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Ana is working on a third cookbook. As if that weren't enough, she is a spokesperson for IMUSA, the No.1 Hispanic cookware brand in the country, sold in over 10,000 stores nationwide, and an attorney/partner at the Miami law firm of Rodriguez & Quincoces.
Ana answered Hispanic Kitchen's 10 questions (actually 12 this time!) ...
HK: You've written two cookbooks and have a third on the way. What drives your passion for Cuban cooking and for writing?
AQ: Cuban food is by far the greatest food on earth, no exception. It is complex without being pretentious or fussy. It is flavorful without necessitating the excessive use of spice or heat. It is enjoyed by young and old alike. It is simple to cook, and satisfies like no other cuisine.
HK: Do your daughters share your passion for Cuban food? Are they helping you in the kitchen and are they helping you with your next book?
AQ: My daughters do share my passion for both Cuban food and cooking. They always help with recipe testing and accompany me to many of the food demos I do for IMUSA. I am proud to say that they really do know their way around a kitchen. My goal was to teach them that cooking was not drudgery or slave labor. That it did not make them “less” in fact it makes them “more.” I certainly did not want them to become one of those women that proudly declares:
“The only thing I know how to make for dinner are reservations.” I think I’ve accomplished that.
HK: Your first book, "Cuban Chicks Can Cook," was self-published. How did that book come about?
AQ: I was at a South Beach Food and Wine Festival event called the “Interactive Luncheon” where you cook alongside Food Network celebrities such as Tyler Florence and Giada De Laurentis. I ended up sitting next to Dave Lieberman (who was filming a new Food Network show) and several network execs. They chose me to cook along with Tyler Florence. The plan was to follow his step-by-step directions for sesame-crusted tuna. I was a bit impatient because all the other participants were lagging behind and clearly not astute in matters of the kitchen. So in true Ana form, I deviated a little from his protocol. OK, more than a little. I created two dishes from the tuna instead of one and completely ignored Tyler’s instruction. He was not too happy – but eventually took it in stride. Noticing my unbridled passion for cooking, Dave whose book “Young and Hungry” had just been published, asked if I had ever considered writing a cookbook. He confided that it was easier than he had expected (said the Yale graduate). It was at that very moment and upon the INCESSANT urging of my best friend Glenda that I decided to write “Cuban Chicks Can Cook.” I had always known that there was a need for an authentic (non-fusion) Cuban cookbook. [Cuban cooking legend] Nitza Villapol’s book was great but a bit outdated and did not appeal to a younger generation; and I definitely did not want my daughters to grow up thinking that authentic Cuban food required a drizzle of mango sauce!
HK: How does your second book, “Sabor!: A Passion for Cuban Cuisine,” compare with your first one?
AQ: "Sabor" is the more sophisticated sister of “Cuban Chicks Can Cook.” It is a beautiful hardcover book with lots of great food photography as well as a few (read: too many) pictures of me. It is a more comprehensive look at Cuban Cuisine and includes twice the number of recipes. But “Cuban Chicks Can Cook” is a great beginner Cuban cookbook that includes everyone’s favorite recipes. And because it was self published (read:no editor), it is completely uncensored.
HK: You're a partner at a Miami law firm, a cook, a writer, spokeswoman for cookware maker IMUSA ... How do you find time? Will you continue to practice law?
AQ: That is probably the question I am asked most often. The truth is that I do not require much sleep. I can function pretty efficiently on 4 hours. Coupled with that is the fact that to me cooking and all that it entails, is not really work. It is my therapy, my stress reliever, and my downtime. My practice is real estate driven. The market is especially slow now and I have a great partner and staff who pick up the slack when I am not around. I would love to dedicate myself exclusively to my passion which is cooking. They say that when you do what you love, you never work a day in your life. I would like to embrace that concept someday.
HK: What's mealtime like at your house?
AQ: Mealtime is always unpredictable and fun. Unpredictable in that we usually don’t preplan what we will cook and fun because we never really know who will partake of the meal. Living close to the University of Miami (where my daughters go to school) makes for a lot of surprise and hungry dorm rats looking for some good home cooking. My daughters always help out. We have a large well designed kitchen so we can all work efficiently at the same time. A friend once told me that observing the 3 of us cook was like watching a “well-choreographed dance.” I like that.
HK: Some friends who've never had Cuban food are coming over for dinner. What's on the menu and why?
AQ: I would probably serve Ensalada de Aguacate, Arroz Con Pollo (a la chorrera, of course), tostones with mojo and plátanos maduros fritos (you have to have both). For dessert, either coconut flan or natilla, and a cortadito made with a touch of evaporated milk. I would choose this menu because it is both basic and traditional, AND most importantly because it will dispel any erroneous notions of how chicken and rice should look and taste!
HK: Every cuisine has a "foundation" of sorts: In Cuban cuisine it's sofrito. What makes a greatsofrito?
AQ: The holy trinity of course! The quality of the ingredients is key, as is the method you use for incorporating them. The combination of onions, bell peppers and garlic gently sautéed in rich olive oil until the flavors meld together is perhaps the most important aspect of Cuban cooking. Rushing a sofrito, burning the garlic, and/or not taking the time to chop the vegetables uniformly so they cook evenly, will greatly affect your finished product. Never take your sofrito for granted.
