Nitza Villapol was basically the Julia Child of Cuba. She wrote dozens of editions of her cookbook, Cocina al Minuto, and she hosted a Cuban TV show of the same name for 45 years. In many Cuban kitchens, there's a well-worn copy of one of her cookbooks tucked in a kitchen drawer.
Christina Gomez-Pina, in Kendall, had a copy of the cookbook on her bookshelf. Her mother-in-law gave her Cocina al Minuto on Gomez-Pina's wedding day: "It sat on the shelf for nine years except for one time when I used it to make a dulce de leche cortadito."
Aside from making that Cuban coffee, Gomez-Pina didn't give the book much thought until she read Julie and Julia, a memoir about a woman who cooks her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
"When I read Julie and Julia, I remembered the unopened book, as well as the [copy of the] book my grandmother brought from Cuba. My grandmother sent her sons ahead to Miami with Pedro Pan and she still had to bring that book from Cuba. So I had to see what was in that book."
By this time, Gomez-Pina had two children. She realized that the only people cooking the Cuban dishes her family enjoyed were aging. She observed that Cubans in her generation didn't have "signature recipes." There was no one her age who made legendary flan or who, like a grandmother she knew, made such transcendent croquetas that she was always asked to bring them to a party. People in her generation ate their relatives' dishes or they ate at Cuban restaurants, but they didn't cook this food.
Gomez-Pina had an epiphany. She thought:
"I don't want my kids growing up knowing what a croqueta tastes like from a restaurant. I want them to grow up knowing mami made the best croquetas or the best arroz con pollo."
Lessons Learned In La Cocina De Christina: Falling Flan And Exploding Rice
Thus Gomez-Pina launched what she calls "The Project." She started to cook her way through the 629 recipes in Cocina al Minuto, writing about her progress on her blog La Cocina de Christina. She drafted her first entry on July 14, 2009:
"For my generation -- and for my kids' generation -- I'm cooking my way through Nitza Villapol's Cocina al Minuto. With each recipe, I'm taken back to what those housewives of my grandmother's and mother's generation must have been thinking as they tried to follow Nitza's instructions, from her books or TV program. I hope this project moves you to learn how to cook, simply, and to bring the joy (and sofrito smell -- the smell of home frying) back into your home. "
There was a steep learning curve as Gomez-Pina searched in the grocery store for ingredients she had never used--like fish heads--and as she got hands-on experience with cooking rules that were second nature for her elders.
Gomez-Pina chronicled how "Nitza Tried to Kill Me" when she followed Villapol's recipe for making Cuban-style white rice for the first time. The recipe instructed cooks to pour water into a pot of oil that had been heating on the stove:
"Nothing at all about asking the trusty chef at home to WAIT UNTIL THE OIL COOLS. And yes, fine, that's something that everyone knows (as my mother and mother-in-law so clearly explained to me). But since I usually follow normal recipes that explain little details like that, I had never experienced the EXPLOSION that happens when you pour water into hot oil. My poor kids and dog ran for their lives as my husband came running into Kitchen Battlefield to see what the heck was going on."
She also learned that sometimes dishes made from the heart can be really, well, ugly as in the case of the Villapol recipes Gomez-Pina cooked for Thanksgiving in 2011. Upon reheating, her spinach pudding "turned into a dark green that resembled all sorts of bathroom jokes." The pumpkin flan broke when she flipped it. Relatives shook their heads knowingly--she didn't use enough cornstarch. Gomez-Pina wrote:
"I can only imagine what you're saying to yourself right now. 'En Cuba, esto no pasaba.' I know, this would have never happened in Cuba. The spinach would have been greener and the potatoes would have been golden. And the flan, well, the flan wouldn't need any additional maicena (cornstarch), my dear. Not one bit. The maicena in Cuba would have avoided all possibility of breakage.
Ay Cuba. Tus niños lloran.
Dear Cuba. Your children miss you and your better ingredients. "
As of August 2013, Gomez-Pina is on recipe number 259. She's almost at the halfway point.
Gomez-Pina happily reports that she now has a few of her own signature recipes from the Cuban cooking canon, including pastel de medianoche "which is like the sandwich but in a pie. I've think I've made that at least a dozen times. Now when we have a party or a baby shower, people say, 'Christina...please make that pastel de medianoche...'"
This post is part of our Cuban Kitchen project. Do you or someone in your family have a signature recipe? Tell us the name of the dish on Facebook or Twitter using the hashtag #CubanKitchen. Also, share your kitchen stories and memories, Cuban or otherwise.