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Why Cuban food is like Rumba

Why Cuban food is like Rumba

The best way I know how to describe Cuban food is to liken it to Rumba music. Rumba is a uniquely Cuban fusion of African and Spanish musical traditions, so too is Cuban food.  Although Cubans would never admit to being vegetarians in point of fact there are a lot of non-meat days in many a diet here. This suits me and sets me up for my black bean burgers recipe. Of that more later, back to the beginning.

What, no meat?!
In Cuba there is a very strongly held belief that unless you have meat as part of your meal that you are under-nourished somehow.  My Cuban friends would be prepared to and have gone without fruits, vegetables and milk products to be able to afford to buy meat.  Personally I believe that as omnivores we are designed to eat a variety of foods including vegetable and animal protein.  However, I also believe that we eat far too much animal protein aka meat in our diet and that we should be encouraged to eat more vegetable protein.  So where is this little healthy-eating rant taking us, you may ask?  Unbeknownst to my Cuban family and friends I have subtly been introducing some interesting veggie recipes to mealtimes. Call it meat-free Mondays, Wednesdays and sometimes Fridays! 

I’m not a vegetarian!
There are a few reasons why I don’t eat lots of meat in Cuba.  Firstly I actually like preparing and eating vegetarian food. Secondly, the storage of meat is somewhat suspect here. A general lack of refrigeration, coupled with high temperatures can see meat sitting uncovered in the sun for long periods of time.  Now that doesn’t really matter as long as you cook the meat to 71 degrees Celsius (160 F) but I’m still adapting to Cuba and can’t quite stomach the thought of cooking meat that’s been in the sun too long.  I guess all those years of health regulations and inspectors in my former life in the restaurant business has left me more aware than most of the importance of food hygiene and storage.  Thirdly, being a Yuma (foreigner/outsider) means I haven’t got the same connections for acquiring meat on the black market as Cubans.

When I first invited Cuban friends Jose Miguel and his wife Yanesel over for burgers one

Friday, I neglected to say they would be vegetarian.  Let’s face it their salivating mouths and rumbling stomachs were prepared for juicy beef burgers. Being a foreigner, it is assumed (not always correctly) by most Cubans that I have substantially more means than locals and can therefore afford to buy good quality meat everyday. Imagine then the look of disappointment on Jose’s face when I told him the burgers were made from black beans! It was heart breaking. Lesson learned. Now I just invite people for Friday burgers, don’t tell them what’s in them until they have eaten and liked them. Then I drop the ‘vegetarian’ bombshell.  And even Jose Miguel has been converted.  Last time I invited him over he actually requested my hamburguesas de frijoles (bean burgers).  A little victory.

If you’d like some ideas for tasty meat-free meals why not try my Cuban inspired Black Bean Burgers.  They freeze brilliantly so are a great stand-by for an impromptu burger party!

Cuban Black bean burgers
1 ½  cups (400g) cooked black beans
1 medium onion chopped
1 bell pepper chopped
4 small ají, (a variety of very small bell peppers) or use a very mild chili
4 medium cloves garlic
2 tablespoons soya or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon chopped culantro
1 egg lightly beaten
Pinch of salt and pepper
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 cup (115g) dried breadcrumbs. 
Note: You may need less or more breadcrumbs depending on the wetness of your beans and the freshness of your breadcrumbs.

Ají is a small non spicy capsicum it looks like a Habanero chilli pepper but without the heat.  You can leave this out if it’s not available. Culantro is also known as Recao, Mexican coriander or Spiritweed.  If you can’t get hold of any you can use a bunch of Cilantro (coriander) instead.

1.In a frying pan over a medium heat, fry the onion in the vegetable oil until soft.

2.Add the garlic, large and small peppers, cumin and coriander and continue frying until the bell pepper is softened slightly but not fully cooked or browned. Remove pan from heat and allow mixture to cool.

3.Put the beans, cooled onion mixture, culantro, egg and salt and pepper and lime juice in a food processor.  Pulse until the mixture is combined but there is still some texture to the beans. You should be able to still see some whole beans. At this stage the mixture will be moist and too soft to handle.

4.Using a spoon, in the bowl of the food processor (remove the blade first) mix in the breadcrumbs, a few tablespoons at a time until the mixture becomes stiffer and forms a more solid dough-like mass.  Depending on the moistness of your beans you may need to add more or less breadcrumbs to form the dough.

5.Using floured hands divide the mixture into 10 equal sized balls and then form the balls into patties with your hands.  Refrigerate for at least an hour to firm.

6.Remove the burgers from the fridge and fry in a little oil in a pan or on a griddle.  They can also be cooked on the BBQ but they are somewhat delicate so move them with a flat spatula not a tongs.

7.Serve in a lightly toasted bun with whatever fillings you fancy.  I use slices of tomato, home-made pickled cucumber and caramelised onions with a large dollop of mustard and tomato ketchup. And a slice of cheese when I can get it.

8.These black bean burgers can be stored covered in the fridge for a day or two or in the freezer for much longer. To freeze lay the burgers flat and not touching each other into a freezer bag on a plastic chopping board and place into the freezer in a flat position.  Freezing this way ensures that the burgers do not freeze to each other and can be removed individually.

9.Once frozen which takes about 4-5 hours, remove the plastic chopping board.  The burgers will now store for up to 3 months. Assuming you don’t have an extended power cut like we do at times in Havana. In which case you might be having an unexpected bean burger party!

You can also add other vegetables into the burger mixture depending on what is available. I’ve used cooked and chopped green beans and cooked sweet corn.  You can also add extra chili to spicy things up, dried or fresh it doesn’t really matter.

I hope you enjoy making and eating these burgers, perhaps as a meat-free Monday meal. Or maybe just when friends come over for casual burgers on a Friday. August 2012

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