On December 14, 2014, the United States and Cuba started the process of resuming diplomatic relations. Since then I have been unable to squelch my curiosity about all things Cuban, but especially food. I was intrigued to find that many Cuban dishes have their roots in the Sephardic Jewish population. Ropa Vieja, a popular dish can even be made with a brisket cut of meat. Since I am Jewish I think of it as Cuban Shabbat dinner.

My favorite movie is The Godfather movie. You can find me on any Saturday looking to see if it is showing on any one of hundreds of TV channels. Cuba has a large role in Godfather II. That is where Michael went to meet with Hyman Roth and other important dignitaries to plan their business takeover. I wonder if the meal Mr. Roth was serving was his Shabbat in Cuba. That was my first look at the fascinating brightly colored homes and the well-preserved, vintage, American cars that make up Havana. My first taste of Cuban cuisine came from the restaurant Versailles. I live in Los Angeles and like most cities in the US that have any Cuban population; we have a few Versailles’. They serve a wide variety of Cuban food with a, slightly, American flair. Here in LA it might describes as the ‘gringo” version. The Ropa Vieja, below, is based on their recipe.

Travel companies are gearing up for the first tours to Cuba, airlines are asking for gate space and Americans are lined up to get their visas. As we wait for all this to happen, I thought it would be fun to give you a Cuban food primer, in your own home. I am making my own experience more authentic, by turning up the humidifier!

Havana Harry’s, is a popular Miami restaurant. They serve all things Cuban. While Vaca Frita is typically a beef dish, they do a chicken version that is out of this world. When I first looked down at the plate I felt betrayed. Was I in little Havana or Israel? Vaca Frita looks very much like Shwarma meat served on the plate and accompanied by pita. The real secret to a great Vaca Frita is the “mojo”. This iconic citrus marinade is used in so many aspects of Cuban cooking. It can be made with or without oil. The oil becomes crucial when you are cooking meats, such as chicken and fish that have a lower fat content. Every cook has their own version of mojo, but the basics stay the same. Mojo is usually made with bitter Seville orange juice. However, it can sometimes be difficult to find in big American grocery stores. I chose Nelly’s Key Lime Juice, sweet orange juice and lemon juice to try and get the balance of sweet and bitter. Another option is tangerine juice or even pink grapefruit juice.

It wouldn’t be Shabbat without dessert and as a matter of fact we recently celebrated Purim. I am including a recipe for a guava cream cheese pastry. My version is a cross between hamantaschen and sopapilla. Guava paste is very sweet, and so is the Cuban coffee you will serve with it. Cafetcito by definition is little coffee so a little goes a long way when serving dessert, too.

There are as many opinions on how to make “cafecito” as there are Cubans. There is a Cuban blend of espresso and you can make it in a Mokka (an espresso pot). But you can also use a good Columbian or French roast. You can also boil it on the stove. Some stir their sugar in halfway through the brew process and some make frothy mix of sugar and coffee to stir in after the coffee is brewed. My suggestion is to start with www.3guysfrommiami.com. They have a good but simple version. Just like the mojo, you will find your own personal style.

All that’s left to do now is put on some Buena Vista Social Club, start dancing around your kitchen and cook!



Chicken Vaca Frita

  • 2 pounds skinless, bone-in chicken thighs
  • 1 bay leaf
  • chicken stock, to cover, about 3 cups
  • 1/2 head, roasted garlic, minced
  • 4 Tablespoons oil
  • 1/2 cup sweet orange juice
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup key lime juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon, rough chopped, oregano
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 small sweet onions, peeled and sliced thin
  • 6 additional cloves of garlic, minced
  • Salt & Pepper, to taste

Place Chicken and bay leaf in a large pot and cover with chicken stock.  You can add parsley or cilantro stems, even hearts of celery.  Add whatever you have on hand to boost flavor.  Bring to a boil and start skimming off foam from surface.  Reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes, or until meat falls off the bone. Remove chicken and let cool, so it can be handled.  Let the extra stock cool and then freeze or use immediately.  Its a nice start to soups and sauces.

remove chicken from bone and shred. Set aside.

**Mojo is a sauce/marinade (you are about to make it).  Make extra and and keep it in fridge for up to a week**

Heat 2 Tablespoons of the oil in a heavy skillet and saute the roasted garlic.  Add in juices, ground pepper, oregano and cumin. Reduce heat and whisk until heated through.  This is your mojo.  Pour into a bowl and keep warm.

In the same skillet heat remaining oil and saute chicken with sliced onions until the onions are tender.  Stir in remaining garlic and cook until meat is crisp and browned. Season with salt & pepper.

Transfer to a heated platter and serve with white rice and black beans.  Garnish with fresh limes.

Ropa Vieja

  • Servings: 4-6
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  • 2 pounds flank steak (or brisket)
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, sliced in strips
  • 1/2 spanish onion, sliced in strips
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 2 teaspoons coarse salt
  • 2 teaspoons fresh ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup red wine

Add all ingredients to a slow cooker.  Add just enough water to cover steak.

Set cooker to low heat and cook for 6-8 hours until meat comes apart with fork.  Shred meat and set aside.

  • 3 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 3 Tablespoons tomato paste
  • 3 Tablespoons tomato sauce
  • 1 teaspoon, minced oregano
  • Salt & Pepper, to taste

Heat olive oil in a large skillet.  Transfer peppers and onion from slow cooker to skillet, reserve juice.

Add tomato paste, tomato sauce and beef broth.

Add shredded beef to tomato mixture and cook for another 20 minutes, stir occasionally.

Stir some of the reserved juice into cooked white rice and serve.

Guava & Cheese Turnovers

  • 1 large egg
  • 1 Tablespoons cold water
  • 2 sheets frozen puff pastry dough
  • 1/2 cup guava paste (use preserves if you can’t find paste)
  • 4 ounces cream cheese, start with block bring to room temp and beat it until creamy
  • 2 Tablespoons raw sugar (turbinado)

Preheat oven to 400

Be a together egg and water

On a cutting board use a sharp knife to cut 4-6 squares from each sheet of pastry and brush each lightly with egg wash.

Spoon 1 tablespoon each of guava and cream cheese onto squares, slightly off center.

Fold square in half forming a triangle and press edges together.  Crimp edges with fork and brush tops with more egg wash.  Sprinkle with sugar.

Arrange pastries on a parchment lined baking sheet and chill in freezer for 20 minutes.

Bake until golden and puffed, about 15 minutes.  I like to rotate at least once during baking.

Serve warm (but they’re really good at leftover room temperature)

2 Comments on Havana (Shabbat) Nights!

  1. I enjoyed your All Things Cuban article. As a Cuban, I am impressed how you are able to pay homage to typical elements of the Cuban meal with cafecito and guava with cream cheese and Ropa vieja. The most common reference to Cuban food is black beans and rice, pork or the famous Cuban sandwich. When you walk into a Cuban home in America, there is usually a cafetera at the ready to brew. There is usually a protein marinating in garlic and citrus and adobo. And there’s a tin or box of guava paste, pasta de guayaba, to break open if folks stop by. Thank you for recalling some true staples of our culture.

    My friends and I host a Cuban potluck every 6-8 weeks in Ventura County. If you would like to attend one, please email me.

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