Abuela Tona was the beloved grandmother of our friend Alicia García, the grand dame of Cuban food journalism whose family started the famous El Aljibe chicken restaurant in Havana. The soup was so nourishing, Alicia recalls, “it could raise you from your deathbed!” She mused about what makes a chicken soup Cuban: Certainly the addition of the indispensable cumin. Also a splash of yellow colouring from annatto or saffron, because “Cubans consider pale, white soups very ugly,” Alicia said. Back in the time when potatoes were plentiful, they’d be added to chicken soups, but nowadays most cooks use viandas (tubers) such as yuca or calabaza. Fideos, the vermicelli-like noodles, are also a must. Cubans prefer their soups on the bland side, but we couldn’t resist adding an extra layer of toasted cumin and some lime juice to liven things up.
Grandma Tona’s Chicken Soup
Sopa de Pollo de la Abuela Tona
1.7 litres chicken broth or water, plus more as needed
680g bone-in chicken breast
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tsp dried oregano
4 cloves garlic, sliced
3 cachucha peppers or 1 jalapeno, seeded and diced
large pinch crumbled saffron threads or 1-2 tbsp annatto oil (see note 1)
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 small white onion, quartered and thinly sliced
2 slender carrots, cut into 2.5cm pieces
210g 2.5cm cubes of peeled boiling potatoes or cooked yuca (see note 2)
85g broken-up fideo noodles or thin spaghetti
snipped chives or chopped cilantro, for garnish
squeeze of sour orange or lime juice, to taste
Combine broth and chicken in a snug pot and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, about 20 minutes, until chicken is just tender. Let chicken cool a bit in the broth, then remove with a slotted spoon to a bowl.
While the soup is cooking, toast the cumin seeds in a dry skillet, stirring, for 1-2 minutes, until fragrant. In a mortar with pestle, crush the toasted cumin seeds, a large pinch of salt, the oregano, garlic, cachucha peppers, and saffron threads to make a paste. (If using annatto oil instead of saffron threads, add it to the finished paste.) Add a few tbsp of warm broth and set aside.
In a soup pot, heat the butter over medium heat and sauté the onion and carrots until slightly softened but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add half of the paste, stir for a few seconds to combine, and add the broth from cooking the chicken. Bring to a simmer, add the potatoes (if using the cooked yuca, add it later) and cook until the potatoes are almost tender, about 12 minutes. Bring back to a full simmer, add the noodles (and the yuca, if using), and cook until the noodles are tender, 4-6 minutes or as directed on the package.
While the soup is cooking, remove the skin and bones from the chicken and shred the meat into bite-size pieces. Add the rest of the paste to the soup along with the chicken and cook to warm through, 1-2 minutes more. If the soup seems too thick, add a bit more broth. Serve with chives and a squeeze of sour orange.
2 tbsp achiote seeds
120ml olive oil
In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the achiote seeds and olive oil and cook for 5-7 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool. Strain the seeds out of the oil and keep the oil in a jar with a tight lid. Annatto oil can be stored for up to a month as a seasoning for yellow rice, meat, and poultry dishes.
Yuca with Onion Mojo
Yuca con Mojo
Yuca (aka cassava or manioc) is the source of your tapioca. It’s also a hugely popular source of carbohydrates in many Caribbean countries, and especially Cuba, enjoyed there as potatoes are in America: boiled, fried, creamed in soup, mashed into fritters – even, believe it or not, mashed and flattened into a pizza base! The slightly nutty taste of this dense, filling tuber becomes positively irresistible when enlivened with a sprightly mojo of sliced onion and sour orange juice. Traditionally served with roast pork, yucca with mojo also makes an excellent side for almost any meat dish. A crucial Cuban trick to achieve a soft, velvety texture is to “asustar la yuca” – scare the yuca – with a splash of very cold water at the end of cooking. Another important tip: time the yuca so it finishes cooking right as the hostess says “a la mesa” (to the table), since it hardens when exposed to air for too long. A delightful folkloric name for this recipe is yucca bautizada, or baptised yuca – baptised with mojo, that is.
2 yuca roots (about 910g total), peeled
240ml cold water
60ml olive oil
4 cloves garlic, chopped with 1 tsp salt
1 small red onion, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
60ml sour orange juice, or an equal mix of lime and orange juice
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
salt and pepper
Cut the yuca crosswise into 7.5cm pieces. Place the yuca in a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook until almost tender, about 20 minutes or longer.
Add the cold water, then bring the pot back to a boil and continue cooking until completely soft, another 5-7 minutes or longer. Let the yuca cool a little in the liquid. When just cool enough to handle, drain and cut the yuca pieces in half lengthwise, using a small knife to remove the tough fibres. Transfer to a serving bowl.
While the yuca cooks, in a small pot, heat the olive oil, salted garlic, and onion over medium heat until small bubbles form around the garlic, 2-3 minutes. Add the sour orange juice and remove from heat.
Top the yuca with the onion mojo and chopped parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Extracted from Paladares: Recipes Inspired by the Private Restaurants of Cuba by Anya von Bremzen (Abrams, approx €32). Photograph © 2017 Megan Fawn Schlow.