“Do not underestimate this book, mi hija,” my mom tells me as she hands over a book with a faded pink cover, an artifact that’s been in our house since the beginning of time.
“This book smells like café,” says my sister, scrunching her nose as we pass the book around the kitchen.
As I page through the coffee-stained pages of my mom’s copy of Nitza Villapol’s Cocina Criolla, which is pretty much the Cuban cooking bible, I see familiar characters from my upbringing. There’s the arroz con pollo recipe that evolves into an even better dish when it’s two days old, the always dependable carne con papas, and even a simple version of arroz con leche. I look up at my mom with suspicious eyes when I spot macarrones con pollo in this book – I’m pretty sure she claims to have come up with that recipe on her own and called it macarrones para Elly.
My mom used to watch Villapol on TV back in Cuba, who held a thirty-year-strong cooking show teaching housewives not only how to cook, but how to cook during food shortages and severe rationing. She’s unofficially known as the Cuban Julia Child, somehow managing to keep her lessons upbeat and positive as she explains how to fry eggs without oil, or make mayonnaise without eggs. Only twelve eggs a month? No problem! Living in Cuba meant living in difficult circumstances and Villapol was that woman on TV helping people make do with what they had (hay que resolver!)
Walk into any Cuban kitchen and you’ll probably find a copy of Cocina Criolla or her later book, Cocina Al Minuto (Cooking by the Minute), with worn pages and scribbled notes. It’s nearly impossible to find a new copy to purchase, and the few available are selling for as high as $500 on eBay and Amazon. These books are rich with culinary history, a time capsule peppered with hustle and optimism. If there’s anything that will be passed on from my parent’s generation and onto mine, it will be this cookbook that I will add my own coffee stains to.
My mom learned how to cook through Villapol’s recipes, so I figured I’d give one of her favorite, tried-and-true recetas a try. Bistec en Cazuela translates to “Steak in a Pan” and can be found on page 48 of Cocina Criolla. One of my biggest challenges in following Cuban recipes is being exposed to different cuts of meat I’ve never seen or heard of before. Cuban dishes take advantage of cheaper cuts of meat, which is why you’ll see recipes call for very thinly sliced steaks (churrasco, vacio, falda, palomilla, and so on) that should either stew in lots of liquid for a long time, or be cooked quickly. Three Guys from Miami have a great, comprehensive guide to Cuban cuts of meat that you can take to any butcher.
After my mom mastered this recipe, she gave it her own twist after many years of trial and error. These adaptations are indicated in the tips below.
Recipe: Bistec en Cazuela
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Number of servings: 6
- 6 palomilla steaks – tenderized if possible
Mom’s tip: “I prefer getting tenderized, round tip steak (centro de bola) – the thinner the steak, the better.”
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 sour orange
Mom’s tip: “I don’t use this in my recipe.”
- 1 onion
- 1 green pepper
- 3 tablespoons of oil
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 bay leaf
Mom’s tip “Add a dash of oregano and cumin as well.”
- 1/4 cup of tomato sauce
- 1/4 cup of dry wine
- Combine the pressed garlic, sour orange juice, sliced onions with the steak, and leave covered in the fridge for thirty minutes.
- Heat the oil in a pan and lightly sear the steak. Add the onions and garlic afterward until they’re a little cooked.
- Add the sour orange marinade liquid as well as the rest of the ingredients (bay leaf, oregano, cumin, tomato sauce, and dry wine.)
- Cover the pan and simmer on low for thirty minutes. If there’s still a lot of liquid left, add more time to the simmer.
- Serve with white rice, avocado, tostones, or all of the above.
This was surprisingly straightforward. Villapol may have helped Cuban housewives survive difficult culinary circumstances for decades, but here in Miami, she’s making sure I can whip up a quick, easy meal after work without resorting to another lazy bowl of cereal.