Why you should care

Because when it comes to culinary curiosity, this island tops many lists. 

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In Havana, simple indulgences like tangy mojitos, rich cigars and festive street dances bring this island’s culture to life. But Cuba’s culinary scene — known for its simple dishes and limited variety — has long flourished in the shadows of these other experiences.

As many Canadians and Europeans know, travelers to Cuba have long been forewarned that state-run restaurants are a risky bet, due in part to their reputation for lower-quality meals and, sometimes, service. In recent years, though, the proliferation of privately owned restaurants known as paladares — where Cubans open up their own homes to serve classics like ropa vieja (shredded beef) and papas rellenas (stuffed potatoes), as well as more imaginative dishes such as chicken tamarind — has injected a burst of flavor into this country’s dining experiences.

There still are many reasons why, as an American, you may not find yourself indulging in Cuba’s offerings anytime soon, in person. But over the past 50 years or so, Cuban cuisine has actually seen an interesting evolution within the U.S., too, says John Verlinden, a Boston chef and caterer who specializes in the country’s recipes and the author of the book To Cook Is to Love.

This movement has attracted waves of patrons to popular Cuban restaurants.

Indeed, today many popular Cuban dishes are being reproduced in the kitchens of homes and popular restaurants across the U.S. — especially in Miami, New York, Boston and Los Angeles. Since many dishes are made from simple ingredients, chefs often feel inspired to take the recipes a step further, merging Cuban classics with spices and fusing with other cuisines to satisfy the evolution of the American palate. Ana Sofía Peláez, author of the James Beard-nominated cookbook The Cuban Table, says that in Miami and New York, among other places, there’s been a natural progression of what Cuban food is and how it can be prepared. This movement has attracted waves of patrons to popular Cuban restaurants, including the authentic La Casita in Little Havana and Puerto Sagua, which specializes in Cuban comfort food, in Miami Beach. In New York, restaurants such as Victor’s Café and Havana Alma de Cuba continue to draw crowds.

Americans are also putting their own spin on the classic mojito, an African word that’s roughly translated as “little spell.” The drink was popularized by Ernest Hemingway, with a nod to his favorite watering holes in Havana. “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita,” Hemingway once wrote on butcher paper, which is now on display on a wall of La Bodeguita Del Medio in Cuba. The cocktail was originally made of lime, sugar and aguardiente, though eventually the latter was replaced with smooth, light-bodied rum. In contrast to Cuban food, which tends to be savory and sweet, Cuba’s old-school mojito is infused with bitters — offering a slight contrast to the sugar-heavy mojitos often sipped in the U.S.

To bring some Cuban classics to your own home, whether you’re able to make it to the island paradise or not, here’s a sampling of must-try recipes:

Ropa Vieja (Savory Shredded Beef)

Ingredients (serves 8)

3 pounds flank steak

2 bay leaves

Salt and pepper

¼ cup olive oil

1 large onion, cut into thin strips

1 large green pepper, cut into thin strips

6 cloves garlic, minced and crushed

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon dried leaf oregano

1 29-ounce can tomato sauce

1 cup dry red wine

Parsley for garnish

Directions

Place beef and bay leaves in large saucepan, cover with water and season with salt and pepper. Cover and bring to boil. Reduce heat and cook until beef is tender (about 1½ hours).

Remove meat from stock, cut meat across the grain into pieces about 3 inches wide and let cool. (Save stock for another use.)

In a large pot, heat oil over low heat. Add onion and green pepper, and cook for about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to low, stir in garlic and dry spices and saute for about 2 more minutes until onion is translucent.

Add tomato sauce and wine, stir to combine and heat thoroughly.

When meat is cool enough to handle, shred it with your fingers into strands. Stir meat into sauce, add a little reserved broth if desired, then cover and simmer for about 30 minutes.

Transfer ropa vieja to a serving platter, garnish with finely chopped parsley and serve.

Courtesy of John Verlinden, a Boston-based chef and caterer who specializes in Cuban cuisine and is the author of To Cook Is to Love.

Mojito

Ingredients (serves 1)

12 fresh spearmint leaves, with stems

1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice

1½ tablespoons powdered sugar

2½ ounces white rum

2 to 3 ounces club soda, to top off

1 to 2 dashes Angostura bitters (optional)

Directions

Muddle the mint, lime juice and sugar in an 8-ounce glass until the mint is gently bruised.

Stir in the rum and add ice. Top off with club soda. Add Angostura bitters, if using, to taste. Garnish with a sprig of mint.

Courtesy of The Cuban Table: A Celebration of Food, Flavors, and History by Ana Sofía Peláez (St. Martin’s Press). The recipe comes from Peláez’s uncle, Guillermo Tremols, who learned it from Deus, a bartender at Havana’s Miramar Yacht Club.

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