Saturday, February 27, 2010

By Request: Platanos Maduros

A plantain is a fruit that likes to impersonate a vegetable.  It's kind of like a banana mixed with a potato.  They can be served a million different ways (stay tuned for follow-up experiments), but one of the most common ways is sweet and fried (as though they were after my Southern heart).  They go great with just about everything, and it's guaranteed to dazzle dinner guests by introducing them to exotic flavors that they may not be accustomed to.  The best part is that it's really easy to make!

First, buy some plantains.  There is much debate surrounding yellow vs. green plantains.  I've found that green plantains are more savory and more difficult to peel, while yellow plantains are more sweet and easier to peel.  Regardless of your preference, you need to allow 5-7 days for the plantains to ripen.  The Spanish word maduros actually means ripe.  And we're not talking about a-few-brown-spots-ripe; these ain't bananas.  Your plantains need to be nearly black, like so:

To cook three large plantains, you will need 1/2 cup of canola oil and 1/2 cup of dark brown sugar.  You can make more or less plantains; my skillet just happens to hold three.

Next, peel your plantains.  Unfortunately, this isn't as easy as peeling a banana, but slicing off the tips is a good trick to get you started.  Once peeled, slice the plantain into 3/4-inch thick slices, on the bias.
Pour the brown sugar into a small bowl and give the slices a toss in there.  You don't have to coat each slice in brown sugar as you would with flour when frying chicken.  Just a little dusting will suffice in order to improve the caramelization process.

Heat your oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Once it's good and hot, gently place your slices in the skillet.  The key to the cooking process is to be gentle.  If your plantains are as ripe as they should be, they'll be very delicate...and you don't want to mess up that pretty shape that you created with your perfect bias slices!  I've found that using plastic tongs helps (metal is too harsh and a plastic spatula is too cumbersome).

As your plantains cook, minimize contact between slices.  That brown sugar is going to make for a sticky situation.  You'll know it's time to flip them over when you can see the crispy caramelized bottom creeping up the sides of each slice.

When you flip them over, they should look just slightly crispy, like this:

La perrita gringa recognized this smell and, the eternal optimist that she is, truly believed that today was the day she would finally get to try platanos.  Wrong.

Once both sides are cooked evenly, place on paper to cool/get rid of some of the grease.  Make sure it's parchment or wax paper, and not paper towels.  Hey, I'm still learning too!

Have you ever had plantains before?  What's your favorite plantain dish?

Saturday, February 13, 2010


I'm currently a physical therapy student (not for much longer though!) and I recently traveled to Guatemala for a service trip.  When we weren't treating patients, my classmates and I were lucky enough to explore some of Guatemala and learn about their rich culture.  One day, we toured a coffee plantation and learned this fabulous toast:
Deseo que su café sea negro como noche, fuerte como la pasión, el dulce como amor, y caliente como infierno.
Translation: May your coffee always be black as night, strong as passion, sweet as love, and hot as hell!

Friday, February 12, 2010

How to Make Perfect Arroz Blanco

White rice, or arroz blanco, is one of Cuban cuisine's simplest dishes.  It is also one of the easiest to ruin.  I can't tell you how many times I've turned it into mush, undercooked it, even burned it!  Maybe the secret is to have a fancy rice cooker.  Well, I'm a poor graduate student, so I need a stove-top solution.  After much experimenting, here is the protocol I've come up with.

Before we get started, a few helpful hints:
  1. Make sure you use a stock pot or saucepan with a tight-fitting lid.
  2. Choose a stock pot or saucepan that is sized appropriately to the amount of rice you're cooking.  Large stock pots or spaghetti pots are great for 2 cups or more, but if you try to cook less than that in a pot too large, it's more likely to spread too thin and stick to the bottom.
  3. Use long grain or jasmine rice.  I don't know if this is the traditional thing to do.  I do know that the smaller grain, the more likely it is to turn to mush.  Longer grain = more room for absorption.
  4. Be patient!
Now we're ready to begin!

Rule #1: Use 1-1/2 cups of water for every 1 cup of rice.

Rule #2: For every 1 cup of rice, use 1-1/2 tablespoons of butter, 1-1/2 teaspoons of salt, and 1 teaspoon of cumin.

Rule #3: Always rinse your rice. 
 Some plants that process rice can add things like talc.  This isn't harmful to eat, but it can mess up the chemistry involved in cooking rice to a perfect consistency.  Make sure you get rid of any excess water after rinsing.

Next, bring your rinsed and refreshed rice to your saucepan.  This brings us to Rule #4: Coat your rice in butter before cooking it.
 Pour the butter over the rice and gently stir until well-distributed.  This decreases the rice's risk of sticking to the pan.

Rule #5: Cook the rice first before you let it absorb.  This isn't couscous.  Absorption alone won't cut it.  Add the water and spices and heat to medium-high heat.  Bring to a boil.  Cover, and cook for 12 minutes.  Stir occasionally to make sure that your rice isn't sticking to the bottom of the pan.  It's okay to uncover to accomplish this...remember, you're not absorbing yet.

