My grandmother, whom I called Mami Joan, was an excellent cook. And, sure, I know lots of people’s grandmas were wonderful cooks. But Mami Joan had interesting obstacles to becoming a great cook. Namely that she wasn’t allowed to cook growing up. She was part of the upper class in Pre-Castro Cuba. In her world, everybody had maids and cooks and chauffeurs and there were rigid boundaries between the two social spheres.
On top of that, she grew up with Mamacita, her grandmother, who had maids and owned the Vedado Hotel (now the Victoria Hotel) so they ate at the restaurant many days. When she married, she had a cook and Ana, my mother and uncle’s “Tata” (or nanny), to prepare meals on the days off of the “real” cook. Which gave her time to look gorgeous on a Cuban beachside with my uncle : )
But Mami Joan wanted to cook. After she’d grown up and started a family of her own, she still had to sneak in to cook her favorite concoction until one of the staff shooed her back out. According to my mother:
Since her childhood, she never had to cook for herself or her family for she always had maids around her. She did, however, venture into the kitchen to make fudge (not part of the Cuban cuisine) since she adored chocolate. One of my very favorite memories of being in the kitchen back then is when she would make this dish and let me watch her, maybe letting me stir every once in a while.
When she suddenly came as an exile to the U.S.(Nov. 1960)–she came with permission to visit me for a week and was supposed to return but I begged her to stay since I was living on a rented room of someone Abuelo knew while I attended 11th grade at South Miami High– she didn’t know how to cook. Culture shock!
We moved to a one bedroom small apartment in Coral Gables and had to go by bus to get groceries. We ate lots of sandwiches but she got two cookbooks, one in English as well as the very well know “Cocinar con Nitza Villapol” and soon we were eating well.
Her specialties across the years were her fantastic Cuban Arroz con Pollo, warm sliced buttered bread, Boliche stuffed with chorizo, ropa vieja, palomilla, frijoles negros from scratch (no Cuban canned beans back then), and flan. Also, stuffed tomatoes, French onion soup, a tuna loaf in fish form (that’s the copper fish mold I have in the kitchen wall), out of this world Pineapple Upside down cake, and the best sandwiches.
And I’m so grateful for her fight! For her perseverance when her life was turned upside down, outside of her control. For her arroz con pollo, her amazing boliche. Oh my God, my mouth waters at the memories. She also extended her repertoire to Italian and French cooking and any tomato sauce she concocted or pork chops she sizzled were just scrumptious. But the one that has stuck in my gray matter all these years was her arroz con frijoles (black beans and rice), one of the most basic of Cuban dishes and my all time favorite comfort food.
I’m so grateful that years ago I’d asked Mami Joan to write down this recipe. I always loved it every time she made it – I would sit on the edge of my seat in their modest Florida apartment and salivate like a Pavlovian dog when I heard the bell of the rice cooker, which meant dinner was moments away. The velvet texture of the beans and tanginess of the cider vinegar and olive oil poured on at the end. ¡Ay, que rico! It’s also de riguer to throw some extra chopped onion on top! So here in her own words are the details of Mami Joan’s version of the most classic and perhaps beloved of Cuban dishes:
Wash and rinse 1 lb. black beans. Place in a large suacepan (at least 4 qts) and cover with water to at least 2 inches above beans. Soak overnight with 1 large green pepper cut in quarters and seeds taken out. (If you are going to cook them at night, soak them in the morning). If water has been absorbed before cooking, add more water so that beans will be covered – about 1 1/2″ to 2″ above beans. Cook covered, on low to moderate heat until beans are tender (about one hour).
Meanwhile, sautee the following in 2 tablespoons olive oil until tender: 1 large (not enormous) onion finely chopped, 2 large green bell peppers (seeds removed and finely chopped), 2 unpeeled garlic cloves (minced).
Add 1 bay leaf, 2 teaspoons salt, 1/4 teaspoon cumin, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar.
Add all this to the cooked beans, stir, cover and cook under low to medium heat until beans are of desired consistency (about 1 hour). Should be sort of thick but not too much. Taste and add more salt if necessary. Discard the bayleaf and large pieces of green pepper. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar and 2 tablespoons oil and serve*.
But what I love the most from this recipe is Mami Joan’s last line:
After all these instructions, might it not be easier to heat two cans of ready made “frijoles negros” of “Ebro” or “La Lechonera” adding some olive oil? : )
Ay, Mami Joan, it might be easier but in no way could it bring me back a bit of you to savor as the beans simmer.
* Usually this dish is served with basic white rice – and Mami Joan used an electric rice cooker to achieve Cuban nirvana.