Ropa Vieja, which literally translates to “old clothes,” or as my paternal grandmother would call them, “schmatas,” is the Cuban answer to a traditional Jewish brisket. Both use inexpensive cuts of meat that are slow-roasted until tender and falling apart, but Ropa Vieja takes it a step further, and actually calls for the chunks of meat to be shredded to resemble rags. This may seem like it would diminish the allure of the dish, but as Jewish brisket is usually reserved for the holiday table, a good Ropa Vieja is truly cause for celebration. Additionally, as it is important in the Jewish culture to pass our traditions from generation to generation, most Cuban families have had a recipe for Ropa Vieja for ages. Get the full recipe on Jewish&>>
The day I moved into my very first apartment was an important day for me. I was starting my senior year in college, and for what seemed like the first time, I was taking a leap towards independence. Sure, I moved halfway across the country to go to school where I knew only a couple people, but living on campus, there’s a certain safety net in place to catch (and comfort) the students if they fall.
I remember taking great care to choose an apartment within my budget, and carefully selecting my roommates. We plotted and planned how we’d decorate, and made memories building our ready-to-assemble furniture from our favorite Swedish retailer. Not surprising, the part of apartment living I was most excited about was that I would finally have a kitchen of my own. While my roommates concentrated on finding art to decorate our walls and the perfect rug to tie the room together, I focused on stocking our kitchen with our favorite foods and the tools with which to cook them. I found mismatched sets of pots and pans at my local discount store, and piece by piece, built our little kitchen into a functional one our friends begged to come and borrow. It was nothing fancy, but it worked for us. Granted, we could never invite more than four people for dinner, because that was how many plates we had, but we made it work.
My mom noticed my efforts, and took it upon herself to stock our little kitchen with its crowning jewel: a tostonera. A tostonera is a device specifically designed to smash chunks of fried green plantains into crisp, golden coins, called tostones. And the fact that my mom was gifting me a tostonera was a really big deal, because this served as an informal invitation to join the culinary ranks of the matriarchs in the family.
Just about every Cuban person who cooks has a tostonera, and now, I did too. I was so excited to put my tostonera to use, and at the first Hanukkah party of the season, I surprised my friends with a new treat. I figured that in many ways, Cubans use plantain bananas the way Americans use potatoes, so swapping traditional potato latkes with savory tostones seemed like a natural choice.
As my friends oohed and aahed while they crunched their way through the small plate of tostones, I smiled with delight, because I knew I was on my way to earning my culinary stripes.
This Hanukkah, if you’re looking for something outside the traditional latke box, take a cue from the Cuban cookbook, and serve tostones alongside your festive meal. And if your mother hasn’t gifted you with a tostonera, fear not. You can achieve similar results with the bottom of a frying pan.
Vegetable oil for frying
2 green (under ripe) plantain bananas
Kosher salt to taste
In a large frying pan, pour in enough vegetable oil to fill the pan about halfway, and place over medium to high heat.
Remove the peel from the plantains, and discard. Chop the pulp into rounds of about 1-1½ inch thickness.
To test the oil temperature, carefully place a small piece of plantain into the oil. If the oil bubbles around the plantain, it is ready. If it doesn't, continue heating the oil until it does.
Once the oil is ready, carefully drop the plantain rounds into the oil, and fry for two minutes before flipping and frying for two minutes on the other side.
Remove the plantains from the oil, and using either a tostonera or a frying pan and a flat surface, smash the rounds until they flatten.
Return the now-flattened plantain rounds to the oil, and fry until golden and crisp, about two more minutes.
Remove the plantains from the oil, and immediately place on a platter lined with paper towel to catch any unnecessary oil.
Sprinkle with kosher salt while the plantains are still hot, and serve.
I am a sucker for fall spices – I just love the warmth they bring to any dish. But pumpkin pie, in particular, with its creamy pumpkin custard speckled with warm cinnamon and nutmeg, encased in a flaky crust and dolloped with fresh whipped cream? Well, that is a can’t-miss dish for me, and I can’t imagine ending a festive fall meal without it. It’s no wonder that for generations, pumpkin pie has been the go-to dessert for American families.
That’s all about to change.
Several years ago, during one of our many get-togethers, my mom pulled a fast one on the family, and replaced our much beloved pumpkin pie with the less traditional pumpkin flan. And while there were many skeptics in the bunch (myself included), once they had a single taste of the creamy, rich flavor and burst of spice from a little orange-tinged bite of the pumpkin flan, there was simply no going back. The verdict was in. We had a new fall dessert! Since then, serious jeers abound if we get together in the fall and there is no pumpkin flan in sight.
I understand that flan, in general, is a polarizing dish. Trust me, I’ve tasted my fair share of egg-y, rock solid, just plain bad flan. But if you’ve never tried Cuban-style flan, you’re doing yourself a disservice, as its thick, creamy custard with sweet caramel sauce oozing down the sides, is more akin to a crust-less cheesecake than anything else.
And when you combine that with the distinct flavors of fall that can only be found in a pumpkin pie, what results is an undeniably can’t-miss dish. It’s truly a perfect ending to any fall festive meal, whether it’s Thanksgiving, Shabbat, or in this year’s case, even Hanukkah. Promise.
1 can evaporated milk
1 can condensed milk
½ can coconut milk
½ can pumpkin puree
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
pinch of salt
¾ cup sugar
2 Tbsp water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and add empty pan in the oven to warm. Note: it's best to use a 9 inch cake pan.
