Thursday, December 20, 2012

Recipes from Cuba

So I have one off topic thing to say this week before I get started: this holiday season, when your kids are driving you crazy, just remember that there are moms and dads out there right now who would give anything, absolutely anything, to have their child back in their home, driving them crazy again. So hug your kids often, and for no good reason.

Now I'm going to talk about Cuba.

Most of us already know a thing or two about Cuba, namely that it is a communist nation in the Caribbean and that its government is guilty of a pretty substantial number of human rights violations, including arbitrary imprisonment, extrajudicial executions and torture. It has the largest prison system in Latin America, with 40 maximum-security prisons, 30 minimum-security prisons, and more than 200 work camps. It also has the second-highest number of imprisoned journalists in the entire world, which should tell you something about its tolerance for political dissent and free expression.

Havana, Cuba. Photo Credit: joseba m. arginzoniz martin via Compfight cc

Lurking somewhere in the shadow of oppression and corruption are a few high points, including a literacy rate of 99.8%, an average life expectancy of 78.3 years (which beats out the US by one tenth of a year) and an infant mortality rate that is also slightly better than ours (the US ranks 34th in the world, and Cuba ranks 33rd). And, of course there is the food.

I like Cuban food. At least, I like what I've had of it so far, which I suppose is just the following three recipes. But yum, they were good. Here they are:

Spicy Cuban Mojo Chicken with warm Mango-Avocado Salsa

For the chicken:
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 red chili, stemmed
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tbsp fresh-squeezed orange juice
  • 1 1/2 tbsp fresh-squeezed lime juice
  • 2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts
For the salsa:
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 1 tsp grated lime peel
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 2 tsp thick sweet soy sauce
  • 4-5 tbsp of chilled, unsalted butter
  • 1/2 firm, ripe mango, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 ripe avocado, peeled and diced
  • freshly chopped cilantro and parsley, to taste
On the side, Cuba's famous black beans and rice:
(from a site called Three Guys from Miami, authored by two native Cubans and a Cuban food enthusiast)
Moros y Cristianos (Black Beans and Rice)

  • 1 1/2 cups dried black beans
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 1/2 cups onion, diced
  • 2 1/2 cups green pepper, seeded and diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 3 tsp cumin, ground
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 tbsp white vinegar
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 4 1/2 cups chicken stock
  • 3 cups long grain white rice
And for dessert:

Larry's Mojito Cake
(also from

Now before I give you the ingredients for said mojito cake, I just want to confess that I can't verify the origins of this cake as being unequivocally Cuban. I did find it on a Cuban recipe website, but evidently it originally came from a non-Cuban website called "Cookie Madness." Now, there is a Cuban cake called a "mojito cake," but this version has been improved upon so I don't know how Cuban it still is. But at the moment, I don't care because yum.

  • 20 oz can crushed pineapple
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1-1 lb box angel food cake mix
  • 8 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 1/4 cup limeade from concentrate
  • 4 tbsp powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp rum extract
  • 8 oz tub Cool Whip, defrosted
  • 1/3 cup shredded sweetened coconut
  • Zest of lime
  • Mint leaves
Just a quick note, the person who originally posted this recipe listed "reduced fat" cream cheese and Cool Whip light instead of the full fat variety, but personally, screw that. I used the full fat, but if you prefer you can put the lite versions in instead.

Anyway, make the cake first because it does have to cool completely before you can add the topping.

First mix the angel food cake mix with the pineapple and the lime juice. Pour it into a greased 13x9 or 15x10 inch pan.

Bake for 18 to 25 minutes (mine took a lot longer than that, but my oven is possessed). Let cool completely.

With your awesome 1960s era mixer (or your modern one), beat the cream cheese together with the limeade. Add some of the sugar and taste (you may not need as much as the recipe calls for), adding more if necessary. Now add the rum extract.

Gently fold in the Cool Whip and spread the topping over the cake. Sprinkle with the shredded coconut and finish off with a little lime zest. Serve with mint leaves for garnish.

The chicken needs to marinade for between 1 and 3 hours, so let's do that one next:

First toast the cumin seeds in a small skillet until they darken and become fragrant (this takes just a couple of minutes, and make sure you stir constantly to stop them from burning).

Now put the cumin seeds into a grinder with the garlic, chili and salt and pulse until you get a smooth paste. Transfer to a medium sized bowl.

Heat the olive oil over high heat and then pour over the paste. Stir briskly and let stand for 15 minutes or so. Add the orange and lime juice.

When the marinade has cooled completely, add the chicken. Toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for 1 to 3 hours.

Brown the chicken in a heavy skillet, the transfer to a casserole dish (I also poured the marinade over it before putting it in the oven, though the recipe did not specifically say to do that) and bake in the oven at 350 degrees until an internal thermometer reads 165 degrees. Remove and let rest.

Meanwhile, make the salsa. First whisk the olive oil together with the orange juice, lime zest, honey and soy sauce and transfer to a small pan. Bring to a boil over a medium-high flame and reduce for 5 to 8 minutes. Remove and add the butter (Confession: I only used about half as much butter as the recipe called for, because although I am vastly in favor of full fat cream cheese and Cool Whip I just thought that was way too much butter).

In a small bowl mix together the mango and avocado, and top each chicken breast with this mixture. Then drizzle the breasts with the sauce and garnish with the chopped herbs.

Now on to the beans.

In a two quart saucepan, cover the beans with the water and bring to a boil. Boil for three minutes, then remove from heat. Cover and let stand for one hour.

Now drain the beans and rinse them. Add just enough water to cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 45 minutes, or until tender. Drain.

Saute the onion and green pepper in a large stockpot. Add the garlic and cook for another one or two minutes. Then add the tomato paste, beans, spices and vinegar. Cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally.

Rinse the rice in cold water. When the water runs clear, transfer the rice to the pot with the chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cover. Simmer for 25 minutes or so, or until the rice is al dente.

Remove the bay leaf and add salt and pepper to taste.

I did not make this for my kids, because of the hugely misleading word "spicy" in the title of the chicken recipe. This was actually not at all spicy, though I suppose my choice of red pepper had something to do with that. I used a red jalapeno, so I think if I'd used one of my super peppers instead it might have been a bit spicier. But with the jalapeno it was still mild enough that my kids probably could have eaten it.

But who cares. It was yummy. The sauce was sweet and tangy and the chicken came out beautifully. I often find chicken breasts to be boring, but these were most definitely not boring. These were yummy, especially with the mango and avocado adding texture and interest.

The rice was good, too. It was not especially flavorful but sometimes side dishes don't need to be, and I thought it was a nice compliment to the very flavorful chicken.

And the cake, OMG. And I really hate using the abbreviation OMG. (Fun fact: did you know that the abbreviation OMG first appeared almost 100 years ago in a letter to Winston Churchill from Admiral John Fisher? It's true! Time Magazine says so.) Anyway, oh yum, yum yum yum, and yum. Pineapple, lime, angel food cake and a wonderfully decadent creamy topping. Martin and I each had two pieces. And after the meal, Martin sat back and declared that I need to start "making worse food," if I ever expect us to stick to any New Years resolution diet plans. Well, I don't know about that. Maybe we just need to do a better job of stopping after the first piece.

Next week: Curacao

For printable versions of this week's recipes:


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