When the weather gets colder my food cravings automatically start to wander southward in an effort to stave off the inevitable fact that winter is a coming. One of my all time go to favorite frigid weather culinary escapes was ducking into a Cuban Chinese diner called Mi Chinita on 8th ave and 18th street when I was living in NY in the late 70’s. The windows were all steamed up and the place was always packed. Believe me, this was transportive fare!
I don’t know a lot about Cuban food’s evolution, but migrant Chinese workers that arrived in Cuba after slavery was abolished added their indelible culinary fingerprint to the local diet.
Likewise, Cuba has had had an influx of Mexicans laborers from the Yucatan since the 19th century who have added their voice to an evolving Cuban cuisine.
Fast forward to Cuban’s emigrating to the US during Castro’s revolution and opening up Cuban Chinese American restaurants in the 70’s and 80’s.
Long story short, Cuban cuisine is a fascinating melding of cultures that is undeniably a part of the ever evolving inclusive tastes of the American palate.
I am a great fan of tacos in any form, including those filled with a Chinese stir fry paired with the essentials of a typical Cuban plate that includes well seasoned black beans, rice, and fried plantains/ tostones. This is hearty food with all the bright flavors of the tropics that are a welcome respite from the chills of fall and winter.
Cuban Chinese Tacos
Needed: 1 package each of street size flour and corn tortillas(4 ½ “ / 11cm in diameter) warmed before serving
- 1 pound chicken, pork, or beef thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoon corn starch divided
- ¼ cup cold water
- oil for stir frying
- 1 large yellow onion, peeled, quartered, and sliced
- 1 each red and yellow bell peppers, quartered, seeded, cut into thin strips, and halved
- 2 or 3 serrano green chiles, quartered, seeded, cut into thin strips, and diced
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 inch knob fresh ginger root, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 carrot, peeled, thinly sliced, and diced
- 2 cups shredded bok choy or green cabbage
- 1 chayote, peeled, quartered, center core removed, and diced
- 1 cup chicken stock divided
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 2 or 3 tablespoons Chinese cooking wine or sherry
- red chile flakes to taste
- soy sauce to taste
Place the sliced chicken pork, or beef in a bowl. In a cup combine 1 tablespoon of corn starch with ¼ cup cold water and stir until combined. Pour the mixture over the meat and swirl to combine. Add a little more water if needed to just cover the meat and set aside for 30 minutes. This step will tenderize the meat.
Select a wok or a wide skillet and heat over medium high heat. When the pan is hot add several tablespoons of oil and swirl the pan to coat the pan with oil. Add the meat in a single layer and cook the meat until it is seared and begins to release from the pan. Turn the meat over and seer until browned and then transfer the seared meat to a plate and set aside.
Add a little more oil to the pan if needed and add the onions and stir fry briskly. As the onions sear they will pick up the remaining bits stuck to the pan adding flavor to the onions. Continue stirring until the onions begin to wilt.
Add the sliced bell peppers, diced serrano chilies, and sliced garlic and stir fry until the onions are translucent. Add the ginger, carrots and stir fry until combined.
Add the bok choy, or cabbage, and the chayote and toss to combine. Add a little chicken stock to lubricate the pan and continue stir frying until the vegetables are just wilted.
Add the sesame oil and toss. Then add the oyster sauce, Chinese cooking wine, or sherry, and toss until combined. Add the chile flakes to taste.
In a small bowl combine 1/3 cup stock combined with the remaining 2 tablespoons of corn starch and stir until combined and smooth.
Add the seared meat to the stir fry and then slowly stir in the corn starch mixture and continue stir frying for another two minutes or until the liquid has thickened and nicely coats the stir fry.
Taste and adjust seasonings to your liking. Then set the stir fry aside and ready for filling the soft warmed tortillas.
As pictured, have ready a pot of hot and spicy black beans, a bowl of hot steamed rice of your choice, and fried plantains/ tostones. Fill the tortillas and add to the plate and you are ready to go!
Note: Tostones are fried plantains Cuban style, which are actually twice fried until crispy. By all means make them if you know how. There are several tostone making videos available if you are feeling ambitious. Or instead simply pan fry plantains or unripe bananas, sliced in half lengthwise, which are a a fine substitute. The slight sweetness of the fried bananas are a nice foil for the spicy heat of the tacos and the black beans
For basics on how to cook beans (click here)
Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, is a uniquely Mexican holiday that celebrates the lives of the dead on the 1st and 2nd of November every year. The origins are attributed to Aztec animist beliefs combined with Catholicism, the dates coinciding with the Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Contrary to what you may think, Dia de Los Muertos is a joyous familial occasion that is celebrated with food, drink, music, and entertainment in homes and in grave yards throughout Mexico, Latin America, and in parts of North America where there are Latin American communities.
