Discovering Tampa in my Kitchen

Discovering Tampa in my Kitchen

By Daniel Miller

Of all the bad habits I have passed on to my daughter, reading at the dinner table is the one I am least ashamed of.  It puts a damper on conversation, but it ensures the appropriate caloric intake, and so it goes.  Her end of the table is stacked with Harry Potter novels, Calvin and Hobbes, and Raina Telgemeier books.  My end of the table is stacked with cookbooks.  It’s been a long running joke in my family – we’re thinking about the next meal before we finish eating the one that’s on our plate. Cookbooks suit me well for the distracted, bite-sized reading I can accomplish at the dinner table, and I’ve amassed a respectable food and cookbook collection over the past few years.

Cookbooks are cultural documents, whether they intend to be or not.  My wife’s Whole30 cookbook, full of recipes completely lacking in sugar, grains, legumes, and dairy, says a quite a bit about our society’s relationship to food at the current moment.  I adore The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home because it’s full of dishes I remember from my childhood – traditional Jewish recipes that recall holidays at my grandparents’ house or Sunday mornings with my father at the delicatessen.   Food and culture are inseparable, and it’s impossible to examine food without the context of culture.

Food is also connected to location.  When I think of my hometown of Philadelphia, I don’t just think of cheesesteaks, water ice, and Italian food – but the specific neighborhoods to seek out those delicacies.  I lived in San Francisco for ten years, and my memories of the city are forever mingled with burritos, sourdough bread, and the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten.  When I moved to Tampa five years ago, I knew I had to find the foods that make Tampa unique.

During late 19th and early 20th century, two waves of immigration brought new people and new cultures to Tampa.  Greek immigrants settled in Tarpon Springs to work in the sponge diving industry.  The sponge docks are now a major tourist attraction and the city still has the highest percentage of Greek Americans of any city in the US.  And after Vincente Martinez Ybor moved his cigar company to Tampa in 1885, thousands of Cubans followed, building a community around the industry.  Ybor City remains an ever-evolving historic neighborhood in Tampa, known for its nightlife and the free-roaming chickens descended from the backyard birds that belonged to the original immigrant settlers.  And as a result, Tampa is littered with Greek and Cuban joints in just about every neighborhood.

So in my quest to better understand my new home of Tampa, I set out to gain a deeper understanding of Cuban cuisine.  A new cookbook added to my collection, The Cuban Table: A Celebration of Food, Flavors, and History by Ana Sofia Pelaez and Ellen Silverman, is my guide.   Through travels to Cuba, Miami, and New York, the authors explicitly set out to document traditional Cuban dishes from a variety of authentic sources.

The first recipe I made was pastelitos de queso y guayaba – cheese and guava pastries.  I am sucker for sweets, it’s the first recipe in the book, and it looked pretty easy.  Store-bought puff pastry, sweetened cream cheese, and guava preserves pull this simple, delicious recipe together.

Puff pastry from the freezer section of your local grocery store is the killer ingredient here.  If you haven’t used puff pastry before… you should.  It’s pretty much a cheat code for cooking. It requires almost zero effort on the part of the cook and produces impressive, crowd-pleasing results.  Thaw it on the counter for 30 minutes, unroll it, cut to size, and bake it.  One of my wife’s co-workers exclaimed my pastelitos were better than the local Cuban bakery.  I’m not ready to make that claim, but you can see the sort of praise that can accompany the mere defrosting of a sheet of puff pastry.

Now in my Northeastern Jewish mind, the Platonic ideal of cream cheese is that it exists in a state generously schmeared between a slice of lox and half an everything bagel.  Sweetening cream cheese with a bit a sugar is not a naturally occuring thought to me, but it provides an excellent creamy counterpoint to the sweet and tart guava preserves.

Guava is a mystery fruit to most Americans.  I’m not sure I’ve even seen a guava in a grocery store before I moved to Florida.   It’s difficult to identify a ripe guava, let alone figure out the best way to eat.  Fortunately for a gringo like myself, guava paste and preserves are easy to find in the Latino food section of every Florida grocery store.

With the puff pastry cut into neat squares, a dollop of cream cheese and guava gets enclosed into a triangle and finished with egg wash.  The pastries expand in the oven, and a brushing of simple syrup adds a sweet crunch to the flaky pastry shell.  The results are luscious, and it’s a bit of an amazing transformation to see such few, simple ingredients expand into something much greater than the sum of its parts.

For my next recipe, I headed back to the basics, albeit with something slightly more complicated:  frijoles negros – black beans from scratch.

Disclosure: Both my wife and I are reformed vegans.  Black beans and rice is a weekly convenience in our house.  Rice goes in the rice cooker, and two cans of beans are simmered on the stove for a nearly zero-effort meal.  Also, I have been a dedicated home cook and foodie for over 20 years.  So it’s not without shame that I admit that I have never made beans from scratch before.

Unsurprisingly, it’s pretty simple, but somewhat time consuming.  Beans are soaked overnight, then simmered for an hour with onion, green pepper, garlic, and bay leaf.  Meanwhile, a sofrito is prepared using the same ingredients, added to the simmering beans with a handful of green olives and a generous pour of white wine.  Another hour later, the beans are tender and your house smells like heaven.

It’s worth noting how onion plays a key role in flavoring this dish.  In Michael Ruhlman’s cooking and technique book Ruhlman’s Twenty, he notes that onions are particularly impressive because they have a ‘volume knob’ – the intensity of the flavor is controlled by how you heat them.  In these black beans, there are three layers of onion – simmered in the beans, fried in the sofrito, and raw as a garnish – that provide a high degree of complexity from a single, simple vegetable.

Whenever I read a recipe that starts with a description like “Every Sunday my grandfather butchered a chicken…” or “This is how my yia yia make spanakopita…,” my ears perk up.  I am intrigued by old-school, homestyle, family recipes.  This is the beauty of The Cuban Table.  The recipe for black beans is literally the author’s grandfather’s recipe.  And the rest of the book has the same feel – well-worn recipes that are at home on the table of a Cuban family, whether in Miami or Havana.  These dishes provide a window into a rich cultural history of food, where simple, everyday ingredients yield refined, complex, and richly-flavored results.

Daniel Miller is originally from Philadelphia, PA and holds a B.A. in Anthropology from New College of Florida.  Not that it ever did him much good.  He is currently a high school Social Studies teacher in Tampa, FL.  He remains fascinated by the food, music, and culture of the world.