A Cuban lunch

Rice and chicken, imperial style

I love to write about food. After all, food, la comida, is a common, universal theme. We all have to eat, don’t we? In my first culinary mystery, Death Comes in through the Kitchen, I devoted several chapters in the form of blogposts, to authentic Cuban recipes.

Death under the Perseids isn’t a culinary mystery per se, but it has plenty of food descriptions. In this chapter, Mercedes, the protagonist, comes back to Havana and visits her grandmother Mamina, who has made a typical Cuban lunch for her.

¡Buen provecho!

The salad of avocado, tomatoes, onions and lettuce was ready. Mamina had tossed in a dressing made with vinegar, oil, lemon, salt and a teaspoon of honey—her secret recipe. After I went through it, she brought the tray with arroz con pollo imperial to the table. I took the first bite and grinned.

“How do you make it? Mine never tastes this good!”

 “I used lard to fry the chicken. I know that Nolo says lard’s not good for you, but what does he know? And I browned the rice before mixing it with the chicken in my old copper pot. Those Teflon things you sent, sorry but they don’t do the trick! I added tomatoes, onion, garlic and peppers, and seasoned everything with salt, vinegar, and a pinch of cumin. After cooking the rice and the chicken together for forty minutes, I transferred them to another tray and made layers of rice and chicken, adding ham and mayonnaise to each ‘floor.’ Then I covered everything in shredded cheese and put everything in the oven to melt that.”

She talked like an old sorceress about her beloved potions. I listened eagerly, wanting to take notes—it had occurred to me that a book of Cuban recipes would sell better than, well, a novel—but was afraid of interrupting her and breaking the spell.

“The secret is to do everything slow and step by step,” she concluded. “Like my grandmother used to say, ‘You can reach Rome if you walk long enough.’”

 “Your recipe is a metaphor for life?”

“Meta—what? Don’t throw these Sunday words at me, niña.”

“It’s like a comparison.” I laughed, not being too sure myself.

“My recipe is just that—a recipe.” She shrugged. “Now eat. You need to put some meat on your bones.”

I dove into the scrumptious arroz con pollo. Mamina ate her own food with gusto. Nena kept pawing us and getting treats. Mamina blew softly in a piece of chicken breast before putting it in the pup’s mouth. She used to do that for me when I was little.

I snapped a picture of Nena and texted it to Candela. It took forever to upload. In the end, I wasn’t even sure it had gone through.

It was five-thirty when we finished the dessert: natilla, custard sprinkled with cinnamon and raisins and topped with light, fluffy meringue puffs.

Photo taken from Three Guys from Miami

I helped Mamina clean the table. After I briefed her on our dinner plans and asked what was available, she told me not to worry.

“I made enough arroz con pollo to feed an army, niña. See how much is still in the pot? We’ll just reheat it and toss another salad when Nolo and his friend are about to arrive.”

Reheating lunch leftovers for company didn’t sound right to me, but I chalked that up to becoming too Americanized. After all, we were in Cuba, where everything was reused, repurposed and reheated when needed. Mamina wasn’t going to throw all that rice and chicken away. Might as well put them to good use.

Image taken from Love and lemons