Cuban cuisine is savory and simple, relying heavily on fresh produce and basic herbs and spices. Very few ingredients are pre-packaged, although, in some instances, you’ll have no choice.
A commonly used base to many Cuban dishes is sofrito (so-FREE-toh). The best part of sofrito is that you can make it in large quantities, store it in the freezer, then use as needed. To make sofrito, simply take one onion, one green pepper, and two tomatoes, cut them up and toss them into your food processor/blender. Puree until smooth. Some people use just green peppers and onions; the choice is entirely yours. A very simple way to store is to freeze them in ice cube trays. When the recipe calls for it, toss 2-3 cubes into the pan and saute until thawed.
Dry white cooking wine is used in many dishes. It has a unique salty flavor that pairs well with many of the sauce based recipes. Your local supermarket may carry Goya or Badia products, otherwise you will find dry white cooking wine in the section where the oils and vinegars are. Keep a couple of bottles handy. Or just buy a case.
Bitter(sour) orange juice is commonly used as a marinade for chicken and pork. It is the base of a proper “mojo“, not to be confused with the rum drink “Mojito”. In Florida, sour oranges can be commonly found. Here in Indiana, I have the good fortune of having an international foods grocer close to home, and they always have the oranges. Otherwise, there’s a good chance you may find it bottled in the Hispanic foods section. Alternatively, you can make your own by squeezing the juice out of 6-8 oranges and a grapefruit OR 4-6 limes. Or, just buy a case. 🙂
Mojo criollo can also be found bottled in the Hispanic food aisle, but I prefer to avoid unnecessary additions like sugar, so I make my own. I don’t have a measured recipe for my mojo. I simply combine the juice of 3-4 bitter oranges or I make my own as described above. I then add about a tablespoon of oregano, a tablespoon of cumin, a teaspoon each of salt and black pepper and since I just LOVE mine to be extra garlicky, I mash anywhere from 6 cloves to a whole head of garlic. I also add just a touch of olive oil and adjust the spices accordingly. However, if you must buy it, I recommend La Lechonera’s brand from the Miami restaurant of the same name, known for their incredible roast pork. Keep a gallon on hand; you’re going to need it.
Limes, onions, green peppers, red peppers, capers and green olives are commonly used in many dishes. Limes are currently very expensive in areas outside of South Florida thanks to problems with the crops in Mexico where most of our imported limes come from.
Beans, beans, beans! Keep dried black or red beans on hand. Especially black beans. We eat black beans with almost everything. Peas and pimentos are also used in many dishes like ropa vieja, picadillo, and arroz con pollo.
Spices commonly used in Cuban cooking include cumin, oregano, bay leaf, garlic salt (or kosher salt) and black pepper. It is also useful to have basil and paprika on hand.
Bijol is a special food coloring/annatto flavoring I’ve seen used in only TWO recipes to my knowledge – arroz con pollo or arroz con salchicas(sausage). A little goes a long way in terms of flavor and color, so the tiny 1/2 oz tin lasts a lifetime. Bijol and/or annatto can be somewhat difficult to find, so buy it online and keep it forever.
The tostonera is not exactly essential, per se, but it’s easier to have one when you need it vs. looking for a brown paper bag and a hammer to smash those delicious green plantains when you want to make tostones. There are two types of tostoneras: the flat one and one with a well to make a cup-shaped plantain which you can then stuff with meat or shrimp. I suppose you could also just put meat like “ropa vieja” right on a flat plantain, but for presentation, the cup shaped one looks a little more stylish.