During this time my father was in a labor camp, for the crime of wanting to leave the country. Alone, and with few provisions, as my mother struggled to care for us, she was struck with inspiration. One day she went out to the back patio to do the wash and saw a cute little frog sitting by the door to the kitchen. My mother has always liked frogs, and this little frog by the kitchen door gave her an idea...
My father and I were very close, but I did not always get along with my mother, so even though she was a marvelous cook, I had never been interested in learning her cooking secrets. However, after my father’s death, I witnessed my mother’s severe deterioration and overwhelming sadness. Looking for a way to engage her, I had the idea to ask her to teach me how to cook like her...
A great many of the delicious foods that came out of Mamina’s kitchen began with a sofrito. It is the seasoning base for many Cuban dishes. Sofrito is sauted onions, peppers, garlic and sometimes tomatoes.
I love to eat sofrito on crackers, sprinkled with a little salt. I remember as a child, I would be busy playing and in the back of my mind, I would be paying attention to when the smell of the sofrito reached its crescendo. I became quite adept at getting to the kitchen at that crucial moment when the flavors peaked. Too often, though, I would be unwilling to interrupt my games and by the time I got to the kitchen, I had missed it by just a few seconds, such disappointment. The sofrito was gone into the soup! What a waste, I thought at the time.
After my parents came to live with us, my mother loved to make her delicious food for my children. This got her started using a small food processor for making sofrito. She chopped things quite finely because at least one of my sons would not eat anything that had onions in it, if he could recognize them, and it is not Cuban food without onions. I like the texture of onions so I don’t chop so finely, and since I’m not his grandmother I don’t have to cater to that finicky son.
Sometimes in her later years Mamina would separate a little bit of sofrito on a plate for me. By the time I got to it the sofrito would be cold and not quite as yummy as when you get it out of the frying pan during that brief moment of extraordinary flavor. However, I knew she had thought of me, and I felt loved.
To make a basic sofrito, sautée onions, garlic and green peppers in olive oil. The gentle heat persuades them to release their amazing flavors, and when you mix the sofrito into the soup, rice, chicken, etc. the result is a flavor you can’t accomplish with dry spices. Some ingredients increase, decrease or disappear altogether, depending on what the sofrito is meant to flavor, (I will note this when necessary) but this is the basic recipe:
Olive oil to generously coat frying pan
1/2 to 1 green bell pepper
3-5 garlic cloves
1 8 oz can of tomato sauce
(You can use fresh tomatoes, but she rarely did.)
Chop the onion, pepper and garlic large or fine, depending on your family’s preference. Sauté vegetables gently in the olive oil over medium heat. When the onions are translucent, add tomato sauce and cook the ingredients on low for a couple of more minutes to blend the flavors. At this point, you can add other things to the sofrito. For example, if you are making sofrito to use in Fricasé, you would add the chicken and potatoes to the sofrito. Otherwise, you can add the sofrito to something else, like beans that have been cooked until soft.
I also love sofrito because it is such a nice simple recipe that can be repeated or modified to bring great results. Just a few steps, a simple thing really, and it makes everything better.
I was trying to think of an acronym to help my children remember what goes into a sofrito. My daughter in law Tara came up with GO GO (garlic, olive oil, green peppers, onions). I guess that could work, since we came to the US in the late 60’s, when there was “go go dancing”, “go go boots” etc, but here is another idea. Just think of OPTIMISM and GRATITUDE, doubled. Two things that always make things better are OPTIMISM and GRATITUDE, especially if you add a little tomato sauce!
My father and I were very close, but I did not always get along with my mother, so even though she was a marvelous cook, I had never been interested in learning her cooking secrets. However, after my father’s death, I witnessed my mother’s severe deterioration and overwhelming sadness. Looking for a way to engage her, I had the idea to ask her to teach me how to cook like her. She liked the idea, so we began to cook together. At the beginning she participated eagerly in cooking and telling me stories. Unfortunately, after a short time all she was able to do was to sit nearby and tell me how to create her dishes, but she still looked forward to our cooking sessions. I wrote the recipes down and took pictures of the finished product to share with family and friends.