The imagery of vividly decorated skulls (calaveras) and dancing skeletons (calacas) associated with Dia de los Muertos was popularized by Mexico’s most famous graphic artist Jose Guadalupe Posada in the mid 1800’s. His work influenced a whole new generation of famous Mexican muralists and painters that followed him including Diago Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and Frida Kahlo.
Popular Dia de Los Muertos foods include typical Mexican favorites that are prepared ahead of the celebrations and served throughout the day and night, and often into the wee hours of the morning. Frijoles de olla and moles de Olla, are popular clay pot meals that include various meats, vegetables, chiles, and of course beans. Typically cooked over a fire or slowly braised in the oven as I have done for the recipe that follows. The mole is then tucked into warm tortillas, topped with picante salsas, and served with a chunky guacamole. Essentially you have a hearty meal in hand and the mole de olla will hold up until the last of the revelers eventually wend their way home as the sun rises!
For some more Dia de Los Muertos recipes, click on the following links.
Sopa de Maize y chile Verde con Pollo (click here)
Mexican Roasted Pumpkin Soup; sopa de Calabezza (click here)
Dia de Los Muertos Mole de Olla con Pollo y Chorizo Serves 6 to 8
- 2 pounds skinless chicken breasts, sliced into plump strips
- 2 pounds Mexican chorizo, divided
- 3 tablespoons olive oil + more as needed
- 3 large onions, peeled, quartered and thinly sliced
- 2 large green bell peppers, seeded and cut into strips
- 2 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into strips
- 4 to 6 green or ripe red jalapeno chiles, seeded and cut into strips
- 8 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
- 4 ribs celery, diced
- 1½ teaspoon toasted cumin seeds
- 1 ½ teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram leaves
- 1 cup tequila
- 6 cups cooked black beans (or canned)
- 1 quart hot chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons pure ground red chile powder
- pinch of ground clove
- salt to taste
- chopped cilantro leaves
- flour tortillas, warmed
- fresh crumbled cotija cheese (or mild feta)
- fresh cilantro leaves
- chunky guacamole
Choose a large wide pan with a lid that will fit on the oven wrack set in the middle positioned of the oven.
Preheat the oven to 325 f/ 160 c
Place the pan on the stove top over medium high flame. When the pan is hot add some oil. When the oil is nearly smoking add the chicken pieces and seer until the chicken is nicely browned and releases from the pan easily. Turn the chicken and seer until nicely browned. Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside on a large platter.
Add the chorizo to the pan and seer until the skin is deeply browned and releases easily from the pan. Turn the chorizo and seer until deeply browned. Remove the chorizo from the pan and place it in the platter with the chicken.
Add a little more oil to the pan if needed. When nearly smoking add the onions and saute while deglazing the pan as the onions begin to soften. Promptly add the green and red bell pepper and saute until the onions and peppers have wilted. Add the garlic and celery and cook another two or three minutes. Then add the jalapenos and saute while tossing until the contents are evenly combined.
Pour in the tequila and stir continuously until the tequila is nearly absorbed into the vegetable mixture. Add the cumin seeds, oregano, and marjoram and toss until evenly distributed into the mixture.
At this point return the browned chicken and chorizo to the pan and add the beans. Stir to combine and then add the stock to just cover and stir. Cover the pan with the lid and place it in the center of the oven. Braise for 1 hour undisturbed.
Open the oven and transfer the pan to the stove top. Remove the lid and stir in the red chile powder, ground clove, and chopped cilanto . Stir to combine and then season with salt to taste. If the mole is looking dry add more stock as needed.
Cover the [pan and return it to the oven to keep warm while warm the flour tortillas, assemble assorted salsas, and make the chunky guacamole.
Stack the warmed tortillas in a basket lined with a kitchen towel to keep them warm.
Place your salsas of choice on the table along with the guacamole.
Remove the pan from the oven.
Place a warm tortilla on a plate and spoon a generous portion of the mole de olla just off center. Scatter some crumbled cotija cheese, or feta, over the meats and vegetables and garnish with fresh cilantro leaves. Serve open faced so salsa can be added before folding the tortilla for eating.
The beauty of the chunky guacamole is it is easily forked and eaten along with bites of the filled tortilla.
- 4 Haas (bumpy skinned) ripe avocados
- 1 onion, peeled and finely diced
- 2 to 4 serrano chiles, stem and seeds removed, and minced
- 1 teaspoon sea salt + more to taste
- 1/3 cup freshly chopped cilantro leaves
- fresh lime juice to taste
- olive oil for drizzling
Slice the avocados in half lengthwise and remove the pits. Crosshatch each half of the avocado and then slice the hatches in half lengthwise. Gently remove the chunks of avocado and place them in a chilled bowl.
