Friday, August 26, 2016

The Mysterious Cuban Potato

On paper my sister and I own a plantation in Cuba—69 acres on the Isle of Pines (renamed by Fidel Castro as Isla de la Juventud). I even have the deeds. In reality, we’re probably never going to get it back, but now that travel to Cuba is loosening up a bit, we might get to see it someday.

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
But for some mysterious reason my local market (Hannaford’s) has suddenly started importing increasingly exotic products, particularly vegetables, and this past week I first met the boniato, also known as the batata—and also known as the Cuban potato. Being in a giddy mood, I bought the largest, ugliest one they had.

Meet the boniato. This one weighs nearly
two pounds.

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!

Boniato Gratin

2 lbs boniatos, peeled and cut into 
     1/2-inch cubesSalt
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.

Mashed (roughly)
Mash with a potato masher. Add the cream, stock, salt and pepper and taste for seasoning—it shouldn’t be bland. If it’s too thick, add some more stock.

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.

The results?

--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!

Who has visited Cuba? Who wants to go?

My next book, Seeds of Deception, will appear in October. Nothing Cuban about it--Meg and Seth get as far south as Virginia and spend most of the book in New Jersey. I thought I should get them out of Massachusetts for their honeymoon.

Find it at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


  1. What a fascinating history Sheila--I wonder who lives on that property now? Is it near Havana? And I so admire your willingness to try to cook absolutely anything!!!

  2. Never a dull moment with you, Sheila! I have been to Cuba four times over the past 38 years, always for beach holidays. I'll have to keep an eye out for these 'beauties' but doubt if I'll find them here in the frozen north (where it's hot and steamy). Hope you get to enjoy that property someday. Such an interesting history. Hugs, MJ

    1. What's weird is that I found a 2015 article saying that people were abandoning the island right and left. I could probably get it back for the asking. But then what would I do with it? But there was a 1958 article about some major hotel chain that was looking to develop it into a resort--I'll be on the lookout for that.

  3. What an interesting family history. It would be interesting to find out what the status is of the property.

    You are an adventurous one! Cooking "alien" items.

    Isn't amazing how things have changed? I can remember when an avocado or mango was a rare and exotic item in the grocery store!

  4. I'll go, I'll go! A friend who summers here is originally from Cuba, and when she threw her annual dinner party last Sunday, I was hoping for Cuban food -- but she was in a Mexican mood!

  5. Fascinating, Sheila. My husband's family owns a wholesale produce company and his grandfather made many trips to Cuba to meet with growers and check on crops. I would love to go someday.

    1. That would be fun! I wonder if an Irish passport would help? (Not that I've gotten around to applying for one.)

  6. Wow, just to say you own a cuban plantation is something. I used to be food adventurous, for a 10+ year window but then I married a man that doesn't like anything and had kids that like even less. 😔