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...
This was one of my mother's favorite desserts. It dates back to her childhood, so I will tell you a little about that. She was the fourth of seven children. Her family lovingly referred to her as “La Niña”, so as you see, long before I decided she was my Mamina she already had a nick name, and to make things more complicated outside the family circle she went by her middle name, Erundina. It was not until we came to the United States that she began to use her first name, Monica.
Her family lived in the small sugar mill town of Manati, in the province of Oriente. If you agree with me that the island of Cuba looks like a crocodile, this would be right around where the crocodile’s eye would be located.
Her father was an accountant for the railroad and the sugar mill. He was one of my favorite people! Her mother had been a teacher before her marriage and played the piano. My mother says her parents doted on her and her siblings.
The children attended a one room school house, where all the children from first to sixth grade were taught by the same teacher. My mother loved school and was an excellent student. La Niña often finished her assignments first, and would then assist the teacher in helping other students. At the end of the sixth grade, the teacher had a great surprise for her, Erundina had earned a full scholarship to a boarding school in the city! My mother was delighted! Here was her opportunity to continue her studies.
Unfortunately, her father decided that she was too young and innocent to live away from home. She told us this was the greatest disappointment of her life. However, she loved to learn, so though her formal education ended early she was a voracious reader and continued to find opportunities to learn many things, by reading or doing, throughout her life.
My mother always spoke of this dessert as something wonderful, she would save up “old bread” to make it. I am not a fan, maybe because wheat does not agree with me, but I hear from those who like bread pudding that it’s very good!
PUDIN DE PAN
½ loaf of white bread
1 cup milk
1 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons cooking wine
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
4 Tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup raisins
Melt sugar slowly in a metal mold or quart size baking pan, over medium-low heat. (Yes, you do put the baking pan on the stove, I'm hoping Katie will make this recipe and post simpler instructions) Stir constantly so it won’t burn. When the sugar turns golden brown, immediately pick up metal mold with hot pads or oven mitt. Turn it in all directions so the melted sugar covers the bottom and sides of the mold. Be careful not to burn yourself.
Remove crust from the bread, break it up and soak with milk. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl, add the melted butter, cooking wine, cinnamon, vanilla, raisins and bread. Put it all into the container you coated with the caramel (melted sugar). Put this container inside another pan with 1 inch of water in it. Bake at 350 for about 2 hours, or until a toothpick stuck in it comes out dry. Let it cool before taking it out of the pan.
By the way, Mamina made her Pudín in a pressure cooker, rather than the oven. I had to do some experimenting to make the conversion. Let me know if you want the directions for the pressure cooker version.
I would not be surprised to learn that there are other names out there for these chips. Speaking of names, you might notice that I refer to my mother and father as “Mamina” and “Papillo”. Among Cubans nicknames are common. It’s done in love and fun, it indicates a closeness to each other. Those not accustomed to this are surprised when they hear people referred to with descriptive nicknames like these of my parents, aunts and uncles: Guajiro, Gordo, China, Niña, or Prietusca (one of my mother’s nicknames from her family, because of her very black hair). No offense is meant and none is taken, though in English they do seem offensive, which is why I'm skipping the translations! As a baby, I somehow understood about nicknames, and I personalized the usual Mamá and Papá into Mamina and Papillo. I’m their first child, so the naming rights were mine.
This short video shows how to make Chicharritas.
If you live in Miami or some other place with Cuban markets, you can buy Chicharritas in bags, just like you would potato chips, but we don’t have that luxury where I live. I don’t like to fry so I don’t make them very often, but I sure enjoyed them when my mother made them for us as a special treat!
They keep very well, if you can hide them from the kids. After some of my children left home, my mother would make Chicharritas and mail them to the kids, or have them ready for their visits home.
Several large green plantains
Oil for frying (in Cuba we used lard)
Peel plantains by cutting off ends, cutting in half and slicing the hard outside peel length wise, then pulling it off the fruit. If you peel them under cold running water, it will minimize the dark staining to your hands from the platanos “sap”. Slice into thin rounds, the thinner the better, the easiest way is with a slicer. Fry in hot oil, not smoking, (about 370°F) until golden. Drain on paper towels. Add salt and enjoy!
I am so excited to introduce a special post from my "oh so talented" niece, Katie Dayton! She is mom to three beautiful little boys (they really are beautiful) and wife to my nephew Adam, who is in law school. Katie loves to cook, refinish furniture and repurpose old things. She agrees with Mamina's philosophy (as do I) that cooking a great meal and feeding everyone around you, is a great way to show your love! Here is her version of picadillo.
