Marie's Kitchen: Therapy and a side of Cuban cuisine


We all say it: You have to take the good with the bad. That’s what life is all about — a balancing act between good times and bad. That’s actually how today’s column fell into my lap. The bad news is that I needed another surgery — left partial-knee. So, yet again, I was on the table at Tidewater Physical Therapy in Ocean View, with Bob Cairo manipulating the knee to get me back in shape.

Special to the Coastal Point • Marie Cook: Josefina ‘Fifi’ Mañalich with her Cocina Criolla (Country Kitchen) cookbook passed down from her mother. Fifi shared some of her favorite Cuban recipes with Marie Cook.Special to the Coastal Point • Marie Cook: Josefina ‘Fifi’ Mañalich with her Cocina Criolla (Country Kitchen) cookbook passed down from her mother. Fifi shared some of her favorite Cuban recipes with Marie Cook.The good news is that on the table next to me was Josefina “Fifi” Mañalich McGinley, who was talking about Cuban food. I looked at Bob; he looked at me; and the light bulb came on over our heads. He introduced us, and the result of that introduction is now in your hands.

Cuban food became a favorite cuisine when I lived in Boynton Beach, Fla. I have several Cuban cookbooks and enjoy making and eating authentic dishes, such as black bean soup with chorizo and rice.

Fifi works part-time at Tidewater but, like many of us, she also needs a physical therapist from time to time. How convenient that her therapy coincides with where she works! Her gregarious personality, positive attitude, and winning smile light up the room.

Fifi was born and raised in Cuba to parents who were both teachers — her mother a kindergarten teacher, and her father held a PhD in education. Fifi was also a teacher. On March 17, 1969, (the date is forever etched into her memory), when she was 23 years old, she and her family, along with many other family members and friends, emigrated to the United States.

“We left Cuba,” she said, “because the communist regime was not our way of life. Someday I will tell you about what we all went through under Fidel Castro, who took away our freedom and also the material possessions for which we had worked so hard.”

They settled in West Palm Beach (WPB), Fla. — 10 miles from where I once lived — and began a new life.

“You can imagine what it was like growing up under my parents’ wings,” she said, laughing. “And most of my uncles, aunts and cousins were doctors, attorneys and teachers. My parents demanded that I continue my studies to become a teacher in the U.S., just like I was in Cuba.”

So, for the next two years, Fifi did just that; but her long-held dream was to work in the criminal justice field, so she made her dream come true. She was hired to work at the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office and step-by-step worked her way up — first as a paralegal at the Citizen’s Intake Division, and later, after graduating from the police academy, as an investigator.

While she was working at the State Attorney’s Office, she met her future husband, “Tex,” who was a lieutenant at the West Palm Beach Police Department. They have a son, Ronald, who followed in his father’s footsteps and is currently an officer in the same police department.

“After Tex retired,” she said, “we decided to move to a quieter place.”

Tex had been to Delaware with friends on a hunting trip and fell in love with our little state. So, in 1996, Fifi resigned her position and the couple moved to Sussex County. After settling in, she was hired by Delaware’s court system and sometime later became a trial clerk. Her final position was at the Office of the Public Defender, as an investigator, where she worked until she retired in December 2009.

While Tex was a patient at Tidewater Physical Therapy, Fifi became acquainted with the staff and was offered a part-time job.

“My job is rewarding in so many ways,” she said.

Now that the U.S. is renewing diplomatic relations with Cuba, will Fifi return to visit?

“No,” she said, emphatically. “I will never go back to see the destruction of the Cuba I knew when I was growing up! I have too many great memories of the life I lived there before Castro took over!”

Fifi and her mother did not cook when they lived in Cuba.

“We were pampered,” she said, “but Mom always told me that, when the time comes, you will learn. And she was right. When we came to this country, she became a great cook. I treasure a Cuban cookbook she gave me, and those recipes worked their way into my everyday cooking.” Fifi said that Tex gets “the trophy” for doing all the baking, but if she’s close by, she always puts in her 2 cents. (That won’t surprise anyone who knows her!)

In most of the recipes that follow, one of the ingredients is Accent meat tenderizer, which contains lots of monosodium glutamate (MSG). Some people believe they are sensitive to MSG, so please use caution when inviting guests.

When I began receiving Fifi’s recipes by email, I knew I was in big trouble. Each winter, she and Tex visit WPB, where there is a huge Cuban community. Grocery stores are well stocked with authentic Cuban products, so Fifi loads up their car with staples to last her until they return the next winter.

I’m going to do my best to offer substitutes that will still give you the desired results.