Mix first seven ingredients in a blender or food processor. Set aside.
In a saucepan, cook the sugar and water over medium heat until the sugar becomes a deep amber color (about 15 minutes).
Working quickly, remove the empty pan from the oven, and pour in the melted sugar. Swirl the pan around, so the sugar covers the entire bottom of the pan. Pour in the milk and egg mixture over the caramelized sugar.
Insert the now full pan into a larger pan, and fill the larger pan about half-way up with water (a water bath).
Return the flan pan and water bath to the oven, and bake for about 70-80 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
Remove the flan pan from the water bath, and set on a wire rack to cool. Once cooled completely, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
When you are ready to serve the flan, run a knife along the edge of the pan, place a rimmed serving platter over the pan, and invert it. The flan should fall easily, and the caramel sauce will coat the top and run along the sides.
For centuries, Jews throughout the Mediterranean have made good use of artichokes. Most notably, in Rome, crisp and lightly fried varieties adorn many a holiday table. I’ve always loved the simplicity and approachable nature of Italian cuisine, so much so that my husband and I partook in a local Tuscan cooking class on our whirlwind honeymoon adventure through Italy. When I returned home, I was thrilled to observe that since the climate and terrain in California are so similar to that in Italy, I am spoiled by the riches in produce we get here that resemble true Italian fare.
Perhaps it is because I grew up in an image-conscious city, or because healthy eating and cooking is important to me, but I often like finding ways to lighten up a recipe while maintaining great flavor. Lucky for me, I prefer my artichokes grilled, rather than fried. I know that just about everything tastes better fried, but I love the smoky, crisp bite of a charred edge that only a grill can produce.
Often times, artichokes act as a vehicle for rich, creamy sauces, but with just the right amount of seasoning and the slight kiss of the grill, these babies need no doctoring, and are exceptional on their own. And don’t be too intimidated about preparing and cleaning fresh artichokes. Once you try your hand at the first one, you’ll get the hang of it. Served hot off the grill or at room temperature, grilled artichokes are the perfect accompaniment to any summer meal.
To read more about Jennifer Stempel’s culinary adventures, check out her blog at The Cuban Reuben.
2 large whole artichokes
2 lemons, cut in half
1 head of garlic, sliced in half
1 bay leaf
1 tbs Old Bay seasoning
Seasoning blend of your choice (I really like Regular and Salt-Free Greek Seasoning)
In a large stock pot with the steamer insert removed, add 2 halves of the lemon (1 whole lemon), garlic, bay leaf, and Old Bay seasoning. Fill the pot with water until it just meets the bottom of the steamer insert. Place over medium heat, and let sit.
Meanwhile, to prepare the artichokes for steaming, first cut about an inch off the top of the artichoke. Then, with your hand, peel off the tougher leaves (about 1 layer into the artichoke).
Using a pairing knife, cut off the base of the leaves you just peeled, and continue pairing down the stem until you have a single, uniform layer. Rub the exposed areas with lemon, squeezing the juice from the lemon a bit.
Cut the artichoke in half, and again, run the lemon over the cut sides to keep from browning too much.
Remove the fibrous choke at the center, as well as any colored (purple) leaves. Run the lemon over the exposed cuts. Slice the halves into quarters, and assemble on the steaming insert of the stock pot.
Cover and let the water simmer for 30-40 minutes, or until the artichokes are fork tender.
(You can stop here, and eat them as is, but you'd miss out on the next step!)
Drizzle olive oil and seasoning blend over the steamed artichokes, then place them over high heat on a grill. Grill 1-2 minutes per side.
As the artichokes are already cooked, the goal here is just to get grill marks and the flavor of the char.
Holidays are meaningful for a variety of reasons, but more often than not, because they include a gathering of family. This will come as no surprise, but in my family, that gathering always features two elements: a mouthwatering feast and a dance party. Without exception, if there is music playing in the general vicinity, there will be dancing. Regardless of the amount of space we have, someone always finds room to bust a move. And depending on how much alcohol was served at dinner, the elders have been known to cut a rug, as well.
On the rare occasion when I need a little liquid courage to hit the makeshift dance floor, one of my favorite cocktails is the classic Cuban mojito. Made famous by Ernest Hemingway, this literary favorite blends the distinctly clean, fresh scent of lime and the aromatic essence of sugar-bruised mint leaves with world-class rum only found on the motherland and the nose-tickling fizz of seltzer. Topped off with a splash of bitters, it’s clear why the mojito is favored by Cubans and Americans, alike.
Since we’ll soon be gathering as a family for Passover, and rum will certainly be off-limits due to the dietary restrictions that accompany the holiday, I thought I’d transform this citrus-y cocktail into a tasty bite suitable for any seder table. By seasoning naturally bitter quinoa, a longtime Passover favorite across the board, with the most memorable elements of a mojito, hopefully, all it will take is one bite to get the more shy family members to hit the dance floor.
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 cup quinoa, rinsed and drained
1 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp fresh ground pepper
2 cups low sodium chicken broth
½ cup slivered almonds, toasted
2 Tbsp minced fresh mint leaves
2 limes, zested
In a medium pot, sauté the onions and garlic in the olive oil until the onions are translucent. Add the salt, pepper, and quinoa, and toast for 1 minute.
Pour in the chicken broth, and bring the mixture to a boil.
Cover the pot, lower the heat, and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the liquid has evaporated.
Fluff the quinoa, and stir in the almonds, mint leaves, and lime zest.