It has taken me a number of years to convince Dave to spend a vacation in Miami. I would say at least a decade. The humidity, and the heat —I couldn’t stand it, he’d say. I’ve been wanting to visit it not only for the sites, the beaches or the Latin culture, but mostly because part of my family lives there, my dear aunt Isa, my uncle Orlando and their children, my cousins, with whom I grew up in Onteniente after they moved there from Puerto Rico in the 70s. My cousins have married, have had children, and I only knew one of my eight nephews and nieces! I’ve met with some of my cousins on different occasions and locations, separately, both in Spain and in Fort Wayne, but never visited them where they live. That came to an end this year, when we visited Miami, and my family, finally, this Spring (and inspired me to cook arroz a la cubana, rice Cuban style, the Spanish way).
Dave and I agree on the most important aspects of life but, aside from our different tolerance level towards humidity, another aspect on which we don’t see eye to eye is the nature of our vacations. If we’re going to a beach location, that’s exactly what he wants: the beach, to soak all that sun, sea and sand in —that, and the gastronomy of the place. For me, that’s only part of the equation, and not the most important one. As much as I like that aspect of a vacation, no matter where I go I will always want to know the history of the place, visit the sites, partake in its culture. Miami offered the best of both worlds.
Establishing our base at a beautiful hotel in Middle Beach, The Confidante, surrounded by art deco decor and all the comforts, with an outdoor oasis right outside our door and leading to the beach, every day we gave pleasure to all of our senses. We had time at the pool and at the beach, explored the surrounding area and the different neighborhoods, and tasted Miami’s flavors, all in a day’s work —every day. The city proved to be a haven for just about everything, from its history, its art that you could find at every corner, the food and restaurant scene, the turquoise, warm waters and sandy beaches, Miami had it all. Add to this the fact that I finally got together with my relatives, and met some of the children, that my own children got to meet and get acquainted with for yet a future encounter this summer in Spain.
Villa Vizcaya on Biscayne Bay, the former villa and estate of businessman James Deering, or the Art Deco District in South Beach, containing almost 1000 historic buildings by notable architects, were some of our visits and walks. Every site was a gift for the eyes and the senses. The Wynwood neighborhood, north of downtown Miami, was another gem. With two major subdistricts, the Wynwood Art District and the Wynwood Fashion District, both of them offered something for everybody. The art district was candy for the eyes, as we walked past walls covered in intricate graffiti, which I would define more as artwork than street art. Once abandoned warehouses that have been occupied by artists, restaurants and cafés, dotted the area.
Bayside, wrapping along the banks of the Biscayne Bay, a more popular and lively destination, offered night entertainment and a close glimpse of downtown, highlighting the marina, the downtown buildings, and particularly, shining as a beam of red light at night, Freedom Tower. A National Register of Historic Places and a National Historic Landmark, it was built in 1925 and was originally the headquarters of The Miami News newspaper, but in the early 1960s was used to process, document and provide medical services to the refugees arriving in Miami fleeing communist Cuba (I likened it to the Statue of Liberty in New York).
We visited Key Biscayne with my family, as this is where they live. Gorgeous beaches, a walk to Cape Florida lighthouse, a visit to the Ermita de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity) and a family lunch of fresh fish, tostones, maduros and calamari, while overseeing the marina, completed the family day, with the added hope of seeing each other again very soon.
In my books, no visit to Miami was complete without visiting Little Habana, home to many Cuban exiles and the center of social, cultural and political activity in Miami. Walking along Calle Ocho brought us to a different place, far away from the hustle of South Beach and into the heart of Latin America. To say that hearing Spanish and speaking it at every stop was the norm wouldn’t be totally correct, since that was the case all throughout Miami. But the feeling here, the smells, the restaurants and cafés, the people and the street art, all felt different, and in a way, familiar. Domino Park, a tiny park where tens of men played dominoes, reminded me of my dad, who used to play the game daily with his friends, at a different place, in a different country, not so long ago.
