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.
Watching Christina Martinez making barbacoa in her South Philly Barbacoa restaurant (Chef’s Table, Se 5 Eps 1, Netflix) was, for me, the next best thing to being back in Mexico where food celebrates the very heart and soul of the country and its people.
Barbacoa originates from the central plains east of Mexico City where traditionally a lamb or a goat is slowly steamed in a deep pit lined with rocks preheated by a wood fire. The meat is marinated and wrapped in maguey (agave) leaves and steamed underground overnight. Cooking a barbacoa in Mexico is all about having a special meal for large family gatherings on weekends and for special holidays and fiestas.
A deeply flavored succulent Barbacoa is built around using a variety of locally grown sun dried chiles, traditional herbs and spices, and a seasoned cook’s attention to the nuances of slow cookery and taste. Most Ingredients can be found in Mexican shops and markets, in some super markets, or online. Once you have your sourcing resolved, you will find yourself making barbacoa on a regular basis. This is the kind of authentic Mexican food everyone loves to eat!
That said, home cooks can replicate a traditional barbacoa with a few adaptations in their own kitchen oven. No pit required.
I would suggest using beef or pork in lieu of lamb or goat unless you and your friends and family are seasoned regional Mexican food enthusiasts. Goat in particular is definitely an acquired taste and best cooked outside.
Making a barbacoa requires both time and effort, but you will will be abundantly rewarded with a truly authentic taste of Mexico. If time is a real issue you may want to speed up the cooking time using a pressure cooker or instant pot. Another tip, barbacoa freezes beautifully so you may want to double or triple the recipe and have barbacoa nearly ready on demand.
Beef Barbacoa serves 6
- 2.2 pounds/ 1 kilo beef brisket or chuck roast (or pork shoulder) cut into 3 equal size pieces, trimming off excess fat and skin
- juice of 1 orange
- juice of 2 limes
- 1 small onion, peeled and finely diced
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram or Mexican oregano
- 1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds, ground
- ¼ cup cider or white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
Combine all of the marinade ingredients in a non-reactive bowl just large enough to hold the meat. Stir the marinade and add the meat, pressing the meat firmly down into the marinade to cover.
Cover the bowl with cling film and marinate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
- 8 dried New Mexico Red or Mexican Guajillo chiles
- 3 dried ancho chiles
- 2 dried smoked chipotle chiles
- 4 large garlic cloves, dry roasted and peeled
- 1 small onion, peeled, chopped
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil
- 1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds, ground
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon ground clove
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
- 1 ½ teaspoons sea salt or to taste
Heat a skillet over medium heat. When hot place some of the dried chiles in the skillet without crowding. Using a spatula, press the chiles against the bottom of the skillet and toast them for 30 to 45 seconds. Turn the chiles and repeat, remove them, and set aside. This dry toasting intensifies the flavor of the chiles.
When the dry toasted chiles are cool enough to handle remove the stems, slit them open lengthwise, remove all the seeds and discard. Then tear the chiles into pieces and place them in a saucepan. Add enough water to cover and bring the pot to a simmer. Simmer for about 15 minutes and then set aside to cool. Drain the chiles, discard the cooking water, and set the chiles aside.
Using a blender, add the prepared softened dried chiles, sauteed onions, cumin, marjoram, black pepper, clove, sugar, cider vinegar, and salt. Blend all the ingredients together, scraping down the sides of the blender jar as needed, adding water as needed, until the sauce is very smooth. This may take several minutes.
Place a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and, using a silicon spatula, press the pureed sauce through the strainer until all the liquid has been extracted. Be sure to scrape off the residual sauce on the underside of the mesh strainer into the sauce. Taste the sauce and add salt as needed.
Transfer the adobo sauce to a container, cover, and refrigerate.
Preheat the oven to 275 F/ 135 C
- 1 small onion, peeled, quartered and separated
- 4 garlic cloves peeled and thinly sliced lengthwise
- 6 bay leaves
- 6 whole cloves
- sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tomato blanched, skin removed and quartered, core removed
- 2 jalapeno or fresh red chiles, quartered and seeds removed
Select a Dutch oven with a tight fitting lid or a roasting pan. Place a shallow rack in the bottom of the pan of choice.
Remove the meat from the marinade and place it on the rack in the pan and add the marinade. Add just enough water to the pan to raise the level of liquid in the pan to about half way up the side of the meat.
Distribute the onions over the meat and tuck in garlic, bay leaves, and cloves. Season with salt and pepper, and top with tomatoes and jalapeno slices.
Cover the pan with a lid or tightly secured foil and transfer to the oven. Set the timer for 4 hours. Then check to see if there is sufficient liquid in the pan. If not replenish as needed. Repeat this every 2 hour until the beef is very tender and easily separated with a fork. Total cooking time will be between 7 and 9 hours. The longer the cooking time the more tender and flavorful the meat!
Once the meat is fully cooked set it aside covered until you are ready to serve.
Before serving you will want to remove the excess rendered fat gathered on top of the pan juices. Discard the fat or save for another purpose, like frying beans.
Before serving pull the beef apart using and reheat the reserved adobo sauce. The adobo should be the consistency of cream. If needed thin with pan juices. Spoon some adobo sauce over the pulled meat and serve the remaining adobo sauce in a bowl on the tables.
