Last weekend's dinner menu sprang from homesickness (and, really, sick-of-work-ness). I have been missing South Florida lately. A trip home isn't in the cards for many more months, so the next best thing is to cook it out of my system. Luckily some friends came over last weekend to help with the eating.
I'm not Cuban, but that's what home tastes like for me. Mojitos, plantain chips with mariquitas, arroz con pollo, boiled yuca in garlic sauce. In high school, my friends and I would pile into the orange vinyl booths at Havana and gorge on black beans and rice and sweet plantains. Many years later, I walked into that same restaurant and recognized Dan, a high school acquaintance who later became my husband. Naturally, we served Cuban food at our wedding.
Other Florida favorites made their way onto my dinner menu as well: Key lime pie and avocado salad with raw corn and cherry tomatoes. Iced sweet tea, which makes me think of my mom and Nanny, who always have a pitcher of it in their refrigerators.
It's hard to capture a place in a single plate. For me, home is also chilled shrimp and guacamole. It is Publix potato salad, iced cappuccinos and Cuban sandwiches from Tulipan Bakery. It is fried fish sandwiches on soft, starchy buns eaten with a view of the flat, shimmering ocean. Coconut ice cream. Honeybell oranges picked off the tree.
I want to taste all of these things in one big bite. Look down on the tiny turquoise swimming pools and vast parking lots from the window of an airplane. Sit in the hot sun with a glass of something perspiring in my hand.
But I am here and not there. For now there are tender shreds of beef over rice, sweet plantains, and minty rum drinks. And I can dream.
Cuban for five
Plantain chips and mariquitas salsa
Avocado, corn, and tomato salad
Ropa vieja and white rice
Key lime pie
Adapted slightly from Gourmet. This was my first time making ropa vieja, and while it was time-consuming, it wasn't all that hard. Someone said, "This is the best thing you've ever made," which made all of the simmering, and chopping, and straining worthwhile. My advice: give yourself lots of time, more time than you think. I started cooking at 5 p.m. and we ate by 9 p.m. You might even want to make the dish the day before you serve it, then reheat it on low when guests arrive. Or if you have a crockpot, this is a perfect reason to dust it off.
(Serves 8 to 10 people)
For braising beef:
3 lbs. skirt or flank steak, trimmed
2 quarts water
2 carrots, chopped coarse
1 large onion, chopped coarse
2 celery ribs, chopped coarse
1 bay leaf
3 garlic cloves, crushed lightly
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. whole black peppercorns
2 green bell peppers, cut into 1/4-inch strips
1 red onion, cut into 1/4-inch strips
4 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cups braising liquid plus additional if desired
a 14- to 16-oz. can whole tomatoes with juice, chopped
3 Tbsp. tomato paste
3 garlic cloves, minced (I recommend 5 cloves)
1 tsp. ground cumin (I recommend 2 tsp.)
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano (I recommend 1 tsp.)
2 red bell peppers, cut into 1/4 inch strips
2 yellow bell peppers, cut into 1/4 inch strips
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
1/2 cup pimiento-stuffed Spanish olive, drained and halved, optional
Steamed rice, about 1 cup per person
To braise beef:
In a 5-quart stockpot combine all braising ingredients and simmer, uncovered, 1 1/2 hours, or until beef is tender. Remove pot from heat and cool meat in liquid 30 minutes. Transfer meat to a platter and cover. Strain braising liquid through a colander, pressing on solids, into a bowl. Throw away the vegetables. Return braising liquid to pot and boil until reduced to 3 cups, about 30 minutes. (Stew may be made up to this point 1 day ahead. Cool braising liquid completely and chill it and the beef separately, covered.)
In another large stockpot, cook green bell peppers and onion in 2 Tbsp. oil over moderate heat, stirring, until softened. While vegetables are cooking, pull meat into shreds about 3 by 1/2 inches. To onion mixture add shredded meat, 2 cups braising liquid, tomatoes with juice, tomato paste, garlic, cumin, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste and simmer, uncovered, 20 minutes.
While stew is simmering, in a large skillet cook red and yellow bell peppers in remaining 2 tablespoons oil over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened. Stir peppers into stew with enough additional braising liquid to thin to desired consistency and simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes. Stir in peas and olives, if using, and simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes. Serve over rice.
Avocado, tomato, and corn salad
This is almost like guacamole in salad form. Feel free to play with the ingredients.
(Serves 5 people)
2 ripe avocados, cut into small chunks
1 large handful cherry tomatoes, cut in half
3 ears sweet corn kernels, removed from the cob
1/4 cup cilantro, minced (or basil)
1 jalapeno, minced
2 green onions, minced
Red or white wine vinegar
salt and pepper
Combine all of the vegetables in a large bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and a generous splash of vinegar. Carefully toss the ingredients, being careful not to mash the avocado. Salt and pepper to taste.