Place the diced onions, minced serrano chiles, and sea salt in a mortar. Crush and grind the ingredients with the pestle into a moist paste.
Scrape the paste over the avocado chunks and add the chopped cilantro leaves. Spritz fresh lime juice over all and then drizzle with just a little olive oil. Toss gently until the paste is evenly spread over the avocado chunks. Taste and add more salt and lime juice to taste.
Chill the chunky guacamole until just before serving.
Sopa de Elote is a Mexican corn soup that has many faces ranging from a modest broth based soup to a thick rich creamy soup gilded with molten cheeses and assorted garnishes. keeping in mind it is the corn that is the star ingredient here, shop for the freshest locally grown organic sweet corn you can find and let that be your guide. The remaining ingredients needed are more or less rudimentary and easily found in most local markets.
While you are cooking this soup a heady combination of flavors and aromas will reaffirm the enduring appeal of truly traditional Mexican cookery.
Mexican Sopa de Elote makes 3 quarts
Ideally, cooking the chicken and making a stock the day before you plan to make the soup lightens the time spent in the kitchen the following day.
Before you even begin to cook, remove the husks and corn silk from 4 ears of fresh sweetcorn corn and discard them. Then cut the kernels off the cob into a deep bowl. Scrape each cob with the back of a knife to extract the sweet milk from the cobs. Reserve the cobs that you will be using later, and cover the bowl with the kernels and scrapings and refrigerate as they will be added to the soup the following day.
Ingredients for chicken and stock
- 1 whole chicken
- water to generously cover the chicken
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- 1 tablespoon vinegar
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 1 large onion, peeled and diced
- 2 garlic cloves, skin removed
- 2 carrots, peeled and cut into three pieces each
- 3 bay leaves
- 4 cilantro ( coriander) roots, crushed
- 4 reserved corn cobs
Rinse the chicken and place it in a large stock pot. Add enough water to generously cover the chicken. Place the pot on the stove top over medium high heat and bring to a boil. Once boiling reduce the heat to a low simmer.
Add the salt, vinegar, peppercorns, diced onions, carrots, bay leaves, cilantro roots, and the reserved scraped corn cobs. Give the pot a good stir and cook the chicken at a simmer for 35 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken. Skim off any foam and fat that forms on the surface and discard.
Remove the chicken from the pot and set the chicken and the stock aside to cool.
Fish out the carrot pieces in the stock pot, place them in a bowl, cover, and refrigerate.
Once the chicken has cooled enough to handle, pull the meat off the bones in generous chunks and place them in a bowl. Leaving the chicken in larger pieces will give the soup a more substantial profile and tenderer meat when reheated. Cover the pulled chicken with cling film and refrigerate.
Put all the chicken bones back into the pot of stock and return the pot to the heat. Bring the contents to a low boil and cook until the stock is reduced by a third. Once again, skim off any foam and fat that forms on the surface and discard.
Remove the pot from the heat and set aside to cool for 20 minutes or so. Then strain the stock through a fine mesh strainer into a large container and set aside to cool to room temperature. Discard the bones and solids after straining the stock.
Once the stock is cooled, cover the container and refrigerate overnight.
The following morning skim off the fat that has solidified on the surface of the stock and save for another use or discard it.
Ingredients for the soup
- 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 1 celery rib, finely diced
- 4 garlic, cloves, minced
- 2 large gold potatoes, peeled and diced
- 3 quarts prepared chicken stock
- 5 jalapeno chiles, seeded, quartered, and flash fried
- 2 cups home cooked pinto beans (or canned), drained
- reserved cooked diced carrots
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram or oregano leaves
- sea salt to taste
fresh lime wedges
- 1 pint crema (sour cream thinned slightly with whole milk)
- sprigs fresh coriander leaves
- corn tortilla chips (pictured, blue corn chips)
- ground red chile as a final seasoning (optional)
Place 3 tablespoons olive oil in a stock pot set over medium heat.When the oil is nearly smoking until the oil dd the onions and celery and lower the heat to medium low and saute, stirring now and again, until the onions and celery are very soft and translucent, about, 10 minutes. Add the garlic and continue to cook another 3 minutes.
Meanwhile, place the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small fry pan. When smoking hot add the quartered jalapeno chiles, skin side down in the pan and flash fry until the skin is blistered. Flip the chiles and fry another minute or so. Remove the chiles from the pan and set aside to cool. When cool enough to handle pull off the blistered skin and discard. Then dice the chiles and set aside.
