29 December 2008

Festivus Cubano

I'm a big fan of Festivus, a fake winter holiday created as part of a Seinfeld episode. I skip the aluminum pole and the airing of grievances, and I don't even celebrate it on December 23. For me, Festivus is a great nickname for any dinner party during November or December that's not tied to Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year's. If you invite an acquaintance to a Christmas party, there's an expectation of presents and maybe dressing up and conflicts with other family obligations and whatnot. But a Festivus dinner can include damned near anything, dress can be as casual as desired, and no relatives are going to disown you because you decided to hang out with friends on December 15 or November 30.

This year, dear friends Sally and Terry offered to buy the groceries if I'd do the cooking, and I decided that it was high time to do some Cuban cooking. Memphis has had a couple of Cuban restaurants over the years, but currently there are none. Yes, a few places offer pale imitations of the Cuban sandwich, but if I want lechon asado or vaca frita I've got to do it myself.

Clad in a Hawaiian shirt while listening to mp3s of the Canadian radio host Stuart McLean, I spent a few hours prepping a proper Festivus Cubano. Big thanks to the Taste of Cuba website, source of most of the recipes.

We started things out with an apple/pumpkin soup called sopa de calabaza y manzana, spiced up with the addition of a few tangy cubanelle peppers. At this point the guests were finishing off cocktails, including the Silver Fizz and Manhattan. With the soup served in coffee mugs, it was just enough to whet the appetite and provide a little base for the feast to come.

For the second course, I adapted this recipe and used tilapia. Some amazing canned San Marzano tomatoes really brought an intense flavor to this dish. Since I'll jump at any opportunity to use a sparkling wine with food, I elected to open a bottle of NV Codorníu Original Cava. $15, 11.5% abv, La Mancha region of Spain. For Sally I added a splash of pastis, and for Paul I added a splash of Cointreau; Cava adapts readily to Champagne cocktail recipes. I had mine plain, where it presented a lemon and toast nose with a crisp, clean flavor, balanced acidity, and a short finish. This is a good all-purpose sparkler from a family that's been in the wine business for 500 years.

After a palate-cleansing course of chayote salad (most of the diners had never had a chayote before), it was time for the main course: rabo encendido or oxtail stew. Regular readers will note that I've been on an offal kick for the past few months, and oxtails are a relatively non-scary way to get used to these immensely flavorful parts of the cow/pig/etc. They're also pretty cheap, but rising popularity will surely drive up the price. Accompanying the dish were rice and slow cooked black beans with country ham. All told this was a decadent, rich, savory course that belied the total absence of expensive ingredients.

In keeping with the theme of wines from Spanish-speaking countries, I poured the 2006 Crios Malbec from female winemaker Susana Balbo. $15, 14% abv, Mendoza region of Argentina. Tobacco and coffee nose with blackberry and cinnamon flavors. Bright and smooth with a neat finish.

All in all a successful dinner, and I satisfied my craving for Cuban food. The guests were stuffed, laughter filled the house, and a good time was had by all. Truly a Festivus miracle.


Dirty said...

With family in Tampa, Cuban food and wine reminds me of home.

Nice post Senor.

Sally said...

Thanks again for not one but two great evenings in a row, Ben! An evening in your tutelage is well spent indeed, and a feast for all the senses-- nose in wine glass, soup on the tongue, eyes on the oxtail, etc. Happy, happy Festivus!

fredric koeppel said...

what a prince of hospitality and conviviality you are!

Samantha Dugan said...

Wow, looks like quite a meal! If you can ever find Rimarts Cava, (although I think it is pretty hard to find) you should give it a try, really fantastic stuff and as close to Champagne as anthing I have tasted that was not....matter of fact if I was tasted blind on it I would swear it was a real Champagne.

Benito said...

Dirty--glad to have awakened some fond memories. I've nary a Cuban bone in my body but Dear Lord do I enjoy the food. And the jazz. And the cigars and rum. Once they get rid of the Communism I might move there.

To address Sally's point, on the second night we used leftovers (as well as a roast pork loin I had in the fridge) to make Cuban sandwiches, as referenced in an old post of mine. These are also called medianoches, after the tradition of eating them at midnight after a night of partying.

Fredric & Samantha--thanks for the kind words. We really had a good time and I hope that in the current economy, people find ways to make delicious food with humble ingredients rather than simply assume that the $10 KFC combo dinner is the best option.

ramblin' wino said...

I'm sorry, but I can't read your blog before lunch, or dinner. I get too hungry! And then I look inside my own fridge,and then scream and pound on it in agony and desperation. Dear Benito, why can't you just rant constantly about wines that don't reflect their terroir, like the other bloggers do? They do not make me either thirsty or hungry. At the very least, you could invite the rest of us over for dinner too!

Benito said...

Ramblin' Wino,

If I make it to Montana I'll do the cooking if you'll supply the morels.

Glad to hear that the posts make you hungry--that's what got me hooked on Peter Mayle's Provence books 20 years ago. I still get pangs thinking about his description of warm brie poured into an open baguette.

PaleRider said...

Excellent post Ben. In seems it was a very sucessful Fetivus Cubano in deed! As far as finding FdC Rum, BevMo carries it here in Arizona. I don't know if there is any stores like that in the Memphis area. Plantetofwine.com delivers if you are unsucessful in finding it locally.

And you really, really, should try the JdN Antano blend! It is marvelous.

Another recommendation for you the next time you are enjoying Cuban cuisine would be a Lempira Fuerte Series 2006. Its flavor profile goes extremely well with savory and spicy food, offering a reprise of the spicy elements of dinner in its character.

Let me know how you like the cigar!



Big Mike said...

Where did you get the San Marzano tomatoes I have looked all over and can't find them


Big Mike

Benito said...


I was at the Super Target on Germantown Parkway and saw some 28 oz. cans of imported San Marzanos from Italy for around $3 a can (yellow label--can't remember the brand). I bought one and was very impressed with it in the sauce for the fish. Yesterday I picked up two from Schuck's in Cordova, this time from the label Bella Terra/Racconto:


The good thing is that in both cases they say "San Marzano" on the label and when opened up, the tomatoes are peeled, whole, and have that little nipple on the end that lets you know they're not just oversized Romas.

Ramblin' Wino said...

Your welcome to come anytime Benito! Mushroom time is in the Spring.