• Vino Seco: A dry white Spanish cooking wine (12 percent alcohol). Fifi prefers the brand Edmundo and buys it in a 128-ounce jug. I see that you can purchase this online, but if that’s not your thing, you could successfully use a nice sauvignon blanc. When my recipes call for a dry white cooking wine, that’s what I use. Banks Wines & Spirits in Millville tried to help me out with substitutes. They don’t carry Vino Seco, but they do carry Vino Verde, a dry white Portugese wine that may also work.

• Sour orange juice: In Florida, sour Seville oranges are easy to come by. Not here. And regular oranges just don’t come close. Fifi actually has a bottle of Iberia sour orange juice with garlic. Goya also makes a sour orange juice in a bottle, but online reviewers gave this product poor marks, so I dug deeper and found a popular recipe by Chef Rick Bayliss, who is famous for his authentic Mexican recipes. Here is his alternative to sour orange juice. Reviewers said the zest really makes it pop!

Chef Rick Bayliss’s Sour Orange Juice Substitute:

Ingredients:

q 3/4 cup fresh grapefruit juice

q 6 tablespoons fresh lime juice

q 1/2 teaspoon finely minced orange zest (colored part only)

Method for Sour Orange Juice Substitute:

Mix ingredients and let stand for 2 to 3 hours at room temperature. Strain to remove zest. Use within 24 hours. Yield: 1 cup.

Arroz Con Pollo (Rice & Chicken) is a popular Cuban dish. The staff at Tidewater lick their lips when telling me about it. Since I’m allergic to chicken, I’ll have to take their word for it.

Arroz Con Pollo
(Rice & Chicken)

Ingredients:

q 16 chicken thighs

q 1/3 cup vegetable oil

q 2 large yellow onions, chopped

q 4 cloves of garlic, chopped

q 1 large green bell pepper, chopped

q Juice of 1 sour orange (about 1/3 cup)

q 1 can (15 ounces) tomato sauce

q 2 cups Vino Seco (dry, white Spanish cooking wine) (See above note regarding substitutions.)

q 2 teaspoons salt

q 2 teaspoons Accent meat tenderizer

q 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

q 1 bay leaf

q 2 pounds Valencia rice (short-grain Spanish white rice — Mahatma is Fifi’s preference.)

q 4 cups chicken broth

q 2 cans (14 ounces each) whole pimientos morrones (regular pimientos or sweet roasted red peppers), drained and sliced

q 1 (16 ounces) can green peas, drained

Method for Arroz Con Pollo:

In a very large pot, pour the 1/3 cup vegetable oil and add the chopped onions, garlic and bell pepper. Add the chicken thighs. Top with orange juice. Add tomato sauce, Vino Seco, salt, Accent, pepper and bay leaf. Cook for a while, until the chicken is half-way cooked, about 45 minutes. At that point, remove the chicken from the pot to prevent overcooking and place it into a large CorningWare dish, covering the dish with aluminum foil.

In the same cooking pot, add the rice and chicken broth, and simmer until the water is almost gone and rice is cooked. (Valencia rice requires longer, slower cooking than other brands.) At that point, return the chicken to the pot and continue to simmer on low for about another 20 minutes (about 1.5 hours total cooking time). When you place the chicken into a serving dish, garnish with peas and sliced pimentos. Yield: 8 servings.

Traditional Cuban cuisine is heavy on meat, often combining several types of meat together, as in the following recipe for Picadillo, which combines ground beef, pork and ham. Fifi uses only the very leanest cuts, so when she browns the meats, she says, draining off the fat is not an issue, because there is very little.

Picadillo (Ground Beef,
Pork & Ham)

Ingredients:

q Olive oil

q 1 large onion, chopped

q 2 cloves garlic, chopped

q 1 large bell pepper (red or green), chopped

q 1/2 pound ground beef

q 1/2 pound ground pork

q 1/2 pound ground ham

q 3/4 cup alcaparrado (mixture of olives and capers) (Fifi buys individual large jars of capers and olives at BJ’s.)

q 1 teaspoon salt

q 1 teaspoon Accent meat tenderizer

q 1/8 teaspoon black pepper

q 1/2 cup tomato sauce

q 1/4 cup Vino Seco (dry, white Spanish cooking wine) (See above note regarding substitutions.)

Method for Picadillo:

In a frying pan, pour a little olive oil and sauté the onions, garlic and bell pepper. Add the ground meats and cook, stirring until browned; drain off fat if necessary. Add the olives and capers, salt, Accent, pepper, tomato sauce and wine. Cook over medium heat for 20 minutes. Yield: 6 servings.