In choosing a recipe for today’s post, I had no doubt: it had to be arroz a la cubana, rice Cuban style. But this recipe, regardless of its name, probably has little to do with the way rice is cooked in Cuba. In other words, it is Cuban style rice as it is prepared in Spain —or at least in my family (my son Matthew spent his own college spring break in Cuba, on a mission trip, and says he never had this dish). I grew up eating it, a favorite among children, and one that my mom would make specially for us her daughters. It incorporates white rice, shaped in a semi circle form, and topped with a tomato-based sofrito. Teetering on top, a fried egg, and on the side, fried bananas, a favorite among children. For the recipe, I used the plantains my aunt Isa gave me (part of a bountiful pack that included Spanish chorizo, serrano ham, Mandarinas and other Spanish goodies), and the result was delicious. Almost as good as my mom’s.
Dave ended up loving Miami, and not finding it terribly humid. It might have been the time of year, but I’ll take it.
What follows is a list of restaurants we dined in, and recommend:
Bird and Bone at The Confidante Hotel in Middle Beach
Oh Mexico, on Española Way, South Beach
Sugarcane Raw Bar and Grill, in the Wynwood Fashion District, Midtown
Numero 28 on Española Way, South Beach
Old’s Havana Cuban Bar and Cocina, on Calle Ocho
Paul, on Lincoln Avenue
Azúcar Ice Cream, on Calle Ocho
Rosetta Bakery, on Collins Avenue
RICE CUBAN STYLE
Arroz a la Cubana
Ingredients (for 6 servings):
For the rice:
2 1/2 cups medium grain rice
3 Tbs olive oil
7 cups chicken or vegetable stock
For the plantains or bananas:
3 very ripe plantains or 6 medium ripe bananas
3 Tbs olive oil
For the eggs:
1/4 cup olive oil
For the sauce:
4 ripe tomatoes or 1 28-oz whole canned tomatoes
1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp pimentón de la Vera (or Spanish paprika)
1 bay leaf
1 tsp sugar
1 pinch salt
1/3 cups olive oil
1 Tbs chopped flat leaf parsley
Prepare the sauce:
If using fresh tomatoes, peel and grate them, reserving all the juices.
Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the onion, finely chopped. Lower the heat to medium, add the salt and the sugar, and sauté until translucent, about 15 minutes. Before the onion starts to brown, add the garlic, finely chopped, and sauté. Continue to cook at low heat for another 8 to 10 minutes. If the onion starts to burn, add a bit of water to the pan.
Add the tomato and its juices and cook, uncovered, stirring often, 20-25 minutes, until the sofrito starts to thicken and turns a darker color. Add the chopped parsley and cook for an extra minute. Remove the pan form the heat source and set aside.
While the sauce is cooking at low heat, prepare the rice:
In a medium earthenware casserole, or cazuela, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the rice and stir with a wooden spoon so all the rice kernels are coated, and sauté for 1 minute. Add 6 cups of the stock, previously warmed up, and raise the heat to high. Bring to a boil and boil for about 1 minute, stirring occasionally. Decrease the heat to low and cook, without stirring, for about 15 minutes. As the stock gets absorbed by the rice, add the remaining cup of stock 2 or 3 spoonfuls at a time. Remove the casserole from the heat source and keep warm.
Peel and slice the plantains into 1-inch-thick slices, slightly on the diagonal (if using bananas, cut them in half and then slice them transversally in two). In a non-stick skillet, heat the oil at medium heat. Add the slices and sauté, about 1 minute per side, until caramelized on the surface and heated through.
Fry the eggs sunny side up: place 3 Tbs olive oil in a non-stick skillet and fry the eggs, one at a time, until the yolk is soft and the white is cooked through (add 1 Tbs olive oil before frying the next egg).
Note: for the sake of esthetics, I used a metal ring to shape the eggs in a round shape.
To assemble, fill up and pack a small bowl with the cooked rice (I used one especially designed for arroz a la cubana, which leaves a whole in the center to be filled up with the sauce, but you can use any small cup). Turn a plate upside down, place it over the cup with rice, turn both plate and cup in a swift move, and unmold the rice on the plate. Pour a laddleful of sauce over the rice and place an egg on top. Serve the plantains or bananas on the side.