Since President Obama's announcement that the United States would begin to normalize relations with Cuba, all eyes have been on the island. Ana Sofia Peláez, the Cuban-American writer behind Hungry Sofia, whose parents emigrated from Cuba to the U.S. in the early 1960s, recently published a comprehensive overview of Cuba's cuisine in The Cuban Table: A Celebration of Food, Flavors, and History (St. Martin's). Peláez shared her thoughts on how Cuban food reflects Cuban culture, what a potential embargo lift might mean for its cuisine, and a recipe for a quintessential Cuban dish.
Should the embargo lift, how do you think cooking in Cuba would change? What about Cuban cooking in the U.S.?
That’s difficult to say because there are so many systemic problems in the cultivation, distribution, and even imports of food into Cuba that go far beyond the embargo and would need to be addressed before we see significant improvement. One of the issues I found was that there was no wholesale market for paladares (small scale, family-owned restaurants) forcing them to cater almost exclusively to international tourism. Many of the chefs I met were passionate about traditional Cuban food but that’s not what they were serving. This is the opposite of what I grew up with in Miami where even ostensibly American restaurant menus will have a heavy Cuban accent. My hope is that if the situation improves for everyone on the island, you’ll see Cuban chefs cooking for Cubans again.
What was it like to put this book together? Did it teach you something about Cuban food, or culture, you didn’t know before?
I learned that time and location are incidental in the Cuban kitchen. Both inside Cuba and in the diaspora, cooking is about holding on to the recipes that had been passed down and trying to maintain that connection to your family and your country's past. Recipes I’d grown up with like picadillo or ropa vieja were hard to come by on the island and others had fallen out of memory. Outside of Cuba, where there are so many other options, making traditional Cuban food is very much a choice and many people I spoke to were passionate about making it part of their everyday. Ultimately, Cuban cooks are conservationists wherever they find themselves.
You traveled throughout Cuba, Miami, and New York to put together a comprehensive overview of Cuban food. Did you find that the locales put their own spin on Cuban cuisine? How does it differ from place to place?
Like the clave in music, the sofrito made of green pepper, onion, and garlic is the base and everything goes from there. So much of Cuban cooking is a variation on this theme so it’s fairly simple if you can find the right ingredients. New York can be a challenge because you don’t have the diversity or quality you’ll find in Miami—at least when it comes to tropical ingredients or certain cuts you’d only find in a Cuban butcher shop. In Cuba, ingredients were scarce so I never wanted to strain anyone’s resources who was willing to speak with me or share a recipe. Nevertheless, I found great Cuban cooks everywhere I went and was constantly amazed by what they managed to pull off whether it was a bohío in Baracoa or a New Jersey kitchen in the depths of winter.
What is your favorite dish to cook, to introduce someone to Cuban food?
If I’m having friends over, I usually serve arroz con pollo, which I’m sharing here. It’s a dish I always associate with large, noisy family gatherings. I love the ritual of dragging out my heaviest pot and going through the steps of browning the chicken, filling the pot with wine and spices, then setting it all to simmer with the Valencia rice I can find anywhere but always bring from home. It takes awhile to cook so there’s time to fry up some tostones or maduros depending on what I have on hand. It’s a dish that invites people to linger so there’s always plenty of time to talk over dessert—ideally poached guava shells, cream cheese, and crackers—followed by Cuban espresso of course.
Chicken and Rice
Arroz con Pollo
In the 1950s, when poultry was more expensive than either fish or beef, Arroz con Pollo was the preferred dish for special occasions and Sunday family gatherings. It’s a one-pot meal that’s still perfect for feeding a crowd. Carmen Calzada shared her family’s recipe with me.
For the chicken
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium green bell pepper, stemmed, cored, seeded, and cut in rounds
3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs and drumsticks
For the rice
1 cup dry white wine
4 cups water
One 12-ounce bottle of pilsner-style beer, divided
½ pound asparagus, rinsed and trimmed
1 medium yellow onion, grated
1 cup jarred pimientos, drained and sliced
1 cup petit pois or English peas, fresh or frozen
¼ cup tomato paste
3 large garlic cloves, peeled and mashed to a paste
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 cube chicken bouillon
¾ teaspoon freshly ground achiote seeds or Bijol seasoning
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
3½ cups Valencia or similar short-grain rice, rinsed
Preheat the oven to 325ºF.
Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in an ovenproof, 6-quart heavy pot or Dutch oven until hot but not smoking. Add the green pepper to the oil. Working in batches, brown the chicken on both sides, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Set aside the browned chicken and repeat with remaining pieces. Remove the green pepper and discard.
To deglaze the pot, add the wine and bring to a simmer, scraping up the browned bits.
Return the browned chicken to the pot. Add the remaining ingredients except for the rice, and half the beer and part of the pimientos to add at the end. Bring to a simmer.
Stir in the rice and simmer over medium-high heat for 10 minutes. Remove the pot from direct heat, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and set in the preheated oven, and bake until the rice is tender but still moist, about 20 minutes.
Remove from the oven and immediately pour in the remaining beer. Garnish with the reserved pimientos.
From The Cuban Table by Ana Sofia Peláez. Copyright © 2014 by the author and photographs copyright © 2014 by Ellen Silverman and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.