Believe it or not, it’s already the end of month. So that means the time has come for our latest Ethnic Exploration! We decided to mosey on over to Cuba for this edition. We were craving spicy and exotic flavors during our on-again off-again chilly weather, and our blog could use more traditional and authentic Latin recipes. Cuba seemed a fitting place to start our journey.
It was Chrystal who first offered up Cuba as a point of interest, and I thought it was a great suggestion. My father just got back from a stint in Cuba. He’s currently an Army doctor and was stationed in Guantanamo Bay for most of this year. I was eager to hear about any of his experiences in the country. His reports back, unfortunately, were minimal. As you can imagine, the military base is kept separate from the rest of the country, so he had no real, direct impressions on Cuban food and culture to share. He did send several pretty pictures of the beach though!
We have ventured around both Central and South America in recent explorations, namely Guyana, Guatemala, and El Salvador. This, though, would be our first stop in the Caribbean. And it should be of no surprise that with the current embargo, neither of us have actually been to this large island country, nor have I personally ever eaten authentic Cuban food. Chrystal has been to Versailles a few times, and there’s always LA’s delicious bakery, Porto’s, that everyone raves about, but authenticity can always be debated. This is why we do these Ethnic Explorations. We’re always looking for ways to recreate authentic and unknown recipes at home. Cuban cuisine is a true fusion of several different cultures from around the globe. Of course, its most notable blend of cooking techniques and ingredients combine Spanish and Caribbean flavors. In fact, our dish of choice has deep ties to Spain, and due to the appearance of chickpeas, others will attribute the soup to the Moors of the Middle East who introduced the beans to the European country. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll even find influences from Africa and China as well in Cuban cuisine. Now, we just needed to settle on one dish among this vast palate featuring so many choices!
There would be no markets for this one. We had to rely solely on other methods of research into Cuban culture. The official turn of winter is almost here, we wanted to cook a warming stew or hearty soup. Chrystal’s friend, Bren from Flanboyant Eats, is Cuban, and one of her recipes actually served as our main inspiration in this expedition. We were drawn to a dish called Potaje de Garbanzos y Chorizo, a chickpea and chorizo stew with potatoes and ham chunks in a thick, tomato-flavored stew.
There are really two main stars in this dish. From its name alone, it should be obvious that those main attractions are the chickpeas and chorizo. The other ingredients do their best to make these guys shine in this one pot wonder. First up, to successfully pull off most Cuban dishes, we needed to master the sofrito. Sofrito is the flavor base of many dishes. In fact, different cultures have their own version of a sofrito. Though they go by different names, the idea is all the say. In this case, sofrito is to Spanish cooking as a mirepoix–the classic carrot, onion, and celery combination–is to its French counterpart. A sofrito is the usual base for most stews, soups, or bean and rice dishes. A Cuban sofrito specifically consists of finely chopped onion, garlic, and green bell peppers that are slowly cooked in oil for several minutes. Depending on the recipe, additional components can be used, like tomatoes, meat, wine or other spices. This initial step is vital, as a properly timed sofrito is what guarantees the development of flavor. Definitely let your sofrito cook for as long as the recipe specifies. You’ll be happy you did, and will be able to taste the difference!
You’ll also notice that we used dry chickpeas versus the canned ones. Of course, you can reach for the canned alternative in a pinch, but using dry beans is surprisingly cheaper. Plus, they are so easy to make. All you need is some additional time and planning. Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, require several hours of soaking before they can be cooked. And it could take a couple hours of cooking after that for them to be done just right. If you have a pressure cooking lying around, just throw those suckers in there right away. With soaked beans, you can cook them in less than 30 minutes. They will be singing and dancing. No pressure cooker here, though. The old-fashioned, stove-top method worked just fine. Note that our beans had a little bite to them in the finished bowl. Don’t be scared to cook your’s to your liking.
Lastly, this recipe called for Spanish chorizo. Living in Southern California where Mexican chorizo is widely available, we actually had to venture to a couple different markets before we found the Spanish version. Whole Foods is a great place to start if you do not have a gourmet meat or Spanish market near you. The main differences between the two types of chorizo comes down to spice and the type of meat. The Spanish chorizo generally utilizes Spanish smoked paprika as its key flavoring ingredient. The Mexican version implores various dried chillies that are prominent in that region. Additionally, the pork meat in Spanish chorizo is coarsely chopped and the whole sausage is then cured or smoked, which means it can be eaten without cooking. Even with the casings removed, Spanish chorizo can be easily sliced into beautiful pieces, maintaining that perfect sausage, cylindrical shape–very similar in appearance and texture to a whole salami. Mexican chorizo, on the other hand, is made with ground, uncooked meat, making it nearly impossible to slice into whole pieces. If you can only find Mexican chorizo, don’t let that stop you from digging into this one. The final product will be slightly different, but at the end of the day, delicious pork bits are still delicious pork bits.
This stew was exactly what we were craving–something zesty, bold, and exotic with just the right amount of spice. The hearty potatoes and beans make each serving filling and comforting. It’s perfect for this time of the year! You can also enjoy this dish over rice or with bread. Additionally, if you have some winter squash or pumpkin hanging out in your kitchen, toss them in with the potatoes. Some of the recipes we saw incorporated chucks of calabaza, but we opted to leave it out. Dig in!
Potaje de Garbanzos y Chorizo (Chickpea and Chorizo Stew) – Serves 8 to 10 (inspired by Flanboyant Eats and Hungry Sofia)
1 pound dried garbanzo beans, soaked overnight and drained
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning*
1/2 pound Spanish chorizo, casing removed and sliced on a bias at 1/2″
6 ounces smoked ham, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 large green pepper, diced
6 ounces tomato paste
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
3/4 teaspoon smoked or sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground oregano
1 1/ 2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 pound russet potatoes, peeled and diced
Juice of 1/2 lemon, optional**
Fresh cilantro, optional
1. Bring 6-8 cups of water to boil. Add the chickpeas, bay leaves and salt and bring back to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and cook for 40-45 minutes. Skim the froth off the beans occasionally during cooking. Once tender, save 4 cups of the water, along with the bay leaves, before draining the beans and setting them aside. Save the pot as well.
2. Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Once hot, add the chorizo and ham, cooking for approximately 5 minutes. Remove the meat from the pan, and set aside. Add the olive oil to the same pan and toss in the onions and peppers. Cook for 8-10 minutes or until they begin to become tender. Add the tomato paste, garlic, chili pepper, paprika, oregano and cumin and cook another 5-7 minutes, stirring often to prevent burning. If you need to loosen up the mixture, pour a bit of the reserved bean water into the pan and stir well.
3. Place the chickpeas back into the large pot, along with the remaining reserved water, bay leaves and tomato sofrito base. Add the potatoes. If necessary, add just enough additional water to completely submerge the vegetables. Bring to a slow boil, cover and reduce to a simmer. Cook for 15 minutes, then add the reserved chorizo and smoked ham. Cook for another 30 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Serve immediately with fresh cilantro, if desired.
*We recommend stirring in an additional teaspoon of salt to the pot of stew before serving. In the end, season with salt as desired.
**To keep your potato cubes from going brown while you wait to toss them in the soup, place them in a bowl full of water and lemon juice. The acidulated water will keep them pretty and pristine.
Click HERE for the printable recipe.