AACC Publisher, $14.95 (paper)
With Cuba in the news more and more these days, the debut of this self-published bilingual cookbook by Cuban culinary arts instructor Josefina Alvarez couldn't be more timely. Alvarez includes all the well-known staples of the Caribbean island's national cuisine, everything from the ever-present sofrito (an aromatic vegetable mixture used to flavor many dishes) to arroz con pollo (chicken and rice in a pot), ropa vieja (shredded beef), and even cuba libres (rum and Coke). The first 11 chapters feature the Spanish versions of each recipe, and the second half of the book presents them in English. While the book is very simply produced, with no color pictures or fancy typefaces, its value is definitely in the authenticity of the food.
Cuban food is not known for great diversity or overt spiciness, but the hearty peasant food is flavorful and satisfying. The chapter on appetizers didn't offer much to tempt me, but I found several recipes in the rice section that got me moving toward the kitchen. The Arroz con Pollo Cubano reminded me somewhat of the delicious version I've often enjoyed in the home of Puerto Rican friends, though I don't think their recipe includes either beer, wine, or saffron as this one does. The intriguing Arroz Havana turned out to be a layered casserole made with cooked long-grain rice, ground chicken, pimentos, sweet peas, asparagus, and sliced hard-boiled eggs bound together with mayonnaise. The addition of a green salad turned that into a filling family meal. Alvarez's recipes for Congri (rice with red kidney beans) also includes the variation that helps you create the popular island dish Moros y Cristianos, or Moors and Christians -- white rice and black beans. Both were simple and satisfying.
Meat choices in Cuba run more to pork and chicken rather than beef simply because of limited grazing space. However, one of the most famous national dishes is something called Ropa Vieja, literally "old clothes," shredded beef in a sofrito sauce over rice. The recipe that appears here may be very traditional but the dish left me wanting more spice. Perhaps a poblano or a jalapeño rather than the green pepper in the sofrito would have given it the little zip my Texas palate was craving. Both the Oxtail With Capers and Pig's Feet With Capers are dishes of Spanish origin, but they interested me only intellectually. I don't expect I'll ever cook them. I will, however, make the hearty Spanish Stew with garbanzos, collards, chorizo, leeks, onions, potatoes, chicken, peppers, tomatoes, and a ham hock and serve it with a good Rioja just as soon as the weather cools off.
Island nations usually don't lack for seafood choices, and the fish section of this book reflects the bounty that comes from the Caribbean: crabs, rock lobsters, shrimp, fish, and oysters. The preparations are basic and often include the same flavors. The selection of bebidas (drinks) offers several options for delightful island coolers with various fruit juices, shaved ice, and rum. The recipes make an interesting read, and most are simple to prepare, but I have to admit that many of them sounded so much alike, reinforcing the sense that most everything would taste the same or taste like sofrito. Still, All About Cuban Cooking fills in a space in my cookbook library as a reliable and authentic collection of Cuban home cooking. -- Virginia B. Wood
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