Author Archives: Jennifer Stempel

About Jennifer Stempel

Jennifer Stempel is a TV development executive, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son. When she's not developing new TV shows, she enjoys teaching cooking classes, and blogs about her experiments in the kitchen. To read more about her culinary adventures, check out: www.TheCubanReuben.com.

How to Make Knishes, Cuban-Style

When I think of knishes, like most people, I think of New York Jewish deli-style discs of creamy potato or savory meat, enveloped by a flaky crust. Potato knishes are my favorite, because they act as a vehicle for as much good, grainy mustard as I see fit.

The last time I enjoyed a potato knish, the dough reminded me of empanadas, a classic Latin dish. Each Latin country has their own version of empanadas, and the variety of fillings are endless. With that in mind, I set out to create a Cuban-inspired knish that pays homage to both the New York Jewish delis of the past, and the aromatic flavors from my family’s kitchen.

In Cuba, and many other Caribbean countries, green plantains are often used interchangeably with potatoes as the starch component of a meal, so adding them to a knish felt like the natural thing to do. Of course, it is written in the laws of Cuban grandmothers everywhere that all savory dishes must contain at least a hint of garlic, and thus smashed plantains covered in a citrusy garlic Mojo sauce seems like the perfect filling to a Cuban-inspired knish. Feel free to dunk these knishes in mustard if you’re more traditional, but keep in mind that even this mustard-loving girl can’t resist the pull of a good Cuban mojo sauce. The special filling inside these savory discs has just a hint of sweetness that makes these a winner for the dinner table.

Slow Cooker Pot Roast Recipe

Because I am someone who runs her life a million miles per minute, but still values the fruits of a home-cooked meal, the slow cooker is certainly a mainstay in my kitchen. Because of this favorite small appliance, my family gets to enjoy rich, hearty meals that taste like they’ve been simmering all day, even on those days when I’ve got just a few minutes to get dinner on the table.

I especially love making this savory slow cooker pot roast for a festive Shabbat meal. Any good starchy side like rice, potatoes, or noodles will sop up the juices in a fabulous way. Plus, if you’re lucky you’ll have leftovers, which I have been known to turn into pot roast tacos the next day.

Do the prep work the night before, and set the slow cooker in the morning. By the time dinner rolls around, your neighbors will be knocking on your door to join your Shabbat table.

I use a slow cooker liner to make cleanup easier.

Mini Almond and Grape Crostatas Recipe: A Cuban Rosh Hashanah Tradition

Apples and honey around the High Holidays is certainly not the only way to ensure a sweet new year. Cuban families, like mine, have long practiced the tradition of eating grapes for good luck. At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, we enjoy 12 grapes — one for each month.

When is Rosh Hashanah 2017? Click here to find out!

According to folklore, this practice stems from Cuba’s Spanish roots. Spanish grape growers may have instituted this tradition when they were faced with an overabundance of harvest, and needed to offload some grapes. With everyone in the community enjoying grapes, the grape farmers were certainly enjoying a sweet start to the new year.

While most Cubans eat their 12 grapes as they are, I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of incorporating the grapes into a Rosh Hashanah dish. My mini almond and grape crostatas are the perfect solution to this puzzle, as these single-serving pastries feature 12 whole grapes.

Gluten-free, and completely pareve, they are the perfect addition to any Rosh Hashanah table.

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Mango Mojitos for a Refreshing Summer Shabbat

Mojitos are a refreshing, classic Cuban cocktail made with rum, sugar and muddled (or crushed) mint leaves. And while this version is most common, you can find dozens of different varieties made with every fruit under the sun. I love the traditional version, but when dreaming of a drink to pair with an outdoor summer Shabbat dinner, I wanted to take it up a notch: with bright, beautiful mango.

The weather in Cuba is almost always warm and sunny and kind of awesome, which means they have an abundance of delicious tropical fruit year-round. But from all the stories my mother shared with me about her summers in Cuba as a child, I know that fresh, juicy mango was the fruit of the season.

Mango juice not only adds sweetness to the light drink, but a vibrant pop of color. Serve this with fresh chunks of mango, tons of fresh mint and, if you want to get really crazy, some chili lime flavored salt. It’s the perfect way to start a picnic, relax with girlfriends during the afternoon or kick off a joyful Shabbat meal.