HK: Best Cuban meal you've ever had - what was it and where?
AQ: In my mom’s kitchen. Every year since I was a little girl my mother makes Bacalao a la Vizcaína on Good Friday. That divine concoction of salt cod slowly simmered in a mildly spicy yet sweet tomato sauce and lovingly adorned with hardboiled eggs and “pan frito” is heaven on a plate to me.
HK: Are you a traditionalist cook, or do you like to experiment?
AQ: Both. I am traditional in that I have a great respect for all types of cuisine, and when I cook food of a particular ethnicity I take care to be as authentic as possible. Preplanned dinners with friends are usually themed. I am very particular about mixing foods of different countries at these dinners. So Italian food will entail an Italian drink (i.e.Limoncello Martini, Peroni beer), appetizer (Antipasti or Salumi platter), main course (Osso Bucco or Meatballs), sidedish (Risotto Milanese or Carbonara) as well as dessert (Ricotta cheesecake or Gelato with Amaretti cookies) and after dinner (Espresso and Black Sambuca). Same goes for Indian, French, or Mexican themed dinners. When it comes to impromptu or weekday meals I do tend to incorporate my “Cubanness”. I believe that most dishes can be improved by adding garlic or a good sofrito. Clearly, I am guilty of a little “fusion” now and again. But when it comes to Cuban food, I don’t like to deviate.
HK: What's your favorite Cuban snack?
AQ: I have a pretty insatiable sweet tooth, so I love guava paste and cream cheese on Cuban crackers. The problem is eating just one. I pay for that indulgence at the gym regularly.
HK: In today's Cuba, Cuban cuisine is a stunted version of its former self due to the frequent shortages of food products and rationing of staples in its communist economy. Sadly, tourists experience a greater breadth of Cuban cuisine than do most Cubans themselves. Do you think that Cuban cooks in America such as yourself could one day lead a renaissance of the island's cuisine? Would that be something you would want to be a part of?
AQ: I would be proud to partake in such an endeavor. While I was born in Miami to Cuban parents, I was raised with an acute awareness of where I came from and a defined sense of who I am. That is why any time someone inquires about my nationality, I proudly respond “I am Cuban.” Being a first generation Cuban American brings with it certain perks and responsibilities. I take those responsibilities very seriously. It is the very reason I first published “Cuban Chicks Can Cook.” It is a legacy for my daughters, so that they too will have a sense of who they are and where they came from.
Following is a classic Cuban recipe, Papas Rellenas (Stuffed Mashed Potato Balls), courtesy of Ana:
Papas Rellenas are uniquely Cuban, although they are basically portable meat and potatoes. These are a little labor intensive, but are well worth the effort. What makes them great is that they can be made in large batches, like the croquetas, then frozen. Papas rellenas are great party treats that can also be made in assorted sizes. Of course, in my opinion, the best size is large ... always large!
Serves 6 to 8
For the Potatoes:
3 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
¼ cup whole milk, warm
2 tablespoons butter, melted
¼ cup heavy cream, warm
2 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper
For the Picadillo filling:
¼ cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium onion, diced
1 small green bell pepper, diced
1 pound ground sirloin or ground round
½ cup vino seco (dry white cooking wine)
1 cup tomato sauce
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground oregano
¼ raisins, optional
¼ cup chopped pimento-stuffed olives
2 tablespoons capers
Ingredients for assembly:
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups cracker meal
1. To make the mashed potatoes, bring 2 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Add the potatoes. Reduce the heat to medium and cook the potatoes, partially covered, for 25 to 30 minutes, until they are fork-tender.
2. Combine the milk, butter, and cream in a bowl.
3. Drain the potatoes into a colander, and return the potatoes to the pot. Using a handheld mixer, beat the potatoes until they break apart. Add the milk mixture little by little while still beating. Don’t beat too much—these should be more firm than typical mashed potatoes. Once all the ingredients are fully incorporated, add the salt and pepper. Taste and adjust the seasonings, if necessary. Set aside to cool.
4. To make the picadillo, heat half the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, onion, and bell pepper, and sauté until tender, for 5 to 7 minutes. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the ground beef—the meat should make a searing sound when it hits the pan; if it doesn’t, increase the heat to high for a few minutes before adding the meat. Stir frequently to break up any large chunks of meat. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5 to 7 minutes, until the beef is thoroughly cooked (no longer red). Drain any excess liquid from the pan. Add the vino seco, tomato sauce, tomato paste, salt, pepper, cumin, oregano, and the remaining olive oil to the pan. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for about 20 minutes.
5. Add the raisins, olives, and capers, and set aside to cool.
6. To assemble the papas rellenas, coat your hands lightly with olive or canola oil. Shape a spoonful of mashed potatoes into a 3-inch ball. Poke a hole in the center of the ball and fill it with about 2 tablespoons of picadillo; seal it completely. Repeat this step with all the mashed potatoes and picadillo, making certain that the balls are uniform in size.
7. Roll the potato balls in egg, then in cracker meal. Repeat this step with all the potato balls. Place them on a baking sheet and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.
8. Heat 3 inches of oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Fry the potato balls for 5 to 7 minutes, turning them frequently until they are crispy and golden brown on all sides.
9. Drain on a paper towel–lined platter. Serve immediately.