Cuban cuisine, like the island, is a world unto itself. When I first encountered the transplanted version in Miami I loved it, but found it hard to understand. Why would anyone cook long-simmered stews, starchy root vegetables, or thick milkshakes in a tropical climate? All I wanted was salad and iced tea.
But when you realize that Cuba was settled by Asturians from the Atlantic coast of northern Spain, dishes like Guanabacoa Meatballs, Beef Pot Roast, or Pig’s Feet with Chickpeas begin to make sense.
In fact, Cuban cooking is, like most cuisines, a mixture of history, people, and place, which Roque shows in this book’s wide variety of recipes. Chinese workers brought rice and the caja china with them. The chines box is an essential tool for the serious backyard cook, used to cook lechon, the suckling pig that Roque says appears at every Cuban celebration.
African cooks had a way with roots, American style brought canned peas to arroz con pollo, and everyone has a story about the Elena Ruz sandwich of turkey, cream cheese and strawberry jam. Roque says she was an independent single woman who would attend the ballet by herself and then stop at the El Carmelo café to custom-order her sandwich.
These European influences blend with tropical ingredients like spicy mojo marinades of sour orange juice and hot peppers used to spice a wide variety of local fish.
Roque’s encyclopedic collection captures all the flavors and traditions of the Cuban table. The hardest thing about this book is where to start. Every time I turned the page, there was something I wanted to cook—classics like ropa vieja and arroz con pollo as well as dishes I’d never heard of like Fish Pisto, Cuban Chicken Pot Pie, or Pork Monteria.
And even when Roque warns that Cuban Chicken Pot Pie is not for the novice cook, or walks you through a Roast Suckling Pig a la Benny More, Cuban cooking still meets my ideal of home cooking—long-simmered, rib-sticking, labor intensive abuela recipes, quick and flavorful snacks, or sweet uncomplicated desserts.
She offers and insider’s view; the recipes often start with memories of her grandmother or mother, or an explanation of where a food fits into the culture like the difference between a media noche and a Cuban sandwich or the strong and sweet cafecito that fuels the day. Even the cocktails tell a story, Daiquiris are named for the Daiquiri mines at the eastern end of the island and cynical drinkers call a Cuba Libra—rum and coke—La Mentirita, the little lie, since Cuba “has seldom experienced true liberty.”
Roque demystifies snacks and foods I see on menus and at ventanitas (coffee windows) all around Miami—the batido milk shakes made with fruit and even puffed wheat cereal, the fried croquetas made most often with ham, and empanadas stuffed with picadillo, guava and cheese, or chicken fricassee.
Whether you want to go as far as investing in a caja china or a churrera for fresh churros, Roque will guide you to some basic pantry items to get the Cuban feeling in your food. Bay leaves, cumin, garlic, sour orange juice, annatto, and directions for The Famous Sofrito Fontanar, “the basis for all Cuban cooking.”
If, as Roque claims, “Cooking Cuban is feeling Cuban,” this book delivers the feeling and the food.
For Travelers: Roque makes some Miami restaurant and bakery recommendations here, but I’ve got my own favorite, conveniently located on Miami Beach. Sazon is the real thing (I saw Cuban-American artists Isabel and Reuben Toledo there), serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There’s a ventanita around the corner for a cafecito before your decobike ride.