I used to think I didn’t get attached to places. The past was a haze, an awful mystery I yearned to escape. My heart was not heavy when my family moved us from New Jersey to Florida when I was 10, and it was lighter still when I finally left Miami to seek my fortunes in Ottawa, Canada. I had much to flee. It was only later that I found something to mourn.
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, and with that size comes more regional variety than outsiders realize. In particular, the Oriente region of Cuba, facing Haiti and closer to the equator than the rest of this already-tropical island, are known for spicier fare than parts farther north. Bayamo, one of the oldest cities in Cuba, is at the heart of this region, and gives its name to this curious casserole.
A quick survey of the dishes I’ve presented so far might present the impression that Puerto Rico’s and Cuba’s primary proteins are sausage, beans, and beef. Beef certainly has a prominent place in Cuban cuisine, but in Puerto Rico, the place of honor goes to the pig. (And we haven’t even started exploring the chicken possibilities that these gastronomies offer.) Like everything else about Puerto Rican cooking, the pig became the fixture it is today because pigs are easier to raise in Puerto Rico’s difficult terrain than cattle, and less expensive for an island with a long history of poverty and neglect from is colonial masters. I’ve neglected my way into a nostalgic fixation with the pork dishes of my youth, so, here are chuletas a la jardinera, or, “garden pork chops.”
He wasn’t odd.
Emma González gives me hope.
I cannot often say that about my people. I am by turns disappointed in each half of my heritage, but it is my Cuban half that inspires the most sadness. And when I watch Emma González, I feel that unfamiliar rise in my heart, and know that my people will be better than we have been.
This recipe is as much a requiem as a celebration.
Frijoles negros, black beans, are at the center of the Antillean Hispanic culinary constellation. Any group meal will have them, any celebration platter will center them, and any rotation of different dishes will find them eventually. One does not experience the food of Puerto Rico, Cuba, or the Dominican Republic without dining on black beans and rice. I made this meal the center of numerous efforts to impress non-Hispanic paramours, and I kept it in my repertoire because of how constant, and powerful, its memories are.
The papa rellena, or “filled potato,” is some of Latin America’s finest party food. A papa rellena is mashed potato made into a meat-filled dumpling/fritter, breaded, and deep-fried. They emerge from the fryer looking like small loaves of golden-brown joy, and provide a deeply engaging combination of textures when bitten. I’m a big fan, and I challenged myself recently with learning how to make them, as part of a foray into more technically challenging Hispanic recipes.
Where there are Puerto Ricans celebrating something in the latter half of the year, there is coquito. My people’s answer to eggnog, coquito is much stronger and creamier than its American cousin, almost a dessert in beverage form. The family coquito recipe is a closely-held treasure, differing from those of other families and passed down by grandmothers. She will make the batch in semi-secrecy, usually without assistance, to maintain this mystique. To receive it in her practiced script is an honor, accorded to trusted daughters and daughters-in-law to keep the knowledge alive.
As the surreal hellscape of 2017 winds to a close, it’s time to look back on the past year of blogging and pick out some high points my dear readers might have missed. So, for your enjoyment, here are ten of Alyssa’s proudest creations of 2017.
You’re attending a quinceañera. You’ve never seen the birthday girl before. Everyone else in attendance knows you, but if you ask them how, they change the subject. The caterers kiss you on the cheek and ask you when you’ll give them grandkids. You’ve never seen them before, either.