Sunday, August 26, 2012

Cuban-Themed Dinner Party

I've never been to Cuba but I hope some day I will be able to visit. In the meantime, I have been inspired more than once to theme dinner party menus around Cuban foods, recipes, and flavors. For a Saturday back-yard picnic, ropa vieja and christians y mores made perfect low-heat (ie: stove top only!) make-ahead party dishes that are super satisfying and incredibly tasty. Both these recipes taste better when cooked the day before so the flavors can meld in the fridge, so it's really quick to heat up while you visit with your guests. It's also perfect for casual entertaining because it's colorful and well-balanced without needing a lot of artful plating or fancy garnishes.

The first time I wanted to try cooking Cuban from scratch was for Will's 30th birthday party. Fortunately, I knew a Cuban through work who was willing to share with me her family's recipe for black beans. She also loaned me her favorite cookbook, Memories of a Cuban Kitchen by Mary Urrutia Randelman and Joan Schwartz. The cookbook gets great reviews on Amazon, so along with the trusted personal recommendation, I believe it is a solid foundation for recipes for Cuban staples.

Ropa Vieja (translation: "old clothes")
from Memories of a Cuban Kitchen
2.5 pounds flank steak
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
1 green bell pepper, sliced
2 -3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 14-ounces can crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup sherry

Place beef and 1 bay leaf in large saucepan, cover with salted water, and cook over low heat, covered, until meat is tender, 60-90 minutes. Remove meat from stock, allow to cool, then cut into 2-inch chunks.
In a large skillet (I used a stockpot) heat oil over low until shimmering, then stir in onions, bell pepper, and garlic. Cook until onions are tender, about 8 minutes. Add tomatoes, sherry, and remaining bay. Cook uncovered 15 minutes.
When meat is cool, shred it with your fingers, add to tomato mixture, cover and simmer on low heat for 30 minutes. Remove bay leaves and season with salt and pepper. Dish is best if prepared a day in advance, chilled, and reheated.

Cuban Black Beans
from Teresa Alonso Thompson
1 pound dried black beans
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 green bell pepper
1 large yellow onion
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon oregano
2 teaspoons salt
1 large bay leaf
dash of pepper
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 teaspoon cumin
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
Soak beans overnight, in baking soda and cool water that covers the beans by 1 inch.
In a blender, puree bell pepper and onion.
Drain soaked beans, and combine in large pot or slow cooker with puree. Add remaining ingredients except vinegar and bring to simmer. Cook three hours, adding additional water if needed to achieve desired consistency. Stir in vinegar. If possible, make a day in advance, and chill, then reheat before serving.
I prefaced this with a salad of avocado and mango in a lime vinaigrette that was so simple but so delicious. I can't believe I didn't get a photo, because the contrasting colors are lovely.

Beat the Heat Salad
serve 4
1 large mango, sliced
1 avocado, sliced
[red onion, sliced - I skipped these]
Arrange on a platter and drizzle with dressing to serve.

1 part fresh squeezed lime juice
1 part olive oil
salt and pepper
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced

Place sliced garlic in a glass jar. Cover with lime and oil, season with salt and pepper, and shake well. Allow to rest so garlic infuses dressing. Drizzle luquid over salad, leaving garlic in the jar.

This is a cookie recipe from the beloved and heralded Memories of a Cuban Kitchen cookbook by Mary Urrutia Randelman and Joan Schwartz. I love lime and you don't find it all that often in cookies so this recipe always stood out for me. When I mixed up a batch for my Cuban-themed dinner party, I realized that I had made them once before and been disappointed with both the flavor and the texture. (As printed, they are extraordinarily crumbly, and impossible to shape into attractive cookies. I ended up squeezing balls of dough together in my fist and plopping them on the cookie sheet. The flavor from the lime zest had a bit of acid bitterness rather than a fresh citrus, and the shortening instead of butter is just a taste I'm not as used to.)

So this time I made some modifications to create a moister dough that I could shape into balls. I baked a few, but they didn't really spread, and turned out more like a biscuit than a cookie, so for the remainder, I flattened the balls with the bottom fo a glass dipped in sugar. The result was a crisper cookie that was still a bit too dense for my tastes, but at least held together and spread essense of lime. I served them with pistachio ice cream, which has nothing to do with Cuba, but was a special request of one of our guests.

Torticas de Moron - Cuban Lime Cookies
makes about 40
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup shortening
1 teaspoon lime zest
2 tablespoon rum
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 egg

Blend together dry ingredients. Cut in shortening. Add rum, lime zest and juice, and egg and stir until combined. Roll into balls about 1-inch diameter then flatten with the bottom of a glass dipped in sugar. Bake at 350 for 12-14 minutes until golden. Cool on racks.

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