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Cuban Cooking
by Steven Raichlen

You've probably never heard of moros y cristianos, ropas viejas, or media-noche. Most Americans haven't—unless they live in Miami. The first (literally "Moors and Christians") pairs black beans with white rice; the second ("old clothes") combines braised shredded skirt steak and vegetables; while the third ("midnighter") is a grilled Cuban cold cut sandwich. These dishes are cornerstones of Cuban cooking and are turning up at such trendy nuevo latino restaurants around the country as New York's Calle Ocho and Miami's Yuca.

Cubans have been a dominant force in Florida's culinary melting pot since the early 1800s, when Cuban cigar workers settled in Ybor City, today part of Tampa. Key West has always had a large Cuban population, thanks to its close proximity to Havana, which is only 90 miles away. Spanish is the first language for more than 70 percent of my hometown, Miami. But Cuba's culinary influences have spread far beyond the boundaries of Florida.

© Greg Schneider, 2000

Today, Anglos and Cubanos alike enjoy cafe con leche (Cuban café latte) for breakfast, pan con lechon (garlicky roast pork sandwiches) for lunch, and palomilla (lime marinated, flame charred steaks) for dinner. Maduros (fried sweet plantains) and yuca con mojo (boiled cassava root with garlic sauce) are gradually achieving the popularity that French fries and baked potatoes enjoy in the American heartland.

Savor the Flavor

In order to understand Cuban cuisine, you must know about two key preparations: sofrito and adobo. The former is a fragrant mixture of garlic, onion, and bell peppers, sautéed in olive oil until soft and fragrant. Sofrito is the starting point of virtually every Cuban soup, stew, and casserole. Adobo is a tangy marinade comprised of garlic, salt, cumin, oregano, and lime or sour orange juice. Whenever Cubans cook poultry, meat, or seafood, they marinate it first in adobo.

The Cuban Larder

Cuban cooking is one of the most accessible cuisines in the Caribbean. Its primary flavorings (lime, garlic, onion, cilantro and cumin) are familiar to most Americans. Nonetheless, you'll need to know about a few special ingredients. Yuca, boniato, and malanga are starchy tubers much beloved by Cubans for stews and vegetable side dishes. Yuca—often served boiled with garlic sauce—has a mild, buttery flavor. Boniato is a Cuban sweet potato with the delicate taste of chestnuts. Malanga has an earthy flavor and is often made into chips. Platano (plantain) is a large cooking banana used both in its green and ripe state.

Stealth Health

It would be stretching things a bit to call Cuban food health food, but there are many elements in Cuban cuisine that fit with contemporary American health consciousness. Grains, beans, and high fiber root vegetables figure prominently in the Cuban diet. Adobo (Cuban lime garlic marinade) makes a great marinade for low fat grilling, while mojo (the ubiquitous Cuban table sauce) is ideal for Americans who are trying to lighten up on sauces.

Try Steven's Cuban Sensations:

Shrimp Adobo with Mango Black Bean Salsa
Yuca con Mojo (Boiled Yuca with Garlic Lime Sauce)
Grilled Maduros (Grilled Plantains)

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  • Use fresh garlic cloves, not bottled chopped garlic. The latter has a lousy flavor (it gives me heartburn) and it's a breeding ground for bacteria.
  • One quick way to devein a shrimp is to insert the tine of a fork in the rounded part of the back. Gently pull the fork away and the vein should come with it. Note: Don't be discouraged if this doesn't work all the time. Some frozen shrimp must be peeled and deveined the traditional way.
  • The habanero chili is named for Havana. When handling this firebrand, wear rubber gloves, as the fiery oils will stay on your fingers for hours.



About Steven Raichlen

Steven Raichlen is the author of 21 books, including the IACP/ Julia Child Award-winning Barbecue Bible and Barbecue Bible Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades (both published by Workman), Healthy Latin Cooking (Rodale), and the new Healthy Jewish Cooking (Viking). He recently created a Barbecue University at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. You can reach him at his web site:

He has appeared numerous times on national television, including The Today Show and Good Morning America as well as CNN and The Discovery Channel. Raichlen lives in Coconut Grove, Florida, with his wife Barbara.

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