Friday, December 25, 2009

Tia Alicia is Cuban then Mexican

My mother in law’s sister, Alicia, was born in Cuba, along with my mother in law, their two sisters and one brother. All in all, there were five of them. They all left Cuba and came to Miami, with the exception of Alicia. She left to Mexico. And that’s where my Mexican side of the family began.

Although Alicia’s entire grown up life was made in Mexico, she still considers herself as Cuban as the rest of her family here in Miami. Her whole side of the family – daughter, son in law, grandkids, and even her husband consider themselves part Cuban.

Tia Alicia even hangs out with Las Cubanas, a group of Cuban women that were born in Cuba, like her, and live in Mexico. They drink their cafecito Cubano and play Canasta (the card game) every time they get together.

Tia and Tio make it a habit of visiting Miami often. On a good year, they’re here to celebrate the holidays with us. To my good fortune, they were here in 1997, the first Christmas I spent with my husband’s family, while we were still dating.

On Christmas morning, many of us wake up early and dash to the tree to see what St. Nick has left for us. In my husband’s family, everyone wakes up in their respective houses, opens their gifts with their parents, and then continues the dash to my mother in law’s house.

We just recently started gathering at my mother in law’s. Remember, we all took on holidays after Moki’s passing. When Moki was around, we all used to meet up at noon-ish (Cuban time translation = between 2 and 3pm) to open all the cousin gifts.

We place all the gifts randomly around the living room, now set beautifully alongside my mother in law’s Christmas Village that takes a month to build (and take down). As soon as everyone has arrived and set their gifts in place, the almost twenty of us attack and spend a good half hour screaming each other’s names as we read the tags on each gift and hand them to the distracted recipient.

The trick is to grab a gift when you hear your name and start a pile in the corner. Before you know it, you turn around and you’ve got more than ten gifts waiting for you – it’s Christmas morning all over again!

And then, someone leaves their pile to make refried beans. At least when Tia Alicia is in Miami, she’s the one that is in the kitchen before anyone can realize it, cutting up onions and putting shredded cheese on plates as she heats up olive oil in a frying pan.

Out from the fridge comes a huge container of black beans. My mother in law’s black beans. Not the leftovers from Nochebuena. No, there’s usually no leftovers from Christmas Eve. It’s actually a fresh batch she had set aside that she made at the same time as the Nochebuena ones.

Alicia makes frijoles

And into the hot oil they go. Scoop by scoop, in they go, and the mashing begins. Tia Alicia’s got this down to a science. She mashes and mashes and mixes and stirs and those black beans turn to puree and start coming together quicker than I’ve ever seen – and definitely quicker than it took me this first time doing the frijoles refritos without her.

Tia and Tio stayed in Mexico to spend Christmas with their daughter and grandkids. It was the perfect time for me to step in and take another recipe down from The Project.

Or so I thought. When a certain few in my family saw me headed for the kitchen, I got the looks, and comments:

- Are you going to the kitchen? You’re not going to do something from The Project, are you? Are you going to…do Tia Alicia’s frijoles?
- Yes.
- But…why do you have that Nitza book with you? You’re not going to make some crap frijoles recipe from that book are you?
- No. I’m going to make frijoles refritos.
- Tia Alicia’s frijoles?
- Yes.
- But why do you have that book? Does it have pimentos and olives and stuff?
- No.
- But we like Tia Alicia’s frijoles.
- Yes. They’re the same as Tia Alicia’s frijoles.
- But…Tia’s frijoles are Mexican. That’s how they make it in Mexico.
- No. Tia’s frijoles are Cuban and her recipe is from this book. Look, it’s made the same way.

Dead silence.

For a long time.

News flash, family – Tia Alicia is Cuban. Why would it be such a shock to them that my Nitza book has Alicia’s recipe in it?

This was an endless case of round and round but at the end of it all, I still think they thought I was nuts and that Tia Alicia’s recipe was exclusive to her.

Well, Nitza or Alicia, call it what you want, it’s the best thing to do with leftover black beans (if there are any).

Recipe #40: Frijoles Negros Refritos

Nitza says that the first thing you do is put the black beans in a colander/strainer to make them into a puree. I take the beans only (hardly any liquid – only if necessary) and mash them in a tablespoon of hot olive oil with a potato masher instead. You mash and stir the beans constantly until you see them coming together and binding like a thick paste.

They actually come towards the middle of the pan as you stir, and stay away from the edges since the liquid has evaporated and what you’re left with is a hummus-type of consistency.

frijoles refritos ready for plating

You scoop the refried beans on a plate, with chopped white onions, shredded cheese and/or chopped hard boiled eggs on top. I personally like all three on top, but hey, it’s up to you.

Frijoles Refritos served

Easy easy. And, with a little practice, you’ll make your first batch in less than half an hour. You really have to learn how to play with the temperature of the heat you cook the beans over. The higher the heat, the better, but the greater the risk of burning the beans.

So, you play around with it, until you have it down to a science like Tia Alicia. And, before you know it, everyone will forget where the recipe comes from and they’ll think it’s unique to you. Or to Tia Alicia.

Whatever it is, I still don’t think my family believes I really made a recipe from The Project. I believe they think I gave in and made it like Tia Alicia makes it. Which I did, except that Tia Alicia learned how to make it from Nitza and just like all good Cuban dishes, that gets erased and it becomes unique to the cook.

So feel free to call this your own. Your family won’t know any better. Which is really what we all want – dishes to call our own.

And another recipe down. Lots more to go.

1 comment:

  1. From my mom's side my mom is Mexican and well Dads we're Cuban and Spanish, but you can take any leftover Cuban black beans, throw them in the blender to puree, then heat olive oil or lard, sautee some finely chopped onion until fragrant, and add the beans, stir over medium heat occasionally and let them simmer til they thicken.

    If you want to make the Mexican, Central American, etc. style bean soups and then refry the leftovers or make it the same day simply boil either red, black, pintos, or peruvian beans with 1/2 a large onion, some garlic cloves and allow to boil til tender, when tender season with salt and let simmer a bit longer. That's it. To make the refried beans just puree, and fry them in the oil or lard that you previously sauteed some finely minced onion. It's one of the very very very basic recipes in the Mexican kitchen or central american. You can use it as a side to any meal. It's actually delicious for a hardy breakfast with some fried eggs, sliced fresh cheese, and fried plantains with a side of sour cream, you use a bolillo or french bread to scoop all that up or corn tortillas it's one of my favorite breakfasts/ meals that way :)