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 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!
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.
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.