Rule #6: Absorption is key.  As soon as your 12 minutes are up, immediately remove from heat.  Keep it covered and let it sit for 30 minutes.  I know, I know.  That's a long time!  Your next step is to relax and find something to distract yourself with during those 30 minutes.

After your 30 minutes are up, uncover and fluff.

¡Buen provecho!

Did this work for you?  Any other suggestions you'd like to share?  Comment away or email me at cooking4gringas (at) gmail (dot) com! 

Thursday, February 11, 2010

10 Items Every Cuban Kitchen Should Have

If you're new to Cuban cuisine, reading a recipe can be like reading something in a foreign language (well, some of the ingredients are probably in Spanish).  Ingredients that are very common in Latin households may seem exotic and unusual to us gringas.  I've actually had to google certain ingredients, then hunt all over town for them, only to end up mispronouncing them to the Kroger employee!  Then of course, the entire process repeats itself with the next recipe!  Here's a list of common Cuban ingredients to stock up on in your cocina:

White Rice (Arroz Blanco
I'm a bit of a health freak, so this took me a while to get used to.  Brown rice, unfortunately, just does not do what white rice does for Cuban cuisine. Try to have at least 2 cups of white rice (real rice, not the instant kind) in your pantry at all times.  It's always a crowd favorite when it's served with black beans (otherwise known as congri)!  Coming soon to a blog near you: how to make perfect white rice.

Black Beans (Frijoles Negros)

I know, I know.  True frijoles are supposed to be purchased dry and soaked overnight and...though I'm a big fan of tradition, I'm also a big fan of not wasting time!  Goya brand black bean soup (as seen in this little red can) is a great staple to have around.  But it's soup!  Shouldn't I buy the blue can of just beans?!  No.  The soup is pre-seasoned!  All you have to do is heat it up, and it's delicious.  Trust me, your tastebuds will thank me!  If it seems like too much liquid, you can always drain some of it.

Mojo Sauce
Mojo sauce is great for seasoning, marinating, or serving as a condiment with tostones.  This is available in a bottle in most grocers' ethnic food aisle.  If you can't find it, fear not.  I'm currently working on perfecting my recipe, so stay tuned for the secret formula!

Sour Orange Juice
Sour orange juice is great to use when roasting or slow cooking.  The acidity helps to break down the meat so it can fall apart in your mouth.  Unlike most orange juices, sour orange juice doesn't have to be refrigerated until it's opened, so feel free to keep it on hand just in case.  This should be available in the ethnic food aisle as well, but you can use this helpful hint in case you prefer it fresh:
2 parts orange juice + 1 part lime juice = sour orange juice
(If that still tastes too tart, you can add sugar to taste.  The sugar will only help to tenderize the meat!)

Discos are available in your grocer's freezer.  They're basically little wontons that, when defrosted for a few minutes, are quite versatile.  A lot of recipes for empanadas (meat-filled dumplings) or pastelitos (fruit-filled turnovers) include a recipe to make the dough.  With discos on hand, you can bypass that step completely!

Canola Oil

Unfortunately, a lot of Cuban food is fried and a lot of recipes call for the use of butter (one of the many reasons why Cuban food is muy delicioso).  As a Southern girl, I've encountered this problem a lot with cooking.  As a health freak (see white rice complaints above), my solution is canola oil.  Canola oil contains the least amount of saturated fat (about 7%) out of all the common household oils.  It won't give your dishes the richness that butter does, but it's a good alternative if you don't mind the sacrifice.

 Cilantro is an important part of Cuban cuisine, but fresh herbs can be expensive.  Behold, another convenient alternative.  I'm a snob about fresh herbs because I'm lucky enough to live near a very affordable farmer's market.  The dried stuff just won't do.  These frozen alternatives are available in finer grocery stores (like Whole Foods or Trader Joe's).  Each cube is approximately equal to one tablespoon of fresh herbs.  They're great to have around if you didn't have a chance to buy it fresh.

Café Bustelo
Cuban coffee is one of my favorite aspects of Cuban culture.  I love sitting around with family after a meal and sipping the strongest and sweetest coffee in the world.  I'm still working on my rendition, but for now just know that Cuban coffee is espresso.  Espresso is just very finely ground coffee.  If you have a coffee grinder at home, just leave it on the fine setting (just before Turkish).  If you prefer to purchase pre-ground coffee, Café Bustelo is the best.  Believe me, I've sampled just a few.

After a hot summer day, there is nothing more refreshing than a mojito.  Light Cuban rum (like Havana Club) is an essential ingredient.  We'll examine the rest of the ingredients another time (I promise to stop shamelessly self-plugging soon).

Finally (and arguably most importantly), Cumin!
I never used cumin in my cooking until I met my fiancé.  He uses it in everything and it makes everything taste magical.  Buy it in bulk.