Add 3 quarts of reheated stock to the sauteed onion, celery, garlic mixture. Once the stock begins to boil, add the diced potatoes and simmer for 30 minutes.
Remove the pot from the heat. Using an immersion blender (or blender) puree the contents of the pot until smooth and creamy.
Return the pot to the heat and add he beans, reserved diced carrots, marjoram or oregano, diced flash fried jalapenos, and the reserved fresh corn kernels. Cook for another 15 minutes. Be sure to stir frequently so soup does not scorch on the bottom of the pot. Taste and add salt as needed.
When you are nearly ready to serve, add the pulled chicken to the soup. Allow the soup to come to a very low simmer and cook for about 10 minutes before serving.
Ladle the soup into individual bowls, mounding the chicken in the center. Garnished with fresh cilantro sprigs and serve.
Place a bowl of crema on the table along with a bowl of corn tortilla chips which can be added to the soup. Include a plate of fresh lime wedges, and a small container of ground red chile for those who want to crank up the heat bit.
Guacamole is always a nice accompaniment along with the corn tortilla chips as well.
This soup freezes beautifully and always nice to have on hand for a last minute meal on demand.
A couple of busy days recently left me with very little time for cooking, but a good hearty meal was none the less still very much on my mind. I wanted to put together an easy flavorsome one pot meal that would come to the table with minimum effort but not lacking in attitude. With chicken in the freezer, a pantry stocked with every Asian ingredient imaginable, and many years worth of the tastes of Asia embedded in my memory, I surrendered to the idea of letting the melding of flavors from across the region rule. In this case a base of Thai flavors along with notes from Indonesia, the fragrance of Szechuan pepper, and a splash of a smoky aged tamari soy sauce from Japan to flavor the accompanying rice, brought all the flavors together seamlessly as if it was meant to be. Serendipitous cookery has a kind of kitchen magic that is the very essence of the joys of being a cook!
Pan-Asian Fragrant Roasted Chicken serves 4
- 1 whole chicken, divided; or 2 legs, 2 thighs, 2 breasts halved
- 2 inch knob of fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and grated
- 1 large red shallot, peeled and finely diced
- 4 green onions, minced
- 4 coriander roots, smashed and finely chopped
- juice from 1 large lime
- 2 teaspoons turmeric powder
- 1 or 2 teaspoons minced hot red chiles
- 1 tablespoon sweet soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon Szechuan pepper oil (or chile oil)
- ¼ cup shao Hsing Chinese cooking wine (or rice wine)
- ½ cup water + more as needed
- 1 teaspoon of sea salt + more to taste
- 1 large head cabbage, thinly sliced
- 1 large onion, peeled and diced
- fresh coriander leaves as garnish
Prepare the chicken pieces and place in a non-reactive bowl, cover, and refrigerate.
Prepare the marinade at least four hours before you plan to roast the chicken.
In a stone mortar, or large non-reactive bowl, combine the ginger, garlic, shallots, green onions, coriander roots, lime juice, turmeric, and minced red chiles. Pound the ingredients with a pestle, or the back of a wooden spoon, until the combined ingredients resemble a coarse paste.
Then add the sweet soy sauce, light soy sauce, vegetable oil, Szechuan pepper oil (or chile oil) and continue to work the ingredients together until incorporated. Stir in the Chinese cooking wine, ½ cup water, sea salt and stir until well combined. Taste the marinade and add more salt if needed.
Spoon the marinade mixture over the chicken pieces and massage to be sure all the chicken is well coated with the marinade, Press the chicken into the marinade so that it is completely immersed. Add a little water if needed. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for four hours.
Preheat the oven to 375 f/ 190 c
Remove the marinated chicken from the refrigerator 30 minutes before you plan to roast the chicken.
Select a large Dutch oven or deep baking dish.
Combine the sliced cabbage and onions in the Dutch oven, or roasting pan, and toss until well combine.
Place the pieces of marinated chicken over the cabbage and pour the marinade over all. Spread the marinade evenly over the surface. Cover with the lid, or foil, and transfer to the oven and roast for 45 minutes.
Turn up the heat to 400 f/ 200 c
Open the oven, remove the lid, or foil, from the Dutch oven and rotate the pan 180 degrees. Roast for another 15 minutes or until the chicken is nicely browned.
Remove from the oven and set aside to rest for 5 minutes
Spoon the cabbage onto individual serving plates and top with chicken. Spoon pan juices over all and garnish with fresh coriander leaves.
Suggested (as pictured), serve the chicken with Thai jasmine brown rice (or brown rice) topped with dark Thai riceberry rice (or wild rice). Place the tamari soy sauce on the table. Just a splash of tamari over the rice adds a complimentary deep smoky flavor to the rice which compliments the chicken perfectly!