Italian cibo meets Cuban comida in Ashley Nunezs kitchen. The food of both languages and cultures intersect in a global gastronomy that Nunez cooks up for her family.
By MARY G. PEPITONE
Special to The Star
Ashleys heritage is Italian, and her husband, Julian, emigrated from Cuba to Kansas City 40 years ago with his family. Together, the couple have two children, Carmela, 14, and LJ (Little Julian), 11.
Julians mother, Nena Nunez of Overland Park, shares the secrets of cooking Cuban cuisine with her daughter-in-law. Ashley and Nena have fun mixing it up in the kitchen. I feel proud when Ashley cooks Cuban food, but also love to eat her lasagna, Nena says. The Italians and Cubans are alike we cook for others because we love.
Residence: Overland Park
Special cooking interest: Creating flavorful food, using non-processed, organic ingredients.
What do you think defines Cuban food? Traditional Cuban cooking uses simple ingredients that are sautéed or slow-cooked. Cubans use basic spices, like garlic, cumin, oregano, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Meats are marinated and usually have some citrus component. Black beans and rice are staples. Also, Ive found that its hard to get a recipe, because Cubans like Italians are also very intuitive cooks. Ive learned by watching what Nena does in the kitchen when I cook with her.
Had you any experience preparing Cuban food before you met Julian? When I met Julian, I had never even eaten Cuban food. I grew up in an Italian family, but was always cooking. So when I started dating Julian, we began to regularly eat dinner with his family and cooking was how Nena and I spent time together.
My mother-in-law is known for her amazing food. For many years, her house was where everyone showed up to eat. All of their friends and many of Julians friends were always showing up, knowing there was always food to eat. To this day, when we run into Julians friends from high school and college, they talk about Nenas food. She has taught me many dishes over the years, and I have made my own modifications. My Cuban black beans are a combination of Julians Aunt Gladys and Nenas recipes.
Are you locked into preparing certain cuisines, such as Italian or Cuban foods only or do you have an expanded palate? I focus on cooking healthy meals, using fresh, organic ingredients. Palomilla with black beans and rice are a favorite meal and my children ask for it at least once a week. Nena also makes maduros, or sweet fried plantains to go with this dish.
I also practice pescetarianism, which is a diet that includes seafood, but not the flesh of other animals, so I dont actually eat Palomilla, but enjoy the beans and rice with sautéed vegetables. Ive always cooked from scratch but am really sensitive to my children eating processed foods especially since Carmela was diagnosed with an intolerance to food preservatives. I started a blog ( JunkFoodKids.com) that has recipes and helpful tips for moms who want to feed their families good food in this age of junk food.
What is the greatest cooking lesson youve learned from Nena? The secret to cooking good food is to put your heart into it. Ive also learned the importance of passing along recipes and a love of food to my own children. My kids arent afraid of more exotic dishes like pasta with calamari, and they love to peel vegetables for me.
Cooking in the kitchen can be an outlet for creativity and its so important to gather around the table for dinner together. As Nena says, part of the way to a persons heart is through the stomach.
Cuban Steaks or Palomilla
Makes 6-8 servings
1 (2-pound) hormone- and antibiotic-free grass-fed beef rump roast, trimmed of fat and sliced into 12 equal portions.
3 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon, freshly squeezed
Place meat in a single layer onto a large piece of waxed paper on a baking sheet. Evenly sprinkle 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 3/4 teaspoon pepper over sliced beef. Flip steaks over and season other side with remaining salt and pepper.
Place a piece of plastic wrap over steaks and pound with a meat mallet to tenderize. Place steaks into a resealable plastic bag and place in refrigerator for 4 to 6 hours.
Preheat oven to 170 degrees. Place an oven-safe platter into oven.
In a sauté pan, warm olive oil over medium-high heat. Brown steaks on both sides, 2 at a time, in sauté pan. After steaks have browned, transfer each to warmed platter in oven. Continue process until all meat has been browned, adding olive oil as necessary to sauté.
Add onion to pan and sauté until soft. Add lemon juice to onions to deglaze the bottom of pan. Pour onions and liquid over browned meat. Serve immediately with a side of rice and black beans, if desired.
NOTE: Nunez uses organic ingredients.
Per serving, based on 6: 239 calories (37 percent from fat), 10 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 88 milligrams cholesterol, 3 grams carbohydrates, 34 grams protein, 798 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes a nationally syndicated home column. Email her at email@example.com to nominate a cook.