I am Maria's niece, married to her nephew. So unfortunately I am not Cuban, but I say I can claim to be at least 1/4 because my kids have that much Cuban in them. Despite not having Cuban blood, I love Cuban food (and Cubans!)
When Adam and I were first married we would go a few times a week to visit Mamina and Papillo. Adam would do physical therapy with Papillo and Mamina and I would chat or cook.
Cooking with Mamina often involved a lot of laughing. I speak very poco Spanish, so there was a big language barrier between us. She would try her best, often taking a few seconds to think of words. She would sometimes give up, and yell at Adam across the room in Spanish what the word she was looking for was. Many times he was busy, so she would shrug her shoulders, laugh and move on.
Food is something that translates through all languages, it always turned out fantastic and just by watching her I knew what she was doing.
I didn't get that many years with Mamina but I will always treasure the time we shared in the kitchen together. I wish we could have made many more meals, she was an amazing cook!
This version of Picadillo is like Maria's with just a few differences. Mainly that it uses turkey instead of ground beef.
2 lbs turkey
1/2 green pepper
4 cloves garlic
1 8 oz can tomato sauce
1/4 cup white wine
1 tsp salt
1/2-1 cup raisins
1/2-1 cup spanish olives
Start to brown your turkey on medium heat. While it's starting to cook, throw the onion, pepper and garlic in the food processor.
It usually comes out like a liquid it's been so processed, but it doesn't matter as long as the flavor is there!
Pour it over your ground turkey, mix it in, cover and let it simmer for 10-15 minutes.
Then add your tomato sauce and wine. I know some of you may be hesitant to use wine, but believe me, it is so worth it! The alcohol does simmer out, so don't worry about that if you don't drink.
Mamina taught me a little trick that I am sure goes back to her time in Cuba using everything available. She would pour out the tomato sauce, then pour her wine in the can. She then would put her hand over the can and shake it up, to get all the tomato sauce off the sides. I can never skip this step because I am sure Mamina would not be happy that I didn't get all the tomato sauce out!
Throw in your raisins and olives right after the sauce and wine. If you like lots of sweetness, add more raisins. If you like more salty, add more olives. It all depends on your taste. I like to add about the same amount of each. Follow it with the salt.
Mix it all together, cover it again and let it simmer for another 15 minutes.
And you're done! Serve it up with some rice and black beans, and you are in Cuban heaven.
2 lbs turkey
1/2 green pepper
4 cloves garlic
1 8 oz can tomato sauce
1/4 cup white wine
1 tsp salt
1/2-1 cup raisins
1/2-1 cup spanish olives
Brown turkey over medium high heat.
Chop up, blend, or process the onion, green pepper and garlic. Pour over turkey, bring to a simmer and cover for 10-15 minutes.
Add tomato sauce, wine, salt, raisins and olives to the turkey mixture. Bring to a simmer and cover again for 15 minutes.
Serve with rice and black beans.
This is a ground beef dish, the name sort of means chopped up, minced. It is an easy every day dish, while at the same time being fancy enough for company.
When we were young children, in Cuba, our father was gone a lot helping his father run their plantation and also working at a distillery. Sundays, however, were family days. I loved Sundays! We would go visit relatives and friends on Sundays, especially those who lived too far for a casual weekday evening visit. We drove for miles along softly rolling hills covered in beautiful, green sugar cane fields and dotted with majestic Royal palms or dark green groves of trees. I loved the long drives, talking and singing songs together, or just listening to our mother sing old love songs in her beautiful voice. Once we arrived at our varied destinations, there were usually other children to play with and my sister Isis and I were able to explore in the hills and groves and recreate the adventures we had read in books. Baby sister Nina was too young to join our play, had to stay near the parents. Almost always there was a meal to share. Picadillo reminds me of those Sundays.
Speaking of Isis and Picadillo. She was a very picky eater as a baby. One day when she had refused every type of baby food Mamina had made for her, our grandfather asked for a small dish of Picadillo and rice and sitting her on his lap hand fed her. She ate every bite. I guess she just wanted grown up food, forget the bland baby mash! Or maybe she felt special being fed by our Abuelo. She still loves and makes delicious Picadillo!
1 lb hamburger
1 med onion
4-5 garlic cloves
½ green pepper
1 8 oz can tomato sauce
¼ cup cooking wine (optional)
1 teaspoons salt
1/2-2/3 cup Raisins 1/2-2/3 cup Green olives
This is a picture of the picadillo before adding the tomato sauce, olives and raisins.
