Recipes: Florida


Sweet Potato Orange Basket

The name Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings has loomed large in my imagination for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Central Florida, I heard many tales about this independent-minded author who moved from the urban North in the 1920s to the rural hamlet of Cross Creek, not far from my home town, Winter Park.

Rawlings lived in and wrote about her beloved adopted community for decades, and her most lauded work was based on her experiences there, like the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling (1938).  Yet beyond her legacy in print, Rawlings left a legend that remains strong in Central Florida lore, particularly, I think, for little girls. I, for one, was fascinated and awed by this pioneer who left northern city life behind to live in untamed Florida, thick with vegetation, rattlesnakes and moonshiners.

Wanting to know more about the person beyond the myth, I recently bought a copy of Cross Creek (1942), Rawlings’s non-fiction account of life in the rural community. Far from my original home, I also longed to immerse myself in Rawlings’s Florida, which many call the Real Florida.

My nostalgia was satisfied through Rawlings’s descriptions of the Florida landscape, which conjured up vivid images of hammock and pine and oak scrub forests dense with palmettos and underbrush. I could clearly see the old farmhouse Rawlings lived in surrounded by tranquil orange groves with scattered rays of sunlight peeking through the leaves.

It is true that certain aspects of the Rawlings legend in my mind were confirmed as I read, like the Marjorie who knew how to use her gun and occasionally made blackbird pie from birds she had shot herself (which she later found out was illegal). And the Marjorie who knew how to cook alligator to perfection and who preferred fried soft-shell cooter (turtle) to fried chicken. This was the intrepid, eccentric Rawlings of my imagination.

Yet the more pages I turned, the more I connected with Rawlings. In my adopted home of Spain, I could relate to her reflections on seeking a sense of place in a foreign environment. And through her affinity for Florida, I felt an affinity for her.

I also felt closer to Rawlings through her passion for cooking, which fully blossomed at Cross Creek. I devoured the chapter entitledOur Daily Bread,” in which she traces her path from aspiring to accomplished and intuitive cook, aided by Fannie Farmer. (Rawlings’s  mother, a gifted if reluctant cook, apparently did not consider it worthwhile to pass on culinary skills to her daughter.)

In her Cross Creek kitchen, Rawlings found inspiration in a variety of influences from her present and past, both cosmopolitan and down-home. She showed a particular fondness for local Florida ingredients and dishes, like cornpone, mayhaw jelly, alligator-tail steak and anything made with cream from her cow Dora.

Thankfully, readers at the time requested recipes for the dishes in Cross Creek, prompting Rawlings to publish a compilation, Cross Creek Cookery (1942). Through the descriptions and instructions, we get to hover over Rawlings’s shoulder in her farmhouse kitchen, admiring her bravery with the gator and peeking into casseroles simmering with love for Florida.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Sweet Potato Orange Baskets Adapted from Cross Creek Cookery

“Food imaginatively and lovingly prepared, and eaten in good company, warms the being with something more than the mere intake of calories.”  Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings – from the introduction to Cross Creek Cookery

This recipe intrigued me, even though I was not sure what to expect from the combination of sweet potato, honey, egg, cream and bitter orange zest and rind. Before taking my first bite, I hoped for the best, and then struck gold. The soufflé-like potatoes were fragrant and enticing – bitter, sweet, savory and floral with a hint of clove. The warm colors reminded me of sunshine.

I was also drawn to this recipe because of the simple fact that oranges are a link between my original and adopted homes, Florida and Spain. In fact, the groves on Rawlings’s property were originally planted by Spaniards.

I ate my sweet potato orange basket with a green salad for a light lunch, but can easily imagine them with roast duck, as Rawlings served them. If you’re feeling ambitious, you could complete the Rawlings dinner party menu with the following dishes: “fried finger-strips of grits;…small whole white onions, braised; hot sherried grapefruit; tiny hot cornmeal muffins; a tossed salad of endive dressed with finely chopped chives, marjoram and thyme and French dressing made with tarragon vinegar,” and, “for dessert, grape-juice ice cream” (Cross Creek 249).

2 medium oranges

1 cup mashed boiled sweet potato (See note)

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon heavy cream

1 tablespoon honey, preferably orange blossom

Grated rind of 1 small orange (about ½ loosely packed teaspoon)

A dash of ground clove

¼ teaspoon salt, or to taste

Fresh-ground pepper

Butter

Chopped parsley for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 ºF.

To make the “orange baskets,” halve the oranges and either juice them or scoop out the pulp (which Rawlings suggested using for a fruit cup or salad – I myself downed the fresh juice).

To make the filling, mix the mashed sweet potatoes, egg, cream, honey, orange rind, clove, salt and pepper until smooth. Fill the empty orange baskets to the rims with the sweet potato mixture and top each with a pat of butter. Bake until the surface is lightly golden, about 30 minutes. “Handles may be made with orange rinds if one wants to be very fancy,” wrote Rawlings.

NOTE: I followed Deborah Madison’s technique for boiling sweet potatoes from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Scrub the potatoes and leave them whole, with the skin on. Cover them with cold water and bring to the boil. Then reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender and easily pierced with a fork. I used 2 medium sweet potatoes to get a bit over 1 cup mashed.

Ropa vieja literally means “old clothes” in Spanish, which likely refers to the appearance of the shredded beef in this Cuban dish.

