Looking back on my history with Latino and Caribbean food, I can see that Cuban was a gateway cuisine. Powerless in my youth before moro rice (black beans and rice cooked together) and ropa vieja (shredded flank steak slow-cooked in a tomato-based sauce), in middle age I became hooked on the spicy and soulful cooking of the wider Caribbean, which led to eating adventures even farther south of Key West. All of these have left their mark on my backyard grilling style.
It started not with a trip to Cuba or Miami, but with a subway ride to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. This was a long time ago, and there used to be many restaurants there that advertised comida china y criolla, or Cuban-Chinese food. At first glance, this might seem to be the world's unlikeliest food fusion idea, but if you think about it, the two cuisines have some degree of overlap — rice and seafood, chilies and garlic, limes and cilantro, the centrality of pork, black beans and black bean paste, empanadas and won tons.
The reality was that the Chinese food at these places was dreadful. The Cuban food was mediocre at best, but for me it was a revelation. I had my first batido, a shake made of fresh tropical fruit, milk, sugar or cane syrup and ice, put through a blender. You could get batidos made from papaya and mango, and exotic (to me) flavors such as mamey and guanabana. I developed a passion for earthy black beans and Cuban sandwiches and pork shoulder roasted until you could carve it with a butter knife and its perfect partner, maduros (pan-fried ultra-sweet plantains). I can still taste the café con leche.
I followed my stomach across the Hudson River to Union City, N.J., where Bergenline Avenue ran through the center of the largest Cuban-American community outside of Florida. These were the good old days, when you could light up a cigar after dinner in a restaurant, at least in Union City. (One Cuban place had a sign reading: "Thank You for Smoking"). Today, the Cuban community is dwindling, and the state has all but driven the cigar shops out of existence, but you can still find great food — not all of it Cuban. Thanks to the American cycle of assimilation and immigration, Union City and surrounding areas have become more multicultural and more multiculinary. Puerto Rican pasteles, Dominican mofongo and Salvadoran pupusas are crashing the party.
This reflects a trend that is evident even in Cuban-dominated Miami. When I traveled to Miami in the 1980s and 1990s, I came in search of the El Dorado of Cuban cuisine — and no doubt found it — but Miami surprised me by widening my eating horizons to include Argentinian grills and Jamaican jerk places and Haitian barbecue joints. These cuisines co-exist, but they also interact, as kitchens and menus cross-pollinate. This makes profound sense — a lot more sense than Cuban-Chinese food — because Caribbean and Latino cooking are already fusion cuisines, with roots in Spain, Africa, the New World, the Canary Islands and even the Middle East.
In Miami, I had chimichurri sauce — the classic Argentine accompaniment to grilled beef — for the first time (oddly enough, at a Nicaraguan place), which I remember the way most people remember their first kiss. Unlike young love, however, the joy of a good steak with chimichurri — maybe with some rice and beans and maduros on the side — can be rediscovered and relived forever.
Marinating meat in citrus (here, bitter orange juice), onions or garlic, cilantro and various spices is a technique classically used in Cuban cooking with pork shoulder or whole suckling pig. It works just as well with steak, especially skirt and other wide-grained cuts that can use a bit of tenderizing. Wood charcoal is the best choice for a very hot, dry fire. Cultural note: Even though chimichurri sauce comes from Argentina, my Argentinian relatives absolutely cannot wrap their minds around marinating skirt steak in these strong flavors — or anything else. I ignore them and so can you.
Makes 4 servings
1 cup parsley and 1 cup cilantro, finely chopped
1/4 cup red onion, very finely chopped
1/3 cup flavorful extra virgin olive oil
1 or 2 garlic cloves, smashed, salted and worked into a paste
1 pinch of hot pepper flakes (optional)
1 teaspoon lime juice
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cloves of garlic, smashed
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for brushing
2 cups bitter orange (naranja agria) juice (available bottled in Latino markets)*
1 medium Spanish onion, thinly sliced
1/2 bunch cilantro
2 1/2 pounds skirt steak
Combine chimichurri sauce ingredients and refrigerate or let stand (this can be done hours to days ahead of time).
