribbean.

Cuba was inhabited by two distinct tribes of indigenous people until Spain colonized the country in the 15th century. During the Spanish-American war in 1898, Cuba was occupied by the United States and gained independence in 1902. Since then, the country has experienced periods of political turmoil including a coup in 1952 which resulted in a dictatorship. Currently, Cuba is a one-party socialist state, and known as one of the worst countries in the world for press freedom.

What Do People Eat in Cuba?

Cuban cuisine is heavily influenced by Spain, but also has some influences from Africa and the Caribbean.

Rice, beans, plantains, and cassava (or yuca) are popular components of any meal. Seafood and tropical fruits and vegetables are readily available due to Cuba’s location. When it comes to meat, pork seems to be the most popular, but there are also many beef dishes and chicken is used too.

Something I almost made this week but didn’t was a mojito, which is a rum-based cocktail with mint, sugar, soda water, and lime juice. It originated in Havana, the capital of Cuba. There are a few other cocktails that are said to have been created in Cuba too, mostly rum-based, including the daiquiri.

What I Made

Moros y Cristianos (Black Beans and Rice)

Moros y cristianos

Moros y cristianos, also known as ‘arroz moro’, means ‘Moors and Christians’, with ‘Moors’ referring to the black beans and ‘Christians’ referring to the white rice. ‘Moors’ is a term that was used by Christian Europeans to describe Muslim inhabitants of Spain and the surrounding area during the Middle Ages. The territory was once dominated by the Moors, but they never really got on with the native people, who were mostly Christian. Their conflicts lasted seven centuries until eventually, the Moors were driven out of the land. This dish refers to the time when the Moors still had a heavy presence in Spain. I didn’t find a clear answer as to why this is known as a Cuban dish rather than a Spanish one, but I’m sure it has something to do with the colonization by Spain.

This was an easy dish to make. First, you fry some bacon. Then cook green bell peppers, onions, and garlic in the bacon fat. Add rice, black beans, water, cumin, oregano, a bay leaf, and salt and pepper, and cook until done. You can use canned black beans, but I had dry ones so I used those. This came out tasting really good! It’s a popular side dish in Cuba and I can see why. I served it with the lechon asado, next.

The recipe I used is from A Sassy Spoon. Mine came out looking a little light because I was supposed to save some cooking water from the black beans to use for cooking the rice but I forgot. It was still good though!

Lechon Asado (Roast Pork)

Lechon asado

This is a popular dish made by roasting pork shoulder in a very garlicky citrus marinade, called ‘mojo’. I’ve seen the pork both sliced and shredded after roasting, but the recipe I used called for it to be shredded so that is what I did.

First I made a marinade out of a mix of citrus to attempt to replicate the sour orange that is used in Cuba. It also had a lot of garlic, some cumin, oregano, olive oil, salt, and pepper. I poured this over the pork. Then I made a paste which consisted mostly of garlic and rubbed that on the pork. I left it to marinate overnight and roasted it in the oven the next day.

I used my Dutch oven rather than a roasting pan, which I have used for similar things before, but that’s the only thing I did differently from the recipe (aside from using a smaller piece of pork, and I adjusted the cooking time). And somehow, the marinade burned. I can only assume the seal on my Dutch oven wasn’t good enough, compared to a foil-covered roasting pan. I was really disappointed because it was smelling so good at first. It never started smelling burned, I just opened to see if it was ready and found out.

The pork itself was fine, though it wasn’t quite cooked through so I put it in another pot on the stove with a bit of water (just enough to create some steam) where it finished cooking in another 20 minutes or so.

I didn’t have enough citrus left to make more mojo marinade, which I was going to put on the pork after shredding. I had envisioned there being plenty of liquid in the Dutch oven because the pork fat would render and mix with the mojo marinade and it would be delicious. But nope. I only had some lemon left so I made a kind of lemon garlic sauce to mix with the shredded pork. It was alright but I just know it would have been better with the sauce it was supposed to have.

I’d like to try this again sometime when I am less traumatized by the whole thing. It took a lot of work to get my Dutch oven looking clean again, but it’s thankfully unharmed.

Cuban Bread

Cuban bread

Cuban bread is typically made with lard, but I used butter instead because I wasn’t going to buy lard when I only needed 3 tablespoons and didn’t have any other use for it (okay, I’m sure I could find a use for it, but I decided to skip it this time). Aside from that it’s a pretty simple bread dough. I think I scored the left loaf too heavily, and the right one is slightly curved, but aside from these shaping issues I think the bread turned out pretty well. I used a recipe from All Recipes.

I initially planned on making Cuban sandwiches this week, but I was told they are really a Miami thing and aren’t common in Cuba. However, someone did mention another sandwich I could make with Cuban bread. And I decided to make Cuban sandwiches anyway, and just not include them as an official part of the challenge, because I needed a way to use my leftover lechon asado!

So here is my Cuban sandwich (or sandwich Cubano):

Sandwich Cubano

It’s made with mustard, Swiss cheese, ham, pickles, and lechon asado. I don’t have a panini press so I used my George Foreman grill but it didn’t quite work as well as I had envisioned. That didn’t really matter though because it still tasted good!

Croquetas de Jamón (Ham Croquettes)

Croquetas de Jamón

When I posted about my cooking challenge in the Cuban subreddit, someone suggested I made croqueta preparada (next entry), which is basically like a Cuban sandwich but with croquettes instead of roast pork. I liked the idea so I made these ham croquettes, which were actually quite simple to make and came out tasting delicious.

To make them, you saute a little onion in some butter, then add flour, milk, nutmeg, salt, and pepper, to make a thick bechamel sauce. Stir in a little cooking wine and ground ham (I put a ham steak in my food processor) and that’s the croquette mixture. It needs to be refrigerated a while so that it’s easy to shape, and then the shaped croquettes go in the fridge a while longer before you bread and fry them. These were really good and they even came out looking pretty decent too!

I got the recipe from A Sassy Spoon.

Croqueta Preparada (Croquette Sandwich)

Croqueta preparada

This is a sandwich on Cuban bread with the aforementioned ham croquettes, along with Swiss cheese, mustard, pickles, and ham. It came out pretty crooked after another attempt at using my George Foreman grill as a panini press; I guess the croquettes were kind of unwieldy as a sandwich topping so that didn’t help. Regardless, this tasted delicious though it’s a little more substantial than I need as a regular meal!

Ropa Vieja (Shredded Beef)

Ropa vieja

Ropa vieja literally means ‘old clothes’ in Spanish, and it is originally from Spain. When the Spanish came to Cuba, they brought this dish with them and it became so popular that today it is considered the national dish.

It’s made with shredded flank steak, combined with tomato, bell peppers, onion, and a few seasonings such as cumin and oregano. There are lots of different versions around. I included pimiento-stuffed olives in mine, because I was originally going to use a recipe that used them but then realized it wasn’t as authentic as I wanted. The recipe I switched to used pimientos but no olives, but I’d already done my shopping for the week and olives were used in other versions of the recipe online, so I decided to just use them instead of pimientos.

I ended up using the recipe from A Sassy Spoon, though I used a mix of red and green bell peppers and used olives as mentioned above. This was quite good but I would increase the amount of spices next time! I served this with plain white rice.

Final Thoughts

My favorite things this week were probably the ham croquettes (and the croqueta preparada) as well as the moros y cristianos. I’m pretty sure the lechon asado would have been up there if it had turned out properly.

Next week there won’t be a post because I need to take a break to try and use up some of the random stuff I have leftover from some of these cooking challenge weeks. This is bound to happen every now and then. The week after, I will be cooking food from Cyprus.

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