There is, of course, a whole history behind this. My grandparents got married in 1921, at my great-grandmother’s house in New Jersey. My grandmother was an orphan; my grandfather was only twenty and had no marketable skills. Since my great-grandparents had vacationed in Havana more than once, as early as 1914, and the island seemed to be something of an American expatriate colony, my widowed great-grandmother thought it would be a peachy idea to buy a plantation in Cuba and have her darling son manage it.
My grandparents took off for Cuba, where they spent their winters for several years, starting in 1923 (according to ships records). The idyllic plantation life ended with the hurricane of 1928, which pretty much demolished the house on the property. They didn’t return. Yet they held on to the property. My grandfather even went back to check on things in 1940, and they kept the taxes paid up.
I wish I could say my grandmother passed on a wealth of Cuban dishes, but she never really cooked, and the only one that comes close is arroz con pollo, which my mother used to make.
|The first mystery item to appear:|
a very dry horseradish root. I
wouldn't eat it, but it looks
|Meet the boniato. This one weighs nearly|
In simplest terms, it’s kind of a sweet potato. But the flavor is less sweet than the variety we know—one source likened its flavor to freshly roasted chestnuts. You can cook it like a potato, but peel it first, and use it shortly after peeling (because if you don’t put it in water fast, it turns really ugly, kind of like it has green leprosy).
I found an online recipe for Boniato Gratin that sounded promising, so here we go, plunging into the unknown!
2 lbs boniatos, peeled and cut into
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup breadcrumbs (I used panko)
2 Tblsp butter
Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan and add salt. Add the boniato pieces and boil until tender, 6-8 minutes. Drain, then return to the pan.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter an 8-inch gratin pan and spoon in the mixture. Sprinkle with the bread crumbs or panko and dot with butter. Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, until the top is browned. Serve immediately.
--Raw, these babies are definitely harder and dryer than the potatoes we’re used to (and a pain to cut into small pieces), but they soften quickly in cooking.
--They’re also hard to peel. If you ever try to peel a boniato, pick the smoothest ones you can find.
--The flavor is faintly and pleasantly sweet. I’ve read that they come in a range of flavors.
--The texture is more like a russet potato than a waxy potato.
It was an interesting experiment. Would I cook them again? I might. But next I want to try yucca, which appeared at the same time at the market. (And maybe buy a Cuban cookbook!)
Lucy/Roberta—feel free to tell me I’m way off base about Cuban cooking. I’ll be happy to go check it out personally!