Pastelitos de Queso y Guayaba
Say “pastelito” in Miami and everyone knows exactly what you’re talking about: Cuban puff pastries packed with a sweet or savory filling. While no one really knows the origins of pastelitos, some say they originated with a Lebanese immigrant trying to recreate baklava, and others argue that French and Viennese pastry techniques merged with sweet jams created by slaves in sugar mills. What we do know is that ventanitas - street-front bakery windows serving Cuban finger foods and coffee - began to dominate the Miami food scene as Cuban refugees arrived from Castro’s Cuba (check out the history section to find out more). In Cuba, sweet guava pastries are perhaps the most common variety, as the fruit is indigenous to the island, and cheese pastries gained in popularity after the Spanish-American war. But it was in Miami where an innovative baker combined the two, resulting in a salty, tart, and intensely sweet bite. These pastelitos are THE appetizer of Miami. Contains gluten, eggs, diary; vegetarian.
Apart from ventanitas, Cuban cafeterias and lunch counters are another type of Cuban eatery that dominate the Miami cityscape. Bright, utilitarian, and oddly nostalgic (most are still typical 50s style chrome-edged “diners”) these lunch spots are famous for a myriad of Cuban sandwiches, none more popular than the eponymous Cuban sandwich. The Cubano is a descendant of the Spanish mixto, a ham and cheese panini, that Cubans have been eating for centuries along with a slight variant, the Medianoche sandwich served on sweet bread. But the Cubano as we know it only became Cuban when it left the island. Sugar mill and cigar factory workers migrating between Cuba and Key West in the 1800s brought the sandwich to Florida, which became popular when Vicente Ybor moved his cigar factory to Ybor City in Tampa. It was in Tampa that the pork, ham, cheese, and pickles were first combined with Genoa salami (from the Italian immigrants who also worked in the cigar factory) to create the first “Cubano.” Miami, however, kept the sandwich closer to its Cuban roots by leaving out the salami and brought it to international fame, a rivalry that still exists to this day. While our version isn’t a sandwich, we’ve taken the same component ingredients and combined them in a rich bechamel sauce and fried it like a croquet. Contains gluten, eggs, dairy.
Ropa Vieja literally translates to “old clothes”. The story goes that there was a man so poor that he couldn’t feed his family, so he boiled his old raggety clothes and as he prayed they were transformed into a delicious shredded beef stew. Like so much of Cuban food, this dish is an adaptation of Spanish “ropa vieja” from the Canary Islands and Andalucia. Since cooking was not allowed on the Sabbath, Sephardic Jews would slow cook a rich and flavorful broth the night before, and then toss the shredded beef in an aromatic sofrito. As the dish made its way around the world (from the Caribbean to the Philippines), Cubans added their own distinctive touch, adding sweet bells peppers, tomatoes, and spices such as allspice and cloves. In an unfortunate twist of irony, this “national dish” of Cuba is actually rarely eaten on the island anymore. In 1963, Castro made it illegal to kill or consume cattle without permission in order to overcome a cattle shortage as a result of breeding mishaps. The law didn’t work and currently there are 30% less cattle in Cuba than in 1958; as a result most Cubans can’t afford beef. However, in Miami this is as beloved a classic as it gets. Many who left Cuba during or before Castro kept this tradition alive and even added to it: olives, pimientos, and capers are all an Americanization of the dish. Our version is true to Miami, with all the added goodies. Gluten free.
Rice and beans. A ubiquitous staple throughout Latin America, served with almost every meal. But Cuban congrí isn’t your typical boiled white rice and black beans, and of all the dishes served here it is the most representative of Cuba’s West African past. Although congrí is often referred to interchangeably with another Cuban rice dish, Moros y Cristianos, true congrí is from eastern Cuba, or Oriente, and is made with red beans, bacon, pork shoulder, and an east-Cuban sofrito of green peppers, garlic, oregano, and distinctively, cumin. Congrí comes from the Haitian words kongo (beans) and ri (rice) and the technique of boiling the rice in a bean stock is the legacy of West African cooks. Although the Spanish technically brought rice to Cuba and this dish has existed for centuries, it was only when Chinese laborers came to Cuba in the late 19th century that rice production really took off and made it a staple of the Cuban diet. In Miami you’ll find both red and black bean congrí, but we think the Oriental version is simply incredible. Gluten free.
Yuca con Mojo
Yuca, cassava, manioc… this woody root vegetable is found all over the world, from Cuba to Nigeria to Thailand, and is the 3rd largest source of carbohydrates in the tropics after rice and maize. In Cuba, roasted or boiled yuca dates back to the indigenous Taíno population and is a staple side for most meals. What makes Cuban yuca so special is the delicious mojo that is smothered on top of the veggie — copious amounts of garlic mixed with sour oranges, olive oil, onions and fresh oregano. Vegan; gluten free.
Another quintessential side popular throughout the Caribbean is fried ripe plantains. Brought over from southeast Asia by the Spanish and Portuguese, plantains became ingrained not only in the Caribbean but Western African cuisines as well. Unlike tostones which are fried green plantains, maduros are cooked so ripe that the plantain skin is nearly black. The natural sugar in the plantain caramelizes when pan fried to create a distinctively sweet kick to the otherwise savory Cuban food. Vegan; gluten free.
