Lovely descriptions of old Cuba meld with mouthwatering old, classic Cuban recipes that are practical and full of detailed information to help anyone recreate the recipes that Grandma used to make.
No pictures! But the recipes themselves make up for that.
Knowing my longing for a cookbook that would capture the essence of my own Central American upbringing, a close family friend gifted me this lovely cookbook named: Memories of a Cuban Kitchen by Maria Urrutia Randelman & Joan Schwartz.
I know, I know, Cuba is not in Central America, still .. despite this being touted as a Cuban cookbook, those from Central America and the Caribbean will undoubtedly be delighted by the 200+recipes and how similar they are to their own Central American cuisine.
This is because Cuban food has its roots in Tropical, European and Caribbean influences, as does Central American cuisine.
Despite not partaking in this type of food for many years, the recipes are all at once familiar and so vibrant and colorful that I can even smell the aroma of fried plantains, tamales and arroz con pollo while flipping through the pages of this cookbook.
If that is the aim of this book, it does this well, as it makes me long to grab the necessary ingredients and immerse myself and my children in the flavors and the very culture of this unique cuisine.
Cuba Through Her Eyes
The author of this cookbook was herself born in Cuba and offers this fascinating look into the culture of Havana in the 1950’s. This cookbook almost reads more like a family album or autobiography with recipes scattered generously throughout, rather than a cookbook.
I happen to like the format of the book, but for those of you who are expecting a cookbook with lots of pictures of the recipes themselves, you may be disappointed, more on that later.
However, personal family photos abound, giving this the feel of a precious family heirloom that we are allowed to glimpse and savor. It feels like one is getting Grandma’s prized recipes, complete with a nostalgic look into a very colorful and unique time in history.
Old Havana seems lovely, rich with culture and, in the author’s life, full of family, and yes, privilege.
It’s a look back into what seemed to be a carefree life for a little girl, who had no idea of the tense undercurrents of change that prompted her family to flee to America to wisely escape the coming Revolution.
All she knew was days at the beach, time with her beloved parents, Grandmother and Aunt Titi, and yes, lots of good food.
Being an immigrant myself, her memories and her recipes bring back lots of nostalgic memories of my own.
No Pictures of the Recipes themselves
Normally this would be a huge drawback for me. I am the type of person who loves and needs to see lots and lots of pictures in the cookbooks that I buy.
So why am I not falling down into a crumpled mess over the fact that we have no pictures of the recipes themselves to drool over?
Because strangely, I get why the author designed this cookbook the way that she did.
First, practically, there are over 200 recipes in this cookbook, pictures would make this book too big and unwieldy.
Ok, I know that is a bogus excuse.
So how about this one:
I’m just not sure some of these recipes would photograph well.
Think about it. Your mom may make the best potato salad on the planet and it may taste amazing, but how does it look in a photo?
You get my drift.
It’s the same with some of these vintage recipes. Sofrito may not look appetizing in a photo but have you ever added sofrito to rice, or to a stew or a pot of beans? It’s out of this world, right?
So, I think we should give the author a pass on the no pictures thing.
That is not to say that this book has no pictures at all…
In fact, quite the opposite is true.
If there were no pictures at all included in this cookbook, I don’t know if this book would have worked. Instead, with it being framed as an ode to Old Havana, combined with a running narrative of the author’s life and beloved members of her family, this works.
It’s charming, and as a reader, I was engaged by the combination of the wonderful recipes as well as stories of the author’s family, history, culture and migration to the U.S.
The recipes are old, or better yet, vintage. I suppose you can say they are “Oldies but Goodies”. She has organized the cookbooks into sections, starting with appetizers, going on to snacks, soups & stews, main dishes, desserts and mixed drinks.
Oooh the mixed drinks section is fabulous, but I am jumping a little ahead of myself.
The recipes jump out at me in fragrant visions of greatness in my head.
Fried Plantains, Fried Yuca, Cuban Bread, Fritas (which are fried cuban hamburgers), Papas Rellenas (stuffed mahsed potato balls) and my favorite childhood treat: Churros . Yes, there is a recipe for Churros.
Soups and stews include basic recipes for chicken and beef stocks.. to Bean, Pumpkin and Lentil soups (yum).
When the author launches into her meat and poultry section, this cookbook really begins to shine.
Her recipe for Carne Guisada con Platanos (Beef and Plantain Stew) brought back many childhood memories of the rich and flavorful stews that my Grandma used to make for us.
I gave up long ago on trying to replicate the depth and complexity of those stews, but when I saw the recipe in this book, I began to have a glimmer of hope.
If your Grandma was anything like mine, getting recipes and/or measurements out of her would be impossible. It’s always just “a little of this and a little of that”.
No more. Not with this recipe, not with this cookbook.
Even if you don’t like any of the recipes in this cookbook (not likely), this one recipe is worth the price of admission, if you get my drift.
Luckily, there are dozens of other recipes like this included in this cookbook, just as special and just as unique.
Other sections include a section on eggs, fish, salad, desserts and, as I mentioned above, a to die-for section on cocktails. Yipee!
Again the book is named Memories of a Cuban Kitchen, and in my book, it’s a winner.