The traditional food of the Caribbean island of Cuba is a fusion of the cuisines of Spain, Africa and its surrounding Caribbean neighbors. Many dishes reflect the techniques used in Spanish cooking and incorporate spices like garlic, cumin, Cuban oregano, lime and bay leaves.
There are two prominent flavor bases that are essential to the true nature of Cuban cuisine: sofrito and mojo.
Sofrito is used as the starter flavoring for many of the casseroles, soups and stews prepared in today's Cuban kitchens.
Sofrito consists of onion, garlic and cachucha, a uniquely flavored mild pepper grown on the island. These ingredients are chopped and sauteed in olive oil until soft and fragrant (similar in theory to a French mirepoix) and then added to the main dish. When making a sofrito, green bell peppers or cubanelles are both acceptable substitutes for cachuchas.
Mojo is a marinade that is used on much of the meat and poultry in Cuban cooking. Basically, mojo is a combination of sour orange juice, garlic, cumin, whole black peppercorns, oregano and salt. The sour orange is a somewhat bitter orange that grows in abundance on the island. It can be substituted by using a mixture of two parts regular orange juice to one part each of lemon and lime juice. Delightfully tangy, this marinade tenderizes and flavors most meats in just a few hours.
The tropical climate of Cuba is ideal for growing a variety of wonderful fruits. Mangoes, guavas and papayas find their way into sauces and glazes for roasted pork, chicken and seafood, but the mainstays of Cuban cooking are its richly seasoned, slow-simmered meats.
Ropa Vieja is a well known Cuban dish made by slow-simmering flank or skirt steak with bell peppers, onions and tomatoes. The fork-tender steak is shredded before serving, hence the dish's name, which literally translates to "old clothes."
Vaca Frita ("fried cow") is another famed Cuban creation also made with flank or skirt steak. The meat is first simmered to tenderness in water along with onion, garlic, carrot and tomato, then allowed to cool so it can be separated into thin shreds. The shreds are then marinated in lime juice, garlic and salt. To finish the dish the beef shreds are sauteed in a little oil until slightly crispy. Vaca Frita is generally served alongside fried onions and black beans and rice.
The most popular Cuban side dishes are plantains and moros y cristianos, or black beans and rice. The black beans in moros y cristianos are simply cooked with a little garlic, onion and cumin and either mixed into or served over white rice.
Plantains, originally brought to the island by African slaves, are now so popular, you'd be hard-pressed to find a traditional Cuban meal without them. The plantain is a variety of banana that is prepared in varying ways depending on its degree of ripeness. Maduros are ripe, sweet plantains that are sliced and shallow-fried until golden brown. Tostones are slices of green, unripe plantains that are also shallow-fried until crisp, then flattened slightly and seasoned with salt before serving.
The Cuban Sandwich
Pan Cubano, or Cuban bread may look like a French baguette, but don't be fooled, the texture is very different. Traditionally, the bread is made with a starter that is made 24 hours before baking and the dough is enriched with lard or vegetable shortening. In order to maintain a soft, chewy exterior some bakers lay a piece of wet kitchen twine along the top of the loaf during baking. This delectable loaf becomes the foundation of the famous Cuban sandwich.
A Cuban sandwich is a simple compilation of good quality sweet cured ham, thin sliced Cuban roast pork, Swiss cheese and sliced dill pickles. Some people like a little yellow mustard too, but it's not essential. The sandwich is placed on a heated griddle or fry pan and pressed with a sandwich press or heavy skillet until it is about one-third of its original thickness. Here's a tip: you don't want to brown the crust, just melt the cheese.
If you've left room for dessert, you might wrap up a traditional Cuban meal with flan, a rich egg custard topped with a coating of caramelized sugar, a spicy cinnamon-raisin rice pudding, or a rum-flavored bread pudding.
No matter what your menu choices when dining in traditional Cuban style, you'll leave the table having enjoyed the simple preparations and rich flavors of a vibrant culture.