Carne Mechada is also a recipe that employs several meats in one dish. Slits are made in an eye-of-round roast and filled with pieces of smoked ham and bacon.

Carne Mechada

Ingredients:

q 3-pound eye of round roast

q 1/4 pound smoked ham, cut into several pieces

q 1 strip bacon, cut into several pieces

q 1 medium yellow onion, sliced

q 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

q Juice of 1 sour orange (about 1/3 cup)

q 2 cloves of garlic, sliced

q 3 bay leaves

q 3 tablespoons olive oil

q 2 teaspoons Vino Seco (dry, white Spanish cooking wine) (See above note regarding substitutions.)

q 2 teaspoons salt

q 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

q 1 teaspoon Accent meat tenderizer

Method for Carne Mechada:

After cleaning the roast, allow it to dry. Then make several 2-inch cuts into the roast. Stuff the pieces of ham and bacon inside those cuts. For one hour, marinate the roast with the sliced onions, parsley, orange juice, garlic slices and bay leaves.

In an 8-quart pot, brown the roast in olive oil. Add the marinade, Vino Seco, salt, pepper and Accent. Cook slowly in a covered pot for approximately 1.5 hours. Yield: 8 servings. Serve with mashed potatoes or rice along with mixed vegetables.

In Fifi’s recipe for Camarones Enchilados, “enchilados” refers to a method of cooking — not enchiladas.

Camarones Enchilados (Shrimp)

Ingredients:

q 2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined

q 1/2 cup olive oil

q 1 large yellow onion, chopped

q 4 cloves garlic, chopped

q 1 large bell pepper (red or green), chopped

q 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

q 1 can (15 ounces) tomato sauce

q 1 can or jar (7 ounces) whole pimiento morrones (pimentos or roasted red peppers), sliced

q 1/2 cup ketchup

q 1/2 cup Vino Seco (dry, white Spanish cooking wine) (See above note regarding substitutions.)

q 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

q 1 bay leaf

q 1-1/2 teaspoons salt

q 1 teaspoon Accent meat tenderizer

q 1 teaspoon black pepper

q 1 teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce

Method for Camarones Enchilados:

To an 8-quart pot, add the olive oil and sauté shrimp until they turn pink. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir; simmer for approximately 30 minutes. Yield: 8 servings. Serve over rice with Plantano Maduro Frito as a side dish (recipe follows).

Along with side dishes of black beans and rice, Fifi enjoys serving plantains (plantanos), which look like large bananas, but they are actually a vegetable.

“Plantanos must be very ripe,” she said. “The skin gets black (the blacker the better) and the plantano becomes very soft.”

Fifi is impressed with a frozen plantains product carried by SuperFresh grocery store.

“They are already ripe, and all you have to do is thaw them and heat them up, which is helpful when you want them right away, because sometimes plantanos take a long time to get really black.”

Plantano Maduro Frito
(Fried Ripe Plantains)

Ingredients:

q Very ripe plantains

q 1 cup canola oil

Method for Fried Plantains:

Clean the plantains; then peel and slice on the diagonal. In a large fry pan, heat oil over medium heat. Place sliced plantains into the oil and fry until golden brown (about 5 minutes per side). Do not let the oil get cold or the plantanos will get greasy. I like to keep the oil hot (not extreme). These are very tasty and sweet.

Fifi also serves a healthier, non-fried version of plantains.

Healthier Plantanos

Ingredients:

q Very ripe plantains

q Salt

Method for Healthier Plantanos:

Leave the skins on and wash the plantains. Cut off the ends. Place them in a pot of cold water with some salt and bring to a boil; cook until you see that they are very soft (the skin begins to pull away from the flesh inside). Drain the water, leaving the plantains in the pot until you’re ready to serve.

When ready to serve, remove the skins. Tex likes to sprinkle cinnamon on top, which makes Fifi laugh. She said, “Leave it to Tex to come up with ‘gringo-style’ plantanos.”

Fifi invited my husband, Jim Waehler, and me to a dinner of Picadillo, black beans and rice, Plantano Maduro Frito, and Tex’s surprise dessert. However, my stomach flu caused postponement. Dinner is rescheduled for Feb. 15. I can’t wait!

(Editor’s note: If you have recipes to share, or recipes you want, contact Marie Cook, Coastal Point, P.O. Box 1324, Ocean View, DE 19970; or by email at ChefMarieCook@gmail.com. Please include your phone number. Recipes in this column are not tested by the Coastal Point.)