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Sheet Pan Chimichurri Cod with Potatoes and Squash Recipe

I come from a family of hunters and gatherers, and the younger generations are no exception. My grandfather owned and operated a farm in Cuba, and to this day, enjoys reaping what he sows. This love of farm-to-table delicacies doesn’t end in the garden, either. Some of my fondest and earliest memories are of our family fishing trips. We’d each have our own special fishing chairs, and our rods would line the lake like saber arches, saluting the swimming fish. In the evening, dinner always included the catch of the day.  Fortunately for me, I married someone whose family traditions also included spending quality time with a fishing rod in hand. Despite growing up clear across the country, my husband often shares stories about his experiences fishing with his grandfather.

These days, I don’t spend much time fishing, but it remains a fun hobby and bonding experience for my dad and husband. They’ve traveled to Alaska together for salmon fishing, and often go to a local fishing club for a fun and lazy Sunday. Of course, when they return with their loot in tow, they turn to me to transform the scaly catch into something delicious.

Much like my farmer grandfather I, too, love to utilize as much fresh produce and fish in my cooking as is seasonally possible. And as a young mother, I am always looking for shortcuts and time savers at dinnertime and especially Shabbat.  With that in mind, a recent favorite meal in my home has become my Sheet Pan Chimichurri Cod with potatoes and squash. The fresh and pungent flavors of the herbed chimichurri sauce traditionally found on grilled Argentinian steaks, heightens the mild flavor of the cod filets, while the new potatoes and the zucchini slices mellow any heat that travels from the chilies in the dish.

This is easy enough to throw together after work on a busy Friday, and still serve up a delicious, healthful and elegant Shabbat dinner.

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Sheet Pan Chimichurri Cod with Potatoes and Squash

 

Pull-Apart Challah Stuffed with Cheese and Guava Recipe

I will never tire of the classically Cuban iteration of savory and sweet found in guava and cheese, and I promise you that if given the opportunity, I will find ways to insert it into otherwise unsuspecting recipes. (My guava and cheese hamantaschen come to mind.) Naturally, it was only a matter of time before I infused one of my favorite Jewish recipes with a little taste of Cuba, and came up with a pull-apart challah stuffed with sticky guava paste and silky cream cheese.

Stuffing a challah with guava and cheese may sound sacrilege to some, but in my mind, it makes perfect sense. I am pretty vocal about my opinion that the hands-down best store-bought challah in my home city can only be found at our local Cuban bakery. Of course, this isn’t their specialty–a flaky and buttery guava and cheese pastry, called a “refugee,” seemingly for the strong memories of the motherland it invokes, wins that title. But if this bakery’s challah married its world-famous guava and cheese pastry, I imagine their babies would look something like my fun creation.

The pillowy pockets of challah stuffed with sweet-as-candy guava paste and velvety cream cheese pull apart into individual servings of the most decadent roll of bread you can imagine. This is one of those special recipes to pull out for guests!

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Cuban Chickpea Stew Recipe

Beans are a staple food on many Cuban dinner tables: they are inexpensive, can feed an army and are easily adaptable to whatever you find in your fridge and pantry. There’s something about a pot of beans, simmering low and slow on the stove all day, allowing all of the flavors and aromas to release, that screams home-cooked comfort. Plus, nothing sticks to your ribs on a cold day better than a good bean soup or stew. To be fair, I’d eat this even on a warm day. In fact, I remember a distinctively warm winter night in Santiago de Cuba, when after a grueling day of distributing humanitarian aid to those in need, my mom and I wanted nothing more than a good, hearty chickpea stew. Lucky for us, my mom’s cousin Virginia who is known for being a great cook, surprised us that evening with exactly the comfort food that we had a hankering for.

That night, her chickpea stew included big chunks of sweet squash, creamy potatoes, and hearty chard, all perfumed with the unmistakable smoky flavors of chorizo. As she explained to us, the number one ingredient in Virginia’s now-famous chickpea stew is, “lo que sea,” which translates to, “whatever I can find.” Since ingredients can sometimes be hard to come by in Santiago, Virginia has made a name for herself creating rich, indulgent meals using “lo que sea.” This stew was no exception. Ever since returning home, I’ve wanted to recreate it every chance I get. Even though ingredients are more readily available here, I still do my best to stay true to the “lo que sea” philosophy, and find myself adding whatever I find in my vegetable crisper and pantry that particular day. So long as the base ingredients remain the same, you can really have fun experimenting with “lo que sea” the next time you try your hands at chickpea stew.
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*Note: If you’d prefer to make this using dry beans, soak 1 lb dry garbanzo beans overnight in a large bowl of water, drain and proceed with recipe accordingly, simmering for extra time, until the beans are softened.