Combine marinade ingredients and pour over skirt steaks in a covered container or zip-lock bag. Marinate for at least 2 to 3 hours and no more than a day or two.**
Start fire 1 1/2 hours to 1 hour and 45 minutes before cooking. Charcoal must be white and grates extremely hot before steaks are put on grill. Remove steaks from marinade and pat dry; brush lightly with olive oil. Discard marinade.
Grill steaks close to coals so that they develop a dark crust without burning, while leaving the center rare. This usually takes 10 to 20 minutes. After taking them off the grill, brush steaks with a little chimichurri, salt to taste and let them stand on a cutting board for at least 10 minutes.
Be sure to slice the meat across — not with — the (rather wide) grain. Serve the remaining chimichurri on the side.
* A good substitute for bitter orange juice is a 50-50 mix of sweet orange juice and lime juice.
** You can save time by freezing the skirt steaks and the marinade ahead of time in zip-lock bags, immersing them in cold water to defrost several hours before you grill.
The challenge of working with dried beans is not only to surround them with flavor, but to cook flavor into them as well. I know of two ways to do this: long, slow cooking with onions and other vegetables in water or stock flavored with herbs and spices; and cooking them in a pressure cooker. The recipe below, using a pressure cooker, is unconventional, but it works very well and saves hours of cooking, as well as the overnight pre-soak that many dried beans require.
Makes 4 servings
1 medium Spanish onion, studded with 2 dozen cloves
1/2 pound dried black beans
1 chipotle or other dried chili pepper
1 cinnamon stick
1 smoked ham hock
Long-grain white rice (optional)
Place all ingredients in a pressure cooker; add 1 cup water.
Cook until beans are soft and edible. The time will vary quite a bit, depending on the cooking temperature and equipment; you may have to experiment. Chop meat from ham hock and add to beans. Discard onion and all other ingredients.
Salt and pepper to taste.
Serve with long-grain white rice.
Plantains when fried ripe are called maduros; when fried unripe they are known as tostones. Tostones can be delicious in the same way as good French fries, but the sweetness and slight crunch of fried maduros are an amazing complement to roasted and grilled meat. Sweet plantains can be ripened on the kitchen counter in warm weather as long as the humidity is not too low. Otherwise, put them in a paper bag in a warm spot. As sold in the store, they will usually be bright yellow and almost mistakable for bananas. They will only achieve the proper sweetness, however, after a week or so, when the peel is alarmingly wrinkled and black, with white mold spots.
Makes 4 servings
4 ripe sweet plantains, peeled, cut in half lengthwise and quartered, also lengthwise.
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Heat corn or vegetable oil in a skillet large enough that the plantain pieces are not crowded, until a small piece of bread dropped into the hot oil sizzles a bit.
Add plantain sections, turning once after underside is browned.
When both sides are nicely caramelized, drain on a rack or newspaper for a few seconds and serve immediately.
Many Caribbean and Latino cooks make salads and garnishes featuring the pairing of onion and avocado, which have rich and soft textures that play against the piquant crunch of red onion, the aroma of cilantro, the bite of salt and the tartness of lime juice. I like to add a little garlic, a dash of hot sauce and tomatoes as well.
Makes 4 servings
1/4 cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lime
1 dash hot pepper sauce
1 clove garlic
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 ripe avocados, thickly sliced
2 medium tomatoes, thickly sliced
Several sprigs cilantro, chopped
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
Prepare dressing by mixing in a jar olive oil, lime juice, hot sauce, mashed garlic and salt and pepper to taste. Be liberal with the salt.
In a salad bowl, combine avocado, tomato, cilantro and onion. Add the dressing and toss.
The first few times I drank bul, I could have sworn it contained rum — and possibly also other kinds of alcohol. There is something about the way these ingredients work together that makes you think the final product is far stronger and more complex than it really is.
Makes 4 servings
2 bottles lager beer
1/2 cup sugar
Juice of two limes
1 lime slice and 1 sprig of mint
Combine all ingredients except lime slice and mint in blender; add ice cubes to nearly fill.
Blend until ice is finely chopped. Pour into pitcher and garnish with lime and mint.