Kitchen Call: Cooking up a bit of Cuba
Cuba is on many people’s minds these days. Airlines submit bids on contracts from American cities to Havana. People planning vacations wonder if they should venture into this land so long off limits. Auto aficionados want to ride in a pre-1958 car looking nearly as pristine as the day it rolled out of the factory. Baseball fans, hoping to get a look at future all-stars, plan to flock to more than one of the fields tucked into so many neighborhoods. Literature lovers will search for Ernest Hemingway’s famous fishing spots and other haunts to order up his favorite mojitos and daiquiris on his favorite barstool.
And chefs are seeking out undiscovered recipes to bring back to their menus as found, or as inspiration for new flavor combinations.
Some expect a lot of heat here, but they’ll be disappointed. Unlike other Caribbean islands, Cuban recipes don’t rely quite as much on spiciness for flavor. Much of the food, in restaurants and in home kitchens, is based on Spanish classics, often following the original very closely. No wiggle room. Other recipes, known as “creole,” took detours like the languages that develop within closed communities. A fried chicken is a lot like of America’s own Southern fried, adding some Mediterranean fresh garlic and Caribbean lime juice. I learned that planning this one ahead is a good strategy. Pat the chicken pieces dry and leave them overnight on a sheet pan, uncovered, in the refrigerator, for a much better finish.
Root vegetables like sweet potatoes or yams became an especially filling staple in Cuba during the time called the “special period” when the island suffered all types of shortages. They could be grown on a tiny plot of land and supplement whatever was available. Glazed and flavored with a combination of cinnamon and lime juice is unexpected.
The avocado and pineapple salad is another surprisingly mellow blending of flavors, and once again no spicy stuff. The salad makes a delicious tweak to the side of the plate accustomed to a heap of potato salad and slaw beside the fried chicken.
CREOLE FRIED CHICKEN
Makes 4 to 6 servings
A 3-1/2 pound chicken, cut into serving pieces
5 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
oil for deep frying
1-1/2 cups flour
1. Crush the garlic and salt together in a bowl. Whisk in the lime juice. Slather this mixture over the chicken pieces and refrigerate, for 3 to 5 hours.
2. Heat the oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Drain the chicken pieces and coat thoroughly in flour. Pat the flour onto the chicken, making sure it sticks to the surface. Fry for 12 to 15 minutes, until golden. Drain on paper towels.
3. Strain the oil into a bowl, then return the cleared oil to the skillet, adding more if needed. Return chicken pieces to the skillet and cook for 10 to 15 minutes longer on medium heat. The exterior will be deeply golden and very crisp; the interior will be fully cooked.
AVOCADO AND PINEAPPLE SALAD
Makes 4 to 6 servings
2 or 3 avocadoes
2 cups fresh pineapple chunks
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoon chopped scallions
1. Cut the avocadoes in half. Remove pits by inserting the blade of a knife and twisting. Keep the avocados intact, then make crisscross cuts through the inner flesh without cutting through the skin. Loose the avocado flesh. Fill the hollows in the avocado halves with the pineapple chunks.
2. Make a dressing by whisking together the oil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon this dressing over the avocado and pineapples. Sprinkle chopped scallions over the top. Serve an avocado half to each person.
GLAZED SWEET POTATOES
Makes 6 servings
Peel the raw sweet potatoes under cool running water and place immediately into a pot of cool water, to cover, to keep them from discoloring.
1-1/2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/2 cup brown sugar
12/ teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1. Place sweet potatoes in a pot of water, to cover. Turn the heat up and bring the pot to a boil, adding the salt and lime juice. Simmer briskly for 35 to 40 minutes, until just tender, but not mushy, when pierced with a fork. Drain and rinse in cool water so that they stop cooking, and cool enough to be handled. Cut into 1/2-inch slices.
2. Arrange the slices in an ovenproof baking dish. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Dot each slice with butter; sprinkle the wine over the top.
3. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes in a preheated 350F oven. Serve right away with the fried chicken while still hot.
— Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by email at email@example.com, read her blog at LindABCooks.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter at @Kitchencall.