- corn and flour tortillas, warmed in a hot dry skillet (or comal, pictured)
- Salsa fresca
- salsa verde
- quesso fresca or mild feta
Place the Barbacoa in the cooking pan on the table along with corn and flour tortillas. Set out salsa and the quesso fresca for those who want to make barbacoa tacos.
Sweet, sour, salty, spicy, crispy, sticky, tender succulent, and aromatic….
These Thai baby back ribs explode with all the elements that make Thai food so popular the world over.
Tamarind? The tamarind tree originates from Africa, but now found across the tropics including South and Southeast Asia. India is now the largest producer of tamarind. Tamarind is used in many Thai dishes and available fresh or in paste form. Here in Thailand tamarind is available in fresh clusters of pods or in blocks of the sticky contents of the pods that include the seeds. The flesh and seeds from the pods are boiled until vary soft. The seeds are then removed and sticky flesh is passed through a fine mesh strainer. The resulting tamarind paste has a unique tart, sweet, and slightly fruity flavor.
The methods used for this recipe are adapted for the home kitchen. Some of the ingredients may be somewhat unfamiliar, but most can be found in Asian markets or in the Asian foods section of you local supermarket.
Keep in mind that cooking is always an adventure! Discovering new and unfamiliar ingredients and flavors are all part of the fun and open up new windows of possibilities. Tamarind is a subtle flavor enhancer you will find yourself using again and again when cooking Thai or other Asian dishes.
Thai Tamarind Baby Back Pork Ribs Serves 4 to 6
- 1 kilo/ 2.2 pounds baby back pork ribs
Separate the ribs and remove the silver skin membrane from the underside of each rib using a very sharp knife. Rinse the ribs and pat dry with paper towels, and transfer the ribs to a bowl.
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- 1 tablespoon back peppercorns
- 1 ½ teaspoons fennel seeds
- 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
Place all the rub ingredients in a spice mill and pulse until finely ground.
Then sprinkle the seasoning rub over the ribs. Using your hands, rub the seasonings evenly over all the ribs. Cover the bowl with cling film and set aside.
Basting sauce: makes 1 ½ cups
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely grated
- 2 inch knob ginger, peeled and finely grated
- 1 medium size shallot, finely minced
- 1 bunch of coriander, leaves and roots chopped
- ¼ cup light soy sauce
- 2 tablespoon dark sweet soy sauce
- 4 tablespoons fish sauce
- 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 4 tablespoons tamarind paste (available at Asian markets)
- 3 tablespoons palm sugar or light brown sugar
- 4 tablespoons rum or brandy
- ½ teaspoon red Thai chile powder, or ¼ teaspoon cayenne
- 1 tablespoon cold pressed peanut oil
- 6 kaffir lime leaves, fresh or frozen (optional)
Using a mini processor or mortar and pestle, combine the grated garlic, grated ginger, minced shallot, and coriander leaves and roots and pulse or grind into a coarse paste.
Transfer the paste to a non reactive bowl. Add the soy sauce, sweet dark soy sauce, fish sauce, lime juice, tamarind paste, palm sugar (or light brown sugar), rum or brandy, Thai chile powder, and the peanut oil and mix until well combined.
Select a rectangular baking pan and fit the pan with a shallow baking rack. Lightly oil the bottom of the pan as well as the rack.
Preheat the oven to 325 f/170 c
Place the seasoned ribs on the rack, bone side down and flesh side upward in a single layer, tucking the kaffir lime leaves here and there between ribs. Pour about an inch of water into the baking pan, generously brush the ribs with the basting sauce, seal the pan tightly with foil, and transfer to the preheated oven.
Total cooking time will be about 1 ½ to 2 hours. At 20 minute intervals brush the ribs with more basting sauce. Add water to the bottom of the pan if needed, re-seal the pan, and return the pan to the oven front to back to insure even cooking.
After 1 hour check the meat for tenderness. The finished meat should be very soft, but just short of falling off the bone. So continue checking and roasting the meat until tender as described.
Once the meat is sufficiently tender you want to raise the heat to 400 F/ 200 c.
Remove the foil and brush the ribs generously with more basting sauce. Pour the remaining basting sauce into the bottom of the pan and add more water as needed. Move the oven rack to the upper position, return the ribs to the oven uncovered and cook until the tops of the ribs are deeply colored, sizzling, and crisp on the top surface.
Promptly remove the pan from the oven and, using tongs, transfer the ribs to a platter and cover lightly with foil. Remove the roasting rack and skim the fat off the surface of the pan juices and pour the pan juices through a fine mesh strainer into a saucepan.
Place the saucepan over medium flame, bring to a boil, and if the juices are looking very thin boil until reduced to the consistency of a thin sauce.
Alternatively, mix a couple of teaspoons of corn starch mixed with an equal part of cold water, and stir it into the simmering pan juices while stirring until the sauce thickens to a thin sauce.
- 3 tablespoons tamarind paste
- 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1 tablespoon finely sliced green onion
- 1 tablespoon finely sliced coriander leaves
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red hot chile flakes
Place all of the ingredients in a small bowl and stir. Chill until ready to serve.
Serve the ribs on individual plates or on a large platter. Drizzle some pan juices over the ribs and, if serving on individual plates, add a small pool of pan sauce to each plate, or place a bowl of pan juices on the table.
Serve with a bowl of the tamarind dipping sauce and Thai jasmine rice as pictured.