I’ve wanted to learn how to cook Cuban food ever since I met my Cuban roommate in college. If it hadn’t been for Miriam, I never would have discovered that perfect blend of citrus and spices that is bottled mojo sauce.
For years, I never bothered to cook Cuban food myself. We have so many wonderful purveyors of Cuban cuisine in the Tampa Bay area, it seemed unnecessary. From the Columbia, La Segunda, Brocato’s and La Teresita in Tampa, to Bodega and Pipo’s in St. Pete and Gulfport’s own Habana Café, we are surrounded by delicious Cuban dining options.
When the pandemic forced me inside – I am in a high-risk category – things changed. Suddenly I was cooking at home six days a week, and I was starting to get bored with my usual recipes. Around the same time, the Gabber asked me to help with their food coverage, and I started researching more local chefs and restaurants. One that popped right out was Habana Café and Josefa Gonzalez-Hastings.
In my research, I found what some long-time Gulfport residents already know: The University Press of Florida published a collection of Gonzalez-Hastings’ recipes in 2004. “The Habana Café Cookbook” shares recipes for all the Cuban classics, including roast pork with mojo sauce (lechón asado), chicken and yellow Rice (Arroz con Pollo), Cuban shredded beef (ropa vieja), daiquiris and more. The book also includes Spanish recipes popular in Cuba, like paella and Spanish garlic shrimp (shrimp ajillo).
I read “The Habana Café Cookbook” cover to cover. In the process, I learned that mojo sauce is even better with fresh citrus juice, white wine and extra spices; that the way you prepare plantains depends on how ripe they are; that Cuban-style paella is often made with Bijol seasoning instead of saffron; and that some of the best rum cocktails came from Cuba.
I wanted to meet Gonzalez-Hastings in person. I wanted to go to her restaurant, order the lechón asado with a glass of homemade red sangria, and gaze upon her collection of Audubon prints while I waited for my food. After dinner, I’d order the café’s famous cream cheese flan, even if I was so full I had to take it home in a box. I don’t know about you, but I’m not the type of person to pass up a dessert that won a Southern Living cookoff. But I’m still shirking indoor dining rooms due to COVID-19, so I did the next best thing.
Over the course of a month, I cooked four recipes from “The Habana Café Cookbook” for my family.
Since mangoes are in season, I started with salmon with mango salsa. The homemade mango salsa was so good I started looking for other excuses to make it. While I ate my salmon, I thought, “I bet this salsa would taste great on top of shrimp quesadillas.”
I made them a week later, and that salsa was delicious on top of shrimp quesadillas. I served the quesadillas with Gonzalez-Hastings’ baked sweet plantains. I could have let the plantains ripen a smidge more before baking – they should have black skins – but the ripest plantain was perfect, reminiscent of a stack of pancakes covered in sliced bananas and maple syrup.
I used some fresh peaches by making a pitcher of Jo’s frozen peach daiquiris. This recipe received the most rave reviews from my father, who loves a frozen drink.
The moment I found a good pork shoulder, I attempted the most classic Cuban recipe I could think of – lechón asado. There’s no way I was going to roast a pork shoulder for hours in the oven in Florida’s summer heat, so I halved the amount of liquid called for and cooked it in a crock pot instead. It was the most flavorful pork shoulder we’ve ever had at home. And because the only pork shoulder available was huge, we had more than enough left over to make mojo pork sandwiches pressed in Cuban bread with onion and Swiss cheese. I think we’ve found a new family favorite.
One month later, I’m glad that I embarked upon this extremely socially distanced adventure with Gonzalez-Hastings. I look forward to cooking more of these recipes. I can’t guarantee that “The Habana Café Cookbook” will become one of your favorites, but I can tell you that it’s now one of mine.