I have a confession to make before I embark on this journey as a self-proclaimed aficionado and lover of Cuban cuisine. As a child, I hated rice and beans. I didn’t eat much Cuban food until I was a teenager, besides a handful of staples (Arroz con Pollo – a brothy stew of saffron chicken and rice – Cuban sandwiches, Cuban bread, pastries, sweets, and an occasional sip of café con leche). I didn’t even recognize, at least not fully, my Cuban identity until I left Miami for the University of Florida, in Gainesville, not far from the Georgia border and light years away from my Cuban enclave. It wasn’t until people told me I had an accent, or was made aware of the volume of my voice and the expressive use of my hands during conversations, that my identity as Cuban or Hispanic became solidified.
When I was about 12 or 13, I started cooking with my grandfather. I was lured to the kitchen very early. The fact that the dish we were cooking –Arroz con Pollo – was made with beer, made it that much more enticing as my grandfather would let me sneak in a swig when my parents weren’t around.
The dish started with a base of chicken bouillon, beer, sofrito, and spices, and about two cans of beer, to which was added sautéed chicken that had been marinated in sour orange, garlic, and spices (the magic “mojo criollo”). The chicken, beer-laced broth, and short-grain rice (we used the “Valencia” brand ubiquitous in all Cuban households) were all combined in a pot and cooked together. While it was cooking, my favorite thing ever was to dip fresh Cuban bread into the cooking broth. After about 20 minutes, the result was a risotto like constancy that was simple yet deep in flavor and with a buttery consistency from the starches released from the rice. That combined with the mandatory fried and caramelized sweet plantains, an avocado and onion salad doused in olive oil, and some more Cuban bread was, and still is, one of my favorite meals ever.
My love for cooking, and for Cuban food, grew exponentially in my teen year. Many years later, after a stint as a research psychologist and the reason I originally immigrated to NYC, I opened a tiny (less than 400 square feet) Cuban eatery in Bed Stuy Brooklyn, called Pilar Cuban Eatery. We were in that space for five years before the need to expand became an unavoidable reality. We moved to a much larger space two blocks away in 2015