One of my earliest Cuban ropa vieja memories takes place in the gilded dining room at Versailles. I am not referring to the French palace, mind you, but rather to the palatial restaurant of the same name in Little Havana, Miami, which, founded in 1971, is a landmark in its own right.

The Old Havana ambiance strikes me as I walk up to the front door, passing by an open coffee counter crowded with men drinking espresso in a cloud of cigarette and cigar smoke. They converse in their native Spanish, the language of the newspapers tucked under their arms.

The dining room is fit for a would-be king, illuminated by crystal chandeliers and lined with elaborately etched mirrors rimmed in gold, all a bit faded. Tourists and regulars steadily stream in, packing the tables and filling the air with boisterous conversation in Spanish and English.

I find it difficult to choose from the extensive menu, but am ultimately swayed by ropa vieja, one of the daily specials, served with rice, black beans and fried sweet plantains. I’ll have to get the Cuban sandwich next time, I tell myself, for consolation’s sake.

Our dishes arrive quickly – service is efficient here, tuned to the American lunch hour. But my ropa vieja has apparently been stewing for hours. The meat is incredibly tender and thoroughly infused with the flavors of the tomatoes, peppers and onions in the sauce. The cooks here know what they’re doing.

Versailles Toalla con mapa de cuba

Souvenirs of Cuba for sale outside Versailles

I have equally fond memories of the ropa vieja and of the tasajo, a similar dish made with dried beef, at La Teresita, another palatial Cuban restaurant/banquet hall, minus the opulent decor, in Tampa.

Lunch specials at La Teresita

And of the takeaway ropa vieja from the diminutive Black Bean Deli, a long-time favorite for Cuban staples in my hometown, Winter Park.

And at Pambiche, a colorful and hip Cuban restaurant in Portland, Oregon, a taste of Florida in my adopted home of ten years.

I am certain that Cuban grandmothers were involved in all the recipes.

With so many time-honored versions of ropa vieja at my fingertips, I didn’t learn to make it myself until I was living in Avignon, France, without a Cuban restaurant in sight. I had a craving. Ropa vieja had become like a family dish to me, with flavors that reminded me of home.

Since I don’t have a Cuban grandmother, I turned to the Internet for help. The resulting recipe has become one of my favorite dishes to make for a meal with friends, first in France, and now in Spain. This luscious shredded beef stew, a New World island spin on familiar Old World ingredients, never fails to please.

My dining room is no Versailles, but with ropa vieja on the table, I can taste Florida just the same.

A Florida Expat’s Version of Cuban Ropa Vieja

– Adapted from this recipe originally published in Gourmet magazine in 1995.

Many variations of Cuban ropa vieja exist out there, which isn’t surprising given that the dish originated with home cooks. While the following recipe, guided by nostalgia, is perhaps not exactly authentic, I find it delicious nonetheless. And it takes me back to Florida every time. I continue to research and modify the process, and appreciate suggestions. I’ll have to take a Cuban cooking class sometime when I’m home!

The main ingredient, really, is time, which concentrates the flavors and makes the beef exceptionally tender. (And besides the occasional stirring, ropa vieja doesn’t require too much attention while it’s cooking, so you can easily multi-task.)

I typically serve ropa vieja with steamed white rice, black beans from Clarita’s Cocina and tostones, fried green plantains. I love maduros, fried ripe plantains, too. (These plantain recipes, and the tasajo recipe above, are from the site Three Guys from Miami, a great source I recently discovered for Cuban recipes, and for Miami travel and dining tips, too.)

For Braising Beef:

3 1/2 pounds skirt or flank steak

Extra virgin olive oil, for browning beef

1 large onion, quartered

2 carrots, roughly chopped

5 cloves garlic, crushed

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2-1 teaspoon cumin (depending on how strong you like your cumin flavor)

1 teaspoon salt

A few peppercorns

For the next step:

Braised beef, shredded

Extra virgin olive oil

2 yellow onions, thinly sliced

2 green bell peppers, thinly sliced

2 red bell peppers, thinly sliced

4 cloves of garlic, minced

2 cups braising liquid

1 16-ounce can whole tomatoes with juice, chopped

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

To braise beef:

Season beef with salt and fresh-ground pepper. Lightly coat the bottom of a 5-quart saucepan or Dutch oven with olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add beef and brown on all sides. Add water to cover about 3/4 of the beef and toss in the rest of the braising ingredients. Bring to a boil over high heat and skim off any foam. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until beef is tender, checking occasionally and adding more water as necessary. Depending on the cut and quality of the meat, this could take anywhere from 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Remove from heat and allow meat to cool in the braising liquid. Remove meat and set aside; discard vegetables.

At this point, many recipes I have read (though not all) say to boil the liquid for around 1/2 hour to reduce it, such as the previously mentioned version in Gourmet. I recently skipped this step (it was late), and the recipe turned out just as delicious.

Te beef can be braised up to one day in advance. Store the meat and liquid separately in the refrigerator.

To make the rest:

Shred the meat with your hands, trimming excess fat as you go. If the meat seems tough at this stage, don’t worry – it will soften as it simmers.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium, and sauté onions with green and red peppers and garlic until softened. Add shredded beef, braising liquid, tomatoes, tomato paste and cumin. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, uncovered, for at least 30 minutes, adding more braising liquid as needed. I tend to simmer ropa vieja for 1 hour or more, which I find really heightens the flavor.

YIELD: 8 Servings