Brown beef with onion, garlic and green pepper. Continue cooking on medium heat. When the onions are becoming translucent, add the tomato sauce and cooking wine. cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes then add the raisins and green olives and continue simmering for another 10 minutes. I add raisins and olives until “it looks right”. My sister Isis is more exact, she stirs them in and aims for 1 raisin per inch of meat and 1 olive every 11/2 inch.
My mother rarely added the raisins or olives. I think she got out of the habit because as the Communists took over Cuba, niceties like raisins and olives were some of the first things that disappeared from the stores. Then when we got to the US she continued to make do without these luxuries, to save money and help our family make it in this country.
I love the combination of sweet and salty tastes, but it was too exotic for my children when they were young. It’s great with or without the raisins and olives.
Serve with rice or mashed potatoes. I like to make a large quantity of Picadillo and use the leftovers to put on top of salads or as taco filling.
|Family & Friends in front of my grandparents home in Tuinucú|
My mother expressed her love very successfully through the food she prepared. My father loved soups, especially bean soups. He didn’t think a meal was complete without soup, so Mamina made some sort of soup almost every day of her adult life.
My memories of soups begin in my grandmother’s kitchen. We lived with my father's parents until I was five years old, because my father helped run Abuelo Beluco's dairy and sugar cane plantation. The wood burning fireplace (hearth?) took up a whole wall of the large kitchen. Abuelo and my father got up at 3 AM to milk the cows, then lit the fire to boil the milk for breakfast. After that the cooking went on all day. Abuela Natalia, my grandmother, had a cook and other servants, but there was no question she directed all that went on in their home, especially in the kitchen. They prepared almuerzo (lunch) each day, for all the men working on the plantation. Those meals for 20-30 people always started with a hearty bean soup.
I was rarely allowed in that kitchen, I was a little child and I guess it was dangerous. Plus with all the activity I would have gotten in the way, but I remember the heat and the smoke and the wonderful smells! In the afternoons my grandmother sat at the table and sorted through the beans that would be left soaking for the next day's soup. It was a good time to talk with her.
The picture above is my grandparents home in Tuinucu, Cuba. Family and friends on the steps.
Several of you have asked how to cook dry beans, so I'm posting general instructions before I post specific recipes in the weeks to come. You might want to save this, to refer back to.
GENERAL DIRECTIONS FOR COOKING LEGUMES (BEANS, LENTILS, ETC)
Sort through the dry beans or peas the day before you plan to cook them, to take out any rocks or debris, etc. Most packaged beans come pretty clean, but old customs die hard so Mamina always did this. Rinse the beans, you can use a colander, or just put water in a pan with the beans and try to pour it out without spilling all the beans :), then cover with cold water and soak over night or for at least 4 hours. My mother always cooked beans in the same water she soaked them in, I don’t. Come morning I drain the beans and add new water to cook them in. I read somewhere that this way you get rid of some of the starch that causes gas when you eat the beans. The exception is when you are making black beans, if you drain the soaking water you will loose all the nice color, so cook them in the water you soaked them in.
It’s not imperative to soak lentils and split peas, but it doesn’t hurt either. Lentils kind of sprout when you soak them overnight, and that increases their nutritional value.
A pressure cooker makes cooking beans a half hour process. Make sure the beans are well covered with water, at least 2-3 inches above the beans. Cover the pressure cooker, put the steam valve on, cook on high heat until the valve is dancing and you know the pressure cooker has reached full pressure. Begin timing.
Lentils and split peas will be done in 15 minutes
Garbanzos (chick peas) 25-30
Be careful opening the pressure cooker. You must let all the pressure and steam dissipate, which takes about 10 minutes if you just let it sit. The food will continue to cook for at least the first 5 minutes, so count this as part of the cooking time. You can put the pressure cooker under running water to speed up the process and stop the cooking. You will hear the steam escape. Then you can remove the valve and open the lid. If it’s hard to open wait longer. Play it safe.
If you don’t have a pressure cooker, it’s best to use a heavy pan, so the beans wont burn or stick. Bring to a boil then simmer on med/low for a couple of hours. Best to cover the pan so they don’t loose as much water. You will probably have to add water, or start with 2-3 inches of water above the beans. Lentils and split peas should be soft in less than an hour. Other beans will take 2-3 hours, depending how soft you like them. Test the softness by smashing a bean between your fingers. Should be easy to smash. I actually think the beans cooked slowly, without the pressure cooker, taste better.
You can also cook beans in a slow cooker, on high heat, they will be soft in 7-8 hours.
Do not add salt at the beginning of cooking, it will toughen the beans. Wait until they are soft, when you add the sofrito.