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Cuba is a small island nation located in the northern Caribbean. It's less than 100 miles south of Key West, Florida. Over the years, Cuba has had amicable relationships with South and Central American countries. As a result of friendships with these countries, as well as the Spanish, British, and French colonists in the West Indies, influences on Cuban cuisine come from a variety of cultures around the world.

Cuban Ingredients

There are a few characteristics that are common in preparing C…

ban meals: most meat, seafood, and vegetable-based entrees are sautéed and slow-cooked over a low flame. And then there are a few ingredients that tend to show up in Cuban recipes, including garlic, oregano, cumin, and bay leaves, and onions, peppers, and tomatoes. If you combine some of these spices and vegetables with a skillet and low heat, what you'll come away with is sofrito. In traditional Cuban cuisine, sofrito is used as a base for beans and rice dishes, it's a marinade, and it's a main ingredient in soups and stews. Sofrito is so prevalent in Cuban cooking that home chefs tend to make large batches at one time and freeze enough to stretch across several meals.

Mojo is another popular Cuban marinade. It's made with garlic cloves, olive oil, and citrus juice, and it's served over yuca, boniato, and malanga. Yuca is a starchy root vegetable that has a mild, nutty flavor. Boniato is related to the sweet potato, but because it contains less sugar, it's much less sweet. Malanga is a dense vegetable with a nutty flavor and a texture similar to a potato. Mojo pairs very well with meat-based recipes. For mojo marinated pork, allow the pork to steep in the sour-savory sauce for 24 hours before roasting the pork in the oven. You can also use a slow cooker to make mojo marinated pork. After the ingredients meld overnight in the slow cooker, remove the pork and use and then thicken the remaining sauce with a little cornstarch. When it's the consistency of gravy, pour it over rice, potatoes, or vegetables.

Cuban Rice and Beans

Anyone who has ever eaten traditional Cuban food knows that white rice and black beans are a staple of this cuisine. The only time you won't get beans and rice on the side is when it's already part of the main course. To make arroz con pollo (Spanish chicken and rice) at home, you need a few fresh chopped vegetables and herbs, chicken broth, Spanish-style olives, olive oil, and skin-on chicken. It takes less than an hour to prepare and cook this rice and chicken recipe. We suggest making several servings at once, so you have enough to serve with lunch and dinner for the next few days. The other great thing about this easy-to-make dish is that it pairs well with chicken, pork, seafood, beef, vegetables, and tofu. So if you find a recipe that would sound fabulous if it weren't for the flank steak that you don't have at home, you can replace the beef with shredded chicken or crispy chicken. You can go in a different direction altogether and make scallops or plantains.

Traditional Cuban Recipes

Ropa vieja (Cuban shredded beef) is an important recipe to learn if you enjoy eating Cuban food. Not only is shredded beef used in a lot of Cuban entrees, but it's a great dish to know how to cook when you're improvising. Or beef something you can use as a substitute for ingredients you don't like or in place of an ingredient you forgot to buy. Flank steak is perfect for making shredded beef dishes. Cut into strips about 1 1/2 inches long. After you brown the beef on both sides in a pan, place it in a large pot or Dutch oven containing boiling beef or vegetable soup stock.

If you like shredded beef but are in the mood for something crispy, then we know the perfect dish for you: vaca frita (it translates to fried cow). Simmer the steak for 20 minutes in a saucepan with a mixture of water, bell peppers, thinly sliced white onions, and a bay leaf. Then sauté the shredded beef on a flat griddle in a thickened marinade containing olive oil, lime, and mashed garlic marinade. After about 6 minutes on the griddle, test the crispiness of the shredded beef and onion. Once it hits peak crispiness, serve with a warm, crusty roll and butter, and Spanish rice and black beans.

Fraciasé de Pollo, or Cuban-style chicken stew, is a stand-alone dish that you can serve in a bowl, or the traditional Cuban way -- over white or Spanish rice and beans.

First, marinate the chicken in lime juice, orange juice, lightly smashed garlic, and salt and pepper for an hour. When you take it out of the marinade, pat dry, and cook over medium-high heat on both sides in a mid-sized saucepan. Then combine the marinade, chicken, and then add potatoes, raisins, tomato sauce, olives, and water. Bring it to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 45 minutes.

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