With the recent restoring of ties previously severed in 1961, Cuban cuisine is becoming increasingly more popular. I received a copy of The Cuban Table: A Celebration of Food, Flavors, and History, written by Ana Sofía Peláez, and found it to be a wonderful primer on this fascinating cuisine. For those previously unfamiliar, you will find foods rich with tropical produce, simmered stews, luscious desserts, and so much more. In addition to the indigenous Taíno people, the island has been influenced by many, including Spanish, African, Chinese, Caribbean, and French populations. Through recent obstacles, rations, and shortages, Cuban cuisine has continued to survive in communities both in Cuba and away from home.
Ana Sofía Peláez is a Cuban-American born in Miami, Florida and currently based in Brooklyn, New York. Her paternal grandparents left Cuba in the early 1960s and began cooking to remind them of the flavors of home. Peláez began cooking in a similar fashion. Her focus turned to preparing the dishes of her family following the inheritance of a 1970s Sunbeam Mixer from her grandparents. With that mixer came memories of watching them use the appliance to make Cuban desserts in their yellow kitchen. Her passion grew. She created the food blog, Hungry Sofia and visited Cuba for the first time in 2000. The idea for the cookbook actually began with the photographer, Ellen Silverman, following her 2010 and 2011 trips to the country. She collaborated with Peláez and they both traveled through Cuba, New York, and Miami to interview locals, collect recipes, and gather information for the book.
Over 100 recipes are divided among the following chapters: View from the Bakery Window; Sitting Around the Lunch Counter; Soups and Stews; Beans, Rice, and Eggs; Chicken, Beef, and Pork; Fish and Seafood; Fruits and Vegetables; Sweets and Desserts; and Cocktails. At the end of the book, you will also find foundation recipes for breads, sauces, and stocks; Cuban pantry and glossary with information on Cuban ingredients, techniques, and various terms; and resources on where to find specialty Cuban and Spanish ingredients.
The photography by Ellen Silverman is absolutely stunning. There are multiple shots of intimate scenes surrounding food in Cuba with included notes from their travels. These include full pages and layouts of markets, families enjoying their meals around a table, landscapes, kitchens, ingredients, and more. The photos definitely do their job of drawing the reader in and making the food enticing. Many of the recipes include full page photos of the finished product.
The recipes are also well-written and precise. None of the dishes I prepared left me with any doubts of how the steps should be executed. Most of the recipes also include personal headnotes, glimpses into how they were developed, notes, and variations to the ingredients or dishes. Most ingredients are easy to find for the American cook in a larger grocery store. The occasional less common item can be found in International Food Markets with a focus on Latin American foods or at one of the retailers mentioned in the resources section.
This may not be the best choice for those with plant-based or low calorie diets. Animal and dairy products are abundant.
I had a very difficult time decided what recipes to prepare first. I didn’t even get to the dessert chapter at the time of this review (will be quickly remedied- the Flan de Leche is calling my name). I don’t have much experience with Empanadas, particularly fried, so I wanted to give it a shot. Empanaditas are small Cuban Empanadas filled with a variety of fillings. Their small size make them the perfect snack on the go. Ana put together a chorizo filling with vegetables and spices, but also mentioned other meat dishes in the book that would work well. They take a bit of time to assemble, but like many dumplings and hand-pies, cook quickly and freeze easily for future meals.
The dough can be made ahead of time. Roll and cut out the dough into 4 inch circles, then arrange the circles in single layers on a parchment lined baking sheet, not touching. Separate each layer with more parchment paper. Freeze, then transfer to a freezer safe bag or tightly wrap in plastic and use within 3 months. The prepared empanaditas can also be frozen for up to a month before the freezing step. Allow to sit at room temperature for 20 minutes before frying.
Leaf lard is the highest quality of lard (rendered pork fat) and comes from the fat deposits surrounding the kidneys. It has a high smoking point and mild flavor with a moisture content that works especially well with pastries. It is available in some specialty supermarkets or butchers. I have seen it on Amazon, but the only products available are on the expensive side with a high shipping rate. Here is information on rendering your own lard. If you absolutely cannot find it, you can substitute with butter. Lard just works better to produce a flakier crust and it is less saturated fat than butter.
Spanish Chorizo is a type of smoked or cured sausage seasoned with paprika. Here is a nice introduction with photos for the types of Spanish Chorizo available. Based on the type of seasoning, it can be spicy or sweet. Do not substitute with Mexican Chorizo, a completely different product. Semi-cured Chorizo is recommended for these Empanaditas. The semi-cured version is a bit more difficult to find in the United States compared to the dried. It is available online at La Tienda or in some specialty grocery stores and cheese shops. I haven’t tried it yet, but those with a meat grinder can also make them at home. In a pinch, you can use the fully dried chorizo. It has the same flavor, but a harder texture.
