Inspired by the dishes she tasted during a tour of Cuba, food writer Linda Morel offers recipes for Cuban salad, fried plantains, red snapper and red beans and rice.
For years, I’d heard the food in Cuba ranged from disappointing to terrible.
“I hardly ate anything there, just enough to survive,” said a friend who’d traveled to Havana two years ago with our synagogue.
I was surprised by this, because I always loved Cuban cuisine in restaurants from New York to Miami. Yet I knew since the Communist Revolution in 1959, food shortages were a perennial problem.
“If ingredients are hard to get, how good can the food be?” my friend said.
When my husband and I visited Cuba in December, we found a thriving cuisine, at least in the paladars, the intimate dining rooms that aren’t quite restaurants. Elsewhere on the island, it is still a juggling act for local people to cobble together enough staples to feed a family. We even saw a couple of groceries with empty shelves.
Our tour guide had been to Cuba nine times in the past two years. During each trip, he found a slightly different country, increasingly more open and entrepreneurial.
“In the past, the food was unreliable,” he said. “Anything from basic to awful. Now, things are looking up.”
During our trip, we tasted exquisite food everywhere we ate. We also saw 1950s American cars crowding the streets and tropical Art Deco architecture both languishing and under renovation, in addition to a burgeoning restaurant scene. I’d like to return to Cuba in five years to see what’s changed. But the food couldn’t get any better.
Green plantains are starchier than their cousins, the banana. As they ripen, green plantains turn yellow like bananas and become softer and sweeter. The following recipe is for green plantains.
Kosher salt to taste
4 Tbsps. corn oil, or more, if needed
Peel plantains and discard the peel. Cut plantains horizontally into 3⁄4-inch chunks, about 8 to 10 pieces per plantain. Sprinkle generously with salt.
In a large skillet, briefly heat oil on a medium flame. Slide plantain pieces into the oil and fry until the bottom sides are just seared.
Turn over the pieces and repeat. Watch plantains constantly, because they burn easily. Lower the flame, if they are browning too quickly.
Remove the skillet from the flame. Using a non-flexible spatula, preferably wooden, press down on plantain pieces, creating circles approximately two inches in diameter. Return the skillet to the flame, and fry on both sides until circles turn golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately as a side dish with meat, fish or eggs.
Makes 16 to 20 tostones.
1 small green cabbage or 1⁄2 of a large one, grated
2 tomatoes, sliced thin
2 cucumbers, sliced thin
2 ripe avocados
Accompaniment: cruets of oil and vinegar
Place the grated cabbage on a large platter, leaving room around the edges. Surround it with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers.
Cut the avocados in half. Remove the pits and discard. Cut the avocado halves into slices and remove from the skin. Arrange around the cabbage with the tomatoes and cucumbers. Sprinkle with oil and vinegar.
Black Beans and Rice
1⁄2 lb. dried black beans (not canned)
kosher salt to taste
2 Tbsps. olive oil
1⁄2 cup white rice, uncooked
1 bay leaf
In a colander, rinse the beans under cold water and drain. Place the beans and 1 tsp. salt in a medium-sized pot with 4 cups of water. Cover the pot and boil for 10 minutes. Turn off the flame and soak beans for 3 hours to soften. Place the colander over a 4-quart measurer and pour the beans and water into the colander. Reserve the bean water.
Heat the oil briefly in a medium-large pot on a low flame. Add the rice and salt to taste and stir to combine. Pour in 2 cups of the bean water. If there isn’t enough of it, mix with plain water. Add the drained beans and the bay leaf and stir.
Cover the pot and simmer on a low flame for 30-40 minutes, or until the rice and beans are almost soft enough to eat. Stir every 5 to 10 minutes while simmering, adding more bean water or plain water, if needed. Check to see if there’s enough salt and add more, if needed.
Remove the pot from the flame and keep covered for 15 minutes. Discard the bay leaf. Serve immediately.
Stuffed Red Snapper
2-21⁄2 lbs. red snapper (Ask the fishmonger to clean the fish, keeping the head, tail and bones intact.)
1 lime, cut into quarters
5 Tbsps. sweet butter, melted
kosher salt to taste
3 Tbsps. cooking oil, or more, if needed
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 baking or russet potato, peeled and sliced very thin
1 celery stalk, diced fine
6 martini olives, plus 4 more, cut in half
nonstick vegetable spray
1 lime, cut into 8 slices and seeds removed.
Rinse snapper under cold water, inside and out. Dry with paper towels. Place snapper in a Pyrex baking pan appropriate in size. Squeeze a little lime juice into the snapper’s cavity. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of butter into the cavity.
Squirt the remaining lime juice and drizzle the remaining butter onto the top and bottom of the fish. Sprinkle salt on the skin on both sides. Cover pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate 4 to 6 hours.
In a large skillet, heat oil on a medium flame. Add the garlic and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the potato slices and sauté until they begin to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the celery and sauté until wilted, about 3 to 5 minutes.
Add 8 olive halves and stir. Turn off flame and bring to room temperature. Reserve.
Remove the snapper from the refrigerator. Preheat oven to 425˚. Coat a shallow roasting pan with nonstick spray. Place 4 lime slices in the center of the prepared pan.
Lift the snapper onto the lime slices and arrange them evenly underneath. Stuff as much of the potato mixture inside the snapper as possible. Close cavity with 1 or 2 turkey trusses.
Place the remaining potato-slice mixture beside the snapper. Pour or spread the butter-lime marinade over the fish and potato mixture.
Place in the oven and roast for 25 to 30 minutes, or until skin is golden brown and fish flakes when a fork is inserted into the thickest part and twisted. Move to a platter and garnish with remaining 4 olives and lime slices. Serve immediately.
Serves 2 to 3.
Linda Morel is a writer based in New York City. Email her at: [email protected].