I am so glad I undertook this project with my mother, it has been such a gift. My cooking abilities grew exponentially as I learned her gifted ways. By immersing myself in Cuban cooking, I realized that the lively flavors of our Cuban food are like the lively sounds of our Cuban music and they reflect our lively, colorful and flavorful culture. I feel as though I have reclaimed a part of my past and gotten a taste of the homeland I left so long ago. It has also increased my hunger for all things Cuban.
Even more importantly, learning how my mother orchestrated these wonderful flavors and dishes, I began to understand the woman and her many gifts. Through cooking together my appreciation for her grew. I realized why feeding everyone was so important to her. Nourishing the body is part of nurturing the soul. Creating meals together, and learning to see eye to eye with my mother, has been an invaluable experience and a heaven sent gift for me. I treasure the experience, especially now that she is no longer with us. To honor her memory I would like to share her recipes in this blog.
It was many years after we left Cuba before I wanted to eat split pea soup, even though my mother’s split pea soup is delicious.
Cuba is a tropical country where things grow freely, but the communist controls greatly limited the food available. Everything had been rationed since Fidel Castro took power, and the grocery stores quite often had nothing at all. Even if something was allowed on your ration card, you could only buy what they had at the store. My mother stood in line for hours hoping to buy some food, a pair of shoes, anything.
For a VERY long time, (it seemed like years to my sisters and me) chicharos (split peas) were the only thing she could buy, but there was no ham or chorizo available with which to flavor the soup.
Mamina continued buying and making the chicharos because she knew they had a lot of nutritional value. It seemed that we ate chicharos for every meal for weeks on end. Mamina used whatever she could from our vegetable patch to flavor them, but often they seemed just a tasteless green mash. My sisters and I grew very tired of split pea and dreaded meal time.
Mamina would set out bowls of soup for my sisters, and me. She spoon fed our baby sister, Nina, and at times when my sister Isis and I complained more than we ate, she would reach over and put a spoonful of soup in our mouths also.
During this time my father was in a labor camp, for the crime of wanting to leave the country. Alone, and with few provisions, as my mother struggled to care for us, she was struck with inspiration. One day she went out to the back patio to do the wash and saw a cute little frog sitting by the door to the kitchen. My mother has always liked frogs, and this little frog by the kitchen door gave her an idea. She began to tell us wonderful stories about a crazy adventurous frog named Antoñica. who would overcome great odds with her daring and creativity. Antoñica helped us dream of freedom and possibilities. These exiting tales were reserved for mealtimes. We ate until our bowls were empty, distracted from the bland food by the flavor of Antoñica’s world and Mamina was comforted knowing her daughters were well nourished, and better prepared for the adventures and challenges ahead.
CHICHAROS – Split pea soup
1 lb bag (2 cups) split peas
2-3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
1-2 cups calabaza, Cuban squash (optional)
A soup bone, a piece of ham or bacon, with lots of meat
1 Tablespoon salt
2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
½ green bell pepper
1 medium onion
4-5 garlic cloves
Chorizo (Spanish sausage – optional)
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
Rinse peas, then cover with water and soak overnight. Next day pour out soaking water and add fresh water so it is about 2-3 inches above the peas; add potatoes, carrots and meat. If using a pressure cooker, cook 15 minutes after pressure is reached. However you don’t need a pressure cooker, they’ll do just fine in a heavy pan; cook covered on medium low heat for about 1 hour, till they are soft. Add more water as needed. Add a tablespoon of salt after the peas are soft.
Chop pepper, onion, garlic and sauté in olive oil. When onions are translucent, add chorizo and tomato sauce and cook a few minutes longer, then add sofrito to peas. Stir and cook on low, covered, for about 10 more minutes. It will thicken a bit and all the flavors will blend. Taste to see if it has enough salt.