Is there a Cuban cuisine? Cuban-born Mary Urrutia Randelman, who currently lives in New York, makes an impassioned case for it in her disarmingly nostalgic cookbook, Memories of a Cuban Kitchen, co-authored with New York writer Joan Schwartz.
Randelman explains that Cuban cooking is “an amalgam of tropical and European elements.” It is “rich and varied,” she adds, and cites such influences as Spanish, Indian, African, Chinese, Portuguese and even American.
In other words, Cuban cuisine is something of a mishmash. But no matter, for her book contains a colorful and tantalizing collection of 250 recipes
interspersed with a kaleidoscopic memoir about her food-loving Cuban family and their favorite culinary delights. Members of Randelman’s family contributed the bulk of the recipes, like her grandmother’s fish soup, her mother’s braised black beans, her aunt Titi’s ham croquettes and her grandfather’s Basque-style chicken.
Most of her family fled to Miami at the onset of Fidel Castro’s revolution. Randelman was only ten when she came with her parents to Miami. But she appears to have total recall about her early years, and gives a breezy and effusive account of life in Batista’s Cuba, referring to it as “paradise” and “the Garden of Eden” – not surprising since her family was upper class and very well-to-do (her father was a politician).
She describes her own experience being escorted by nannies to swimming parties at the seaside Havana Yacht Club. She tells of other aspects of her privileged life, like visits to her great-uncle’s 1,500-acre tobacco plantation, her great-grandfather’s 4,000-acre cattle ranch and her grandfather’s 150-acre orange grove.
She focuses her attention on the food served at these country venues, including the roast suckling pig that was prepared each year for a Christmas Eve feast at the cattle ranch. Her recipe for suckling pig omits no detail, like her warning that a pig over 15 pounds might be too large for a standard oven. In that case, she suggests that you let the butcher saw it in half for roasting in two ovens, and adds, “Then join the halves together on a platter before serving.”
A great many recipes are for hearty, damn-the-cholesterol dishes. Over a dozen are for variations of pork, and another dozen of beef. However, fish lovers won’t be disappointed. As one might expect with Cuban cooking, seafood abounds, and one can choose from two dozen captivating recipes, including pickled swordfish, baked snapper, codfish pudding, creamy lobster tail, garlic shrimp, and crab and cornmeal stew.
Randelman points out that Cuban cooking, like Spanish, is highly seasoned but not overly spicy. It makes use of local products like plantain, sweet potato, okra, squash, taro and pimento. Her section on salads and vegetable dishes glistens with healthy appeal in such dishes as mango and avocado salad, and tropical fruit salad. Desserts range from guava tart to sweetened grapefruit shells. The book ends with a section on beverages, including a banana and rum milkshake and a Havana sunset with vodka, grenadine and pineapple juice.
Here’s an example of a simple dessert created by Randelman with a Cuban touch:
Mango con Crema Batida (Mango Fool)
2 large ripe mangoes, peeled and cubed
1/2 cup sugar or to taste
2 cups heavy cream
Fresh berries and mint leaves for garnish
In a blender or a food processor fitted with a steel blade, puree the mangoes.
Transfer to a large bowl, mix in the sugar, and set aside.
In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the cream to soft peaks.
Fold the cream into the mango puree, pour into a deep bowl or individual dessert glasses, cover,
and chill at least 2 hours, or until set.
Garnish with fresh berries of your choice. Makes 6 servings.
– Stanley Eichelbaum