For an island famous for its sugar and confectionary delights, there is an undisputed dessert king in Cuba and Miami: flan. Like so many other things on this menu, flan is originally European, dating back to the Romans and then perfected by Spanish nuns with the addition of dark caramel. However, many cultures lay claim to some sort of egg, sugar, milk custard: from Japan to Vietnam to Mexico. But among the myriad of flans and its derivatives, Cuban flan IS distinctive. Most flan in the world is made with fresh milk, but, as discussed above, there aren’t many cows on the island. So Cuban flan uses equal proportions of evaporated and condensed milk, which act as a natural stabilizer for the custard but also add an incredible richness and sweetness not found anywhere else in the world. Even though Miamians had access to fresh milk, you don’t change perfection and all flan in Miami is still made the old-school way. Contains eggs, dairy; vegetarian, gluten free.
Although the Mojito was popularized by Hemingway during his time in Cuba, the original drink dates back to a sixteenth century beverage known as “el Draque” after the pirate Sir Francis Drake. According to legend, after his failed invasion of Havana, a few of his men sought a remedy for scurvy and were given a crude blend of lime, sugar, and sugar-cane rum known as aguardiente by African slaves working on the sugar plantations. The work “mojito” is actually a derivative of an West-African word translated to “little spell.” During prohibition, Havana became the cocktail capital of the US where the mojito was refined into the drink we know today. It then became the iconic drink of the Bacardi rum company, a brand whose history is inextricably linked with that of Cuba (the additional resources has more info). It’s a refreshing counterbalance to the richness of Cuban food, so check out our featured recipe for an amazing pairing!
2020 is over, and good riddance. While last year was tough for everyone, we want to begin the new year with the hope that we can soon get back to normal and have twice as many parties to make up for it! And while we’re nowhere near that point, we at the White Pine Kitchen want to kick off 2021 with a proper party-at-home to start this year strong. And nowhere on earth throws a better party than the Magic City of Miami. If you need any more convincing, just check out our playlist featuring Cecilia Cruz, Gloria Estefan, Enrique Iglesias, and, of course, Mr. 305 (a.k.a. Pitbull).
Miami is a large, diverse city known as the gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean, but for the last 60 years no community has so profoundly impacted Miami more than Cuban-Americans. With 90 miles separating Havana and Key West, it’s no surprise that the two are inexorably linked, going back to Columbus and Ponce de León’s arrival in Cuba and Florida, respectively. Cuba was Spain’s first and last colony in the Caribbean, and Spanish colonists introduced new crops and ingredients such as sugarcane, lemons, pigs, cattle, and chickens to the diets. Many dishes have roots in Andalucia and the Canary Islands, where most of the Spanish settlers came from. This is not to undermine the strong culinary influences from the Taíno Native Americans and West African slaves who creolized the cuisine into the Cuban food we know today. Surprisingly, there is also a noteworthy link to Chinese cuisine brought over from Chinese indentured servants after slavery was outlawed.
But really, Cuban / American history begins with the Spanish-American war and the Platt Amendment, effectively making Cuba an American colony in all but name. For 50 years, Americans ran things in Cuba, investing massive amounts of money into the sugar industry and building up Havana to be the American playground during prohibition. All that changed in 1959 with Castro’s overthrow of the Batista regime. The first wave of Cuban migrants to Miami were mainly the professional elites. The US government then started the Cuban Refugee Program and by 1974, a quarter of a million Cuban refugees were in Miami. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent food shortages, many in Cuba were forced to raft to Miami as part of the Wet-Feet, Dry-Feet policy that granted any Cuban who landed on American shores permanent resident status. All this to say that although the island of Cuba struggled during the years Castro was in power, the Cuban diaspora in Miami has blossomed.
What’s unique about Miami is that unlike so many other cities with isolated ethnic enclaves, Miami assimilated to the Cubans and not vice versa. Cuban-Americans are one of the most successful diasporas in the US and have preserved Cuban culture and cuisine as it was in the late 1950s - a snapshot frozen in time. Although things are changing with the arrival of Haitians, Bahamians, and other central American communities, the overarching culture of Miami remains Cuban-American. From Calle Ocho in Little Havana to South Beach, you can’t walk more than a block without spotting a ventanita or Cuban cafeteria. The food, the music, the movies - Miami Cubans have left an indelible mark on American culture. And what’s more is that Miami is just so. much. fun. (sorry Las Vegas, you got nothing on Miami!). To quote the city’s greatest poet Pitbull, “there’s nothing like Miami’s heat.”
Featured Recipe: Mojito Cubano
Makes 1 servings
12 fresh spearmint leaves with stems
1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
1.5 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
2.5 ounces white rum
2-3 ounces club soda, to top off
1-2 dashes Angostura bitters
Muddle the mint, lime juice, and sugar in an 8-ounce glass until the mint is slightly bruised
Stir in the rum and add ice, then top off with club soda
Add Angostura bitters and garnish with a sprig of mint
Recipes Inspired By:
The definitive guide to Cuban cuisine, The Cuban Table is Ana Sofía Peláez masterful ode to the Cuban food of her Miami youth
Chef Zee’s food channel is amazing, especially for Cuban and Dominican recipes
The history of Bacardi is the history of Cuba
A fascinating read on Cuban migration to Miami