I also made Batido de Mango (Mango Shake), Bistec de Palomilla (Pan-Fried Steak), Chiviricos (Fried Leftover Dough), and Pastelitos de Queso (Cheese Filled Pastries).
Chad and I have been on a mango kick lately, so I was immediately drawn to the Batido de Mango. It was easy to prepare with just a quick spin in the blender. I particularly enjoyed the added flavor of the sweetened condensed milk. Other fruit shake options include mamey and soursop.
I am generally not a huge fan of steak, but have been trying recipes more since our freezer recently became filled with 1/4th of a cow. This one is definitely a new favorite. The steak is simply marinated with garlic and lime juice before quickly searing, then topping with lightly steamed onions. I had not actually prepared onions this way before and enjoy the texture it provides. Steaming gently keeps the crispness to the onions while removing the sharp bite. Peláez also includes a variation to transform this steak into a sandwich.
I made the Chiviricos as a part of two recipes in one. When making the Empanaditas, I reserved the scraps of dough, fried them, then sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. It was a delicious way to pair the Empanaditas with a little sweet snack. Chad said they reminded him of how the cinnamon sugar strips at Taco Bell should be. I munched on these in between frying batches of the Empanaditas.
The Pastelitos de Queso was the very first recipe in the book and the first one I added to my menu plan. I happened to have all the ingredients in my pantry. The only less common ingredient would be orange blossom water and I had it on hand from a previous recipe. Puff pastry squares are filled with a sweetened cream cheese mixture. The pastries are brushed with an egg wash and baked until golden. I did not close mine quite tight enough so a couple opened a little, but otherwise it was a nice addition to our weekend breakfast. They were a bit on the addictive side and I ate way more than I care to admit.
Disclaimer: I received this book from St. Martin’s Press in exchange for my review. All comments and opinions are my own.
Empanaditas de Chorizo (Chorizo Empanadas)
Adapted from The Cuban Table: A Celebration of Food, Flavors, and History
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
8 ounces best-quality leaf lard, chilled and cubed
1/2 cup dry white wine
6-8 tablespoons ice water
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3/4 pound semi-cured Spanish Chorizo, casings removed and diced
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 small green bell pepper, diced
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup whole peeled tomatoes, fresh or canned with their juice
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 dried bay leaf
1/2 pound russet potatoes, peeled and cubed into 1/2 inch pieces
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, leaves and tender stems, finely chopped
2 cups canola or peanut oil for deep frying
In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, and salt. Use a pastry blender, your fingers, or forks to cut the lard into the flour until the texture becomes crumbly and no pieces are larger than the size of a pea. Mix in the wine, then slowly add the water just until the dough comes together. Be careful not to overwork. Divide the dough into two equal pieces. Form each piece into a flattened, round disc about 1 inch thick. Wrap in two layers of plastic and refrigerate until well-chilled, 1 hour to overnight.
To prepare the filling: In a heavy 10 inch skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the diced chorizo and cook until lightly browned, 2-3 minutes. Stir in the onion, green pepper, garlic, salt, and black pepper. Continue to cook until the onion is softened and translucent. Mix in the tomatoes, white wine, and bay leaf. Bring the mixture to a simmer and allow to cook for 5 minutes. Stir in the potatoes and continue to cook until the potatoes are fork tender and the liquid has evaporated, 15-20 minutes. Stir occasionally to keep the mixture from sticking to the bottom. Remove from heat and stir in the fresh parsley. Season to taste and allow to cool to room temperature.
Divide one of the chilled discs of dough in half and place one half back in the refrigerator. Roll the remaining half on a lightly floured surface into a 9×12 inch rectangle. It should be about 1/8 inch thick. Use a 4 inch round cookie cutter or glass to cut out 6 circles. If not immediately ready to use, place the circles on a parchment lined baking sheet in single layers separated by more parchment. Refrigerate until ready to assemble.
Put a circle of dough in the palm of your hand and place a heaping tablespoon of chorizo filling in the center. Fold the dough over to enclose the filling and form a half moon. Lightly brush the edge with water before using a fork to press the edges to seal. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.
Pour the 2 cups oil into medium pot or deep fryer. It should be deep enough to submerge the empanaditas. Heat to 375 degrees F. Fry the empanaditas in batches, being careful not to overcrowd, until golden on each side, 3-4 minutes total. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a towel lined plate. Repeat with remaining empanaditas. Serve warm.