There’s a certain aura that Cuba emanates, that’s not easy to put a finger on. Books like The Cuban Table, helps one get familiarized with the Caribbean island in such an intimate way.
Author, Ana Sofia Pelaez and photographer, Ellen Silverman serve up dishes and images that captivate both the palate and eyes. The recipe lead-ins provide a wealth of fascinating information about the history of each dish and the contributors. Consider The Cuban Table your personal tour guide of Cuba’s paladares, farmhouses and off the map spots that only locals can tell you about.
Miami and New York are captured, Ana did such a wonderful job of noting the finest of details, while Ellen captured countless alluring images of mouth watering meals and beautiful scenery. The chipped multi paint toned Cuban walls provide a natural backdrop for dishes and still life shots. I am tempted to visit the island every time I peruse the pages of The Cuban Table.
There are many worn kitchen manuals and old reference books, filled with the stories of traditional dishes, methods, and countless of handwritten recipes cataloged by plenty of abuelitas. Many were lost. Others left behind. Ana conducted a lot of research on her own, by utilizing the cookbooks and manuals in the Cuban Heritage Collection at The University of Miami’s library. The legitimacy of The Cuban Table and it’s recipes was validated by my Abuela, she sat enthralled flipping the pages one by one. When I asked her what her favorite recipe was, she exclaimed, “Todas…all of them!”. The book stayed with her that evening in Westchester.
RECIPE: RABO ALCAPARRADO “Ox Tail Stew”
Ingredients Serves 4
- ½ cup grape seed oil
- 3 pounds lean oxtail pieces
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion, diced
- 1 large green bell pepper, stemmed, cored, seeded & diced
- 4 large garlic cloves, peeled and diced
- 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- ¼ teaspoon dried ground cumin
- 2 cups dry red wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir
- 2 cups Beef Stock (page 306)
- 1 ½ cups Tomato Puree (304) or canned tomato puree
- ½ cup capers
- 1 bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley, trimmed 2 inches above the stems and tied together with kitchen string (reserve tender leaves for garnish)
- 1 dried bay leaf
- 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Heat the grapeseed oil in a 6-quart cast-iron or heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Working in batches, brown the oxtail on all sides until the fat is rendered and the pieces are golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Do not overcrowd the pan and replenish the oil as needed. Set aside the browned oxtail. Carefully remove the oil and wipe the pot clean.
To prepare the sofrito, heat the olive oil in the same pot over medium heat. Add the onion, green pepper, and garlic and saute until the onion is soft and translucent, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the salt, pepper, oregano, and cumin and cook until fragrant, an additional 2 minutes. Add the red wine to deglaze the pot and bring to a hard simmer over medium-high heat for 10 minutes. Carefully pour in the stock, tomato puree, capers, parsley, and bay leaf and bring back to a simmer. Immediately lower the heat to medium-low and cook, covered, until the oxtails are tender, checking regularly and skimming the oil that rises to the top, 2 to 2 ½ hours.
Carefully pour in the stock, tomato puree, capers, parsley, and bay leaf and bring back to a simmer. Immediately lower the heat to medium-low and cook, covered, until the oxtails are tender, checking regularly and skimming the oil that rises to the top, 2 to 2 ½ hours. Immediately lower the heat to medium-low and cook, covered, until the oxtails are tender, checking regularly and skimming the oil that rises to the top, 2 to 2 ½ hours. Remove the parley stems. Add the vinegar and seasonings to taste. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley and serve.
VARIATION: FIERY OXTAIL – RABO ENCENDIDO
This version has a stronger tomato-based flavor and benefits from the added heat of fresh peppers. Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of minced habanero pepper with the onion and green pepper. Use 1 cup red wine and 2 full cups of tomato puree. Omit the capers or replace with sliced green olives.
Several published cookbooks of Cuban and Caribbean cookery have allowed this savory islander fare to shine. Examples of such recognition are displayed particularly through the printing of traditional Cuban recipes in Michael Field’s Time Life Foods Of The World series, and in Craig Claiborne’s New York Times International Cookbook. These two examples are notable because the books were printed for American audiences, in a time were Cuba’s future was somewhat unknown.
Regardless of the political situation and uncertainty in Cuba, these authors were able to represent the island through it’s fare rather than through their political reputation. The Cuban Table motivates one enough to read Ana’s impeccable procedures in English, while maintaining the island spirit one expects from Cuban cookery.
Nitza Villapol, whose books are mainly printed in Spanish is a notable Cuban cookbook writer. The international audience is sadly neglected by her book due to the lack of translations. Although an English text is available, it doesn’t come cheap. Auctions routinely end at extremely high values for both the original and translated copies. Without a worry, The Cuban Table has become my go to book, it’s not about which book is better, it’s about the experience offered through a literary work. Yes, there’s a kindle version available but how could that ever compare to the feeling of a book in your hands. Perhaps this work will become a treasure that will be passed on to future enthusiasts of what occurred on that island 90 miles from American soil.
Ana Sofia didn’t try to reinvent dishes or fuze them beyond recognition. She kept talented references on hand to ensure the published recipes didn’t stray far from their origins. Dozens of Cuban cookbooks adorn the kitchen in my home. It’s never easy to pick a favorite, but The Cuban Table does something that other books have failed to do. The endless tidbits and stories accompanied by Ellen’s photography makes The Cuban Table stand out from the bunch, while never losing touch with modernity.
Various Miami Chefs contributed their wisdom to The Cuban Table. Victoriano Benito Gonzalez aka El Rey de las Fritas serves us a “Frita A Caballo con Papitas A La Juliana”. Alberto Cabrera offers us his “Croquetas de Media Noche”, and Azucar! Ice Cream Company shares their traditional “Mantecado”. What’s your desire? Panquecitos, masa real con guayaba? I’ll take a batido de Mamey!
All photos courtesy of Ellen Silverman & St. Martins Press, NYC. Ellen Silverman has photographed various best selling cookbooks. View her portfolios & videos here: EllenSilverman.com. Ana Sofia @HungrySofia publishes a food blog HungrySofia.com, and is co-owner of La Filosofia @LaFilosofiaNYC, which produces beautiful handmade aprons.