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Singing the Praises of Cuban Cuisine

June 12, 2014

Combining exotic flavors of the Caribbean, Spain, Africa and even China, Cuba's classic cuisine and nuevo, or new-style foods, have made Cuban food the rising star of ethnic cuisine. It is a style of cooking which is simple in concept, but complex in flavor. 

In many communities, it is becoming the raging current. In others, certainly more than a ripple. Where once Cuban cafés and restaurants were considered a whistlestop the culinary express had passed by, the late '90s have seen them rapidly gaining ground.

No longer is Cuban food something to sample at bawdy island cafés and cheap ma-pa eateries. Suddenly, chefs in Caribbean-colored baseball caps are cooking the Cuban "island way" and succeeding exceedingly well. Unusual ingredients, such as tubers and other tropical vegetables and fruits are creating accelerated demands in grocery stores, gourmet shops and home kitchens. Clearly, Cuban cooking is becoming one of the hottest cuisines in the United States.

And rightfully so.

The public is enamored with these fabulous foodstuffs. The reasons are numerous. The popularity of cigars and cigar bars in this country is the subject of many national magazines. The opening of Cuba to International tourists in the 90s, the increase and popularity of Cuban music and art, the increased anticipation of changes as Fidel Castro ages — even Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba last year has helped fuel these culinary fires. 

What is it about Cuban food that has brought so many aficionados to the point of downright addiction? What is it that  draws hordes of hungry, adventurous Latinos and Anglos to search vigorously for Cuban cuisine? The answer is simple, yet like the cuisine, somewhat complex.

Black beans and rice, once thought to be the focal point of the cuisine, has been transcended and (nearly) replaced with a repertoire of exciting and exotic ingredients. And, as with all great cuisine, tasting is believing. Once sampled, Cuban food is downright addictive.

Dishes such as seared fresh snapper with fresh mango chutney, breast of duck roasted with guava fruit glaze, and ginger-crab croquettes with cilantro lime dipping cream are foods simply to live for. There is fresh red snapper with crispy malanga crust, ginger-sherried roast pork and Creole-style guinea hen with fried sweet plantains. Just a few morsels of these of these ah-inspiring delicacies make one return at the drop of a fork.

Yet, defining Cuban food is not easy. Unlike Mexican food, (which many compare this cuisine with) is a gentler, kinder cousin. The only spicy elements hail from the northeastern region of Cuba in Santiago de Cuba where the use of hot peppers is typical.

As in the Cuba preceding Fidel, one finds a fusion of plenty,a melding of tastes created by the preparation of a fresh sauce, or "sofrito." Herbs, spices, olive oil, and special time-tested marinating techniques are integral to proper preparation. 

And, of course, there are Cuba's famous libations. A well-known and cunningly decadent drink called the Cuba Libre, gives one an intoxicating spirit of freedom. A sip of a rum and lime cocktail known as the "mojito" immediately initiates the desire for another. And Papa Hemmingway's famous "daiquiri" is best served just as it was made for Papa by bartender Antonio Meilan at Cuba's famous Floridita restaurant in Havana, Cuba.

Cuban coffee, a jet "fuel" of sorts, has become a staple in most Cuban repertoires. Ask for a café cubano con leche'or a cortadito and let the buzz begin. 

Never to be ignored in any discussion about Cuban food is the quintessential Cuban sandwich. This world-famous two-fister has a number of cousins, but always (if correctly assembled) contains oven-roasted pork, Virginia ham, cheese, skinny pickles and olive oil, on crusty yard-long loaves of light, crispy Cuban bread. For breakfast the next day the leftover bread is toasted, then dipped into espresso that has been lovingly lightened with milk. 

Another important Cuban creation is the 'media noche," which, translated, means "midnight sandwich." It is similar to the Cuban, but prepared on soft shiny egg buns which are fragrantly sweet. The sandwich got its name because the Islanders used to eat it after going to the movies; they did not want as  as bulky a sandwich as the Cuban. Both are prepared with a special sandwich press that resembles a waffle iron, which incidently, is necessary in order to deem the sandwich a true "Cuban."

Perhaps the most important ingredient in Cuban cooking is  sofrito, a combination of sautéed onion, peppers, garlic and spices. It is the base of countless Cuban dishes, from black beans to arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) to tasajo an incredibly delectable salt-cured beef. Cuban food fans cannot get enough of it in such dishes as vaca frita, a shredded beef dish which literally translated means "fried cow." 

In both the classic and the nuevo Cubano cuisine there is a variety of contrasts: Sweet-tart, thick-fine, heavy-light, smooth-rough, light-tropical. Foods are often marinated, mixed, and blended to create fascinating, symphonic flavors. Fried plantains with white rice and beans, black beans with cumin and garlic, raisins in picadillo — that prized classical beef hash that could possibly be a food of the gods. 

Perhaps it is the yin and yang of Cuban food, a unique combination of tastes and textures, which makes it so popular. It is this melding of many fine contrasting flavors that has everything to do with the luscious results. 

Since the growing season in the Tropics runs year 'round for the quintessential Cuban cook, there is an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs, both ordinary and exotic. Citrus fruits, peppers (both hot and sweet), mangoes, papaya, avocados, passion fruit, squash, guava and more, know no season. 

Access to an infinite supply of fresh finfish and shellfish make great strides for those in search of a heart-healthy diet. Cooks are continually experimenting with different flavors, textures and preparations. While many agree that nuevo is what is the rage, others prefer to prepare traditional recipes, those handed down from generation to generation.     

Interestingly, some food writers attribute this Cuban "craze" to the upscale "fusion" restaurateurs of South Florida. Yet,my first hand experience while living in Miami was testimony to the fact that the dedicated cooks and owners of the local Cuban cafés and eateries were the perpetrators of this fervor for Cuban foods. Such establishments as Islas Canarias, Versailles and La Esquina de Tejas in Miami, and Puerta Sagua on Miami Beach are just a few that have been instrumental in popularizing this cuisine. Their savory, heaping plates of rice and savory pork, fresh fish with ripe plantains, perfect flans, diplomatic puddings and batidos (Cuban milk shakes) have fervently fueld the fire.  

 Enter talented South Florida chefs, like young Johnny Vinczencz's of Astor Place on South Beach, known for creating outrageous gastronomic sensations with Cuban ingredients and —there you have it, the recipe culinary perfection! Located in the Hotel Astor on trendy South Beach, Vinczencz is rapidly becoming world famous for his corn-crusted yellowtail with boniato-mash and his extraordinarily decadent desserts. The overt trendiness of the chic South Beach neighborhood, rife with art deco elegance, creates an upscale image for this cuisine that at one time was considered very pedestrian. 

Other South Florida chefs such as Allen Susser, Mark Millitelo and Michael Schwartz have contributed greatly to the evolution of the cuisine. Like most "tropic" cooks, their invasive use of extraordinary spices and seasonings is generous, much of the time without even a thought to measuring. The nuevo emphasis on fresh produce, light and fruity sauces, fearless (but fun) combinations and knockout presentations incorporates a pervasive and noble use of island products, both fresh and processed.

For sure, the new culinary tide of the Milennium will continue to run to Cuban cuisine and its accompanying ambience. There is little doubt in my mind that this high-on-flavor — low-in-calorie cuisine will continue its upward spiral on the culinary horizon.

Copyright Joyce LaFray. All Rights Reserved.