Long before Danielle Alvarez was head chef at lauded Merivale restaurant, Fred's, she cooked with her mum, Rosa, back home in Miami.
"Growing up I helped my mum in the kitchen a lot," Alvarez tells SBS Food. "I wanted to be near her, to see what she was doing. My uncle Tino always used to say, 'There's Rosa in the kitchen and Dani right beside her'."
Alvarez remembers being captivated by the magic Rosa would create when making a meal. "She'd take these tough, cheap cuts of meat, put them in a pot and something magical, tender and unctuous would come out."
Alvarez's parents immigrated from Cuba as children in the 1950s, joining what was at the time a majority Cuban population in the Florida city. They brought with them a way of cooking that reflected a long history of colonisation and shifting culture.
A diet of seafood and tropical produce is what might be expected of a Caribbean island nation, but Alvarez says Cuban cuisine is incongruous with the climate. "Most of Cuba's culinary history comes from Spain, which means hearty beans, braises and stews. It's food you wouldn't associate with a hot climate."
When she thinks of home cooking, dishes like puerco asado – roasted pork with caramelised onions, black beans and rice – and beef stews come to mind. "The food I know and love is something you put on the stove and let bubble for hours. It's brown food on a plate, all the way," she laughs.
Cuban cooking comes with a handful of golden rules. Never add chilli; Cubans aren't fond of spicy food. Always serve dishes with plantains: a savoury preparation is tostones, plantains that are smashed and shallow fried until crispy, but creamy inside. "Tostones are what we use to push meat onto our forks, and to soak up the sauce."
"Most of Cuba's culinary history comes from Spain, which means hearty beans, braises and stews."
Many dishes have a base of sofrito, a mixture of capsicums, onions, garlic and tomatoes, slow-cooked in oil to create a sweet, fragrant starting point for a meat dish. Picadillo is cooked this way, and it featured almost weekly on Rosa's home menu.
"As kids, we had it so often, we would roll our eyes when it came into the rotation, but it's so tasty."
The dish begins with sofrito, the ingredients for which a 10–year–old Alvarez was responsible for chopping. "My mum would sweat the vegetables in oil until they got really soft, and then add vino seco, a cheap, dry white wine from the grocery store."
After letting the alcohol cook off, Rosa would add a can of tomatoes, plus a can of water and let the mixture simmer. "Then she'd add the meat. It had already been seasoned with a spice mix called 'complete sazon' that goes in everything. She didn't brown the meat at all, she just mixed it and cooked it until it was saucy, soft and tender."
Green olives from a jar and a handful of sultanas or currants finished the dish, along with a side of white rice and beans.
While some chefs might riff on the recipes their mums and grandmas taught them, at Fred's there isn't anything resembling picadillo on the menu. "I think part of it is you almost rebel against your own cuisine. You don't see it as good enough to serve. And of course, I also don't make it as good as my mum," she says.
But there's also a more personal reason why Alvarez only cooks Cuban food at home. In 2016, her younger brother Manny passed away, and the memories of food and family have become even more precious.
"Getting together and eating is bittersweet now because there's always someone missing from the table. Food is so joyous and family is the ultimate in happiness. When you lose someone close that's part of that family unit, things change. I don’t know how to put it into words, but it's never quite the same.
"Now the memories of the food we ate together are so much more important to me. I'm much more careful about who I share with."
Serves 3-4 people
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onion, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 large red bell pepper (capsicum), de-seeded and diced
- 500 g minced beef
- 1 heaped tbsp tomato paste
- 200 g tomato puree
- 200 ml water
- 50 g sultanas
- 50 g pimento-stuffed green olives (or other green olives, pitted)
- 1 ½ tsp ground cumin
- ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
- ¼ tsp ground allspice
- Splash white wine
1. Sautée the onions, peppers, garlic and bay leaves in the olive oil in a wide sautée pan set over medium heat.
2. Add a pinch of salt and cook for 15 minutes. You may need to turn the stove to low if the onions start to get brown.
3. Add in the spices and tomato paste and stir to combine.
4. Add in the minced meat and season the pan quite well.
5. Let the meat cook and use your spoon to break it up. You are not trying to brown the meat, just cook it through. 6. Add in the splash of dry white wine and let that cook for a minute.
7. Add in the tomato purée and the water and cover with a lid. Simmer for 20 minutes on low.
8. Uncover and add in the sultanas and olives and cook for another five minutes, uncovered to allow to thicken.
9. Serve with steamed white rice.
Photographs by Danielle Alvarez.