Cuban Chickpea Stew

Rocky Road Hamantaschen Recipe

If I had to choose only 5 foods to have for the rest of my life, ice cream would be high on that list. And while there are certainly ice cream purists out there, I’m the type of person who prefers my ice cream highly adulterated with multi-textured mix-ins. That’s why Rocky Road has been a favorite flavor of mine, for seemingly forever. There’s something about the crunchy almonds and gooey marshmallow that complement a rich and decadent chocolate ice cream like nothing else.

For me, my love of Rocky Road ice cream started as a kid, when my friend and I would on occasion treat ourselves to some French-fried lizard guts after school. Of course, we weren’t really indulging in any battered reptiles…this was our code name, since we knew our moms would worry that we’d ruin our appetite for dinner if they knew we snacked on ice cream. Even then, Rocky Road was my flavor of choice.

In my opinion, one of the few ways to improve on ice cream, in particular Rocky Road ice cream, is to turn it into a cookie. That’s why for Purim this year, I’m trying my hand at Rocky Road hamantaschen. With a cocoa sugar cookie shell filled with creamy chocolate chunks, buttery almond bits, and melted mini-marshmallows, I can’t think of any reasons this would be bad idea. And who knows…it might even work as a new ice cream topping!

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Cuban-Style Arroz Con Pollo Recipe

Much as every culture showcases their individual form of the dumpling (um, matzh balls) arroz con pollo, or chicken and rice, is a dish for which every Latin country has it’s own unique spin.

Some use beer versus wine, or crushed annatto rather than saffron, but one thing remains constant: arroz con pollo is one of the most crowd-pleasing dishes of a Cuban home. If you’re not familiar with this iconic dish, it might remind you of paella. With orange-tinged rice, and emerald peas jeweled throughout, I can see where that assessment would make sense, but nothing can be further from the truth. Arroz con pollo has its own merits. It’s affordable, it’s rich with flavor, as well as visually gratifying, and the best part of all is how quickly it cooks up, making it ideal for a family-friendly weeknight meal.

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I have many distinct memories of eating arroz con pollo as a child, holding a chicken drumstick in each hand, and taking alternating bites from side to side. And as they say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, since my son now devours this dish. The next time you’re on the hunt for a quick and easy meal to feed a family, big or small, try making arroz con pollo and you may even figure out your own personal spin on the dish.

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Cuban-Style Arroz Con Pollo

Brisket-Stuffed Papas Rellenas Recipe

Cooking enough for an army has been a long established tradition of Jewish mothers across the globe, but mine takes it to a new level. I can’t think of a meal prepared by my mother where there wasn’t enough food for each diner to have second or even third helpings. In fact, guests know that if my mom is preparing a festive meal, they most certainly should arrive hungry. This, of course, is no accident. As an immigrant who suffered great hardships in her native land of Cuba, my mother’s biggest fear in life is not having enough food. One look at the luxury of an American supermarket where there are aisles upon aisles stocked with countless varieties of culinary offerings, you’d think that fear would be quashed. However, this deeply rooted concern reflects less on the abundance that is available in the states, and stems more from her experience growing up in a third-world country, where she wasn’t sure if her next meal would offer enough to fill her then-growing belly.

Regardless of its origins, the fact that my mom is known for cooking in abundance is good news for any of her guests, because you can be sure that she’ll send you home with some leftovers. Perhaps it’s because of this practice that I have become well-versed in the art of reinventing leftovers. As delicious as my mother’s cooking is, after the third night in a row of eating brisket, I find myself craving a bit of variety.

papas rellenas assembly

Papas rellenas, or stuffed potato balls, offer a great respite to the repetitive nature of leftovers, and are perfect for the second or third night of Hannukah. Like a perfectly baked loaf of crusty bread, the crunchy, golden fried crust of the papas rellenas leads the way to a soft and delicate interior, and the meat filling is the surprise within a surprise. Traditionally stuffed with picadillo, or seasoned ground meat, papas rellenas can just as easily be stuffed with shredded leftover brisket, or any other protein of choice.

My favorite version includes the Cuban answer to brisket, Ropa Vieja, and will certainly be the highlight to your Hanukkah table or anytime you need a festive, fried finger food.

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Brisket-Stuffed Papas Rellenas

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