A Night in (Little) Havana


Though the sun fades – for now, anyway – dinner brings back its bright, sparkling glory and transports diners to a land of eternal sunshine.  Today’s attempts, Mojo Chicken served alongside Roasted Sweet Potatoes, are justifiably prominent in the Cuban kitchen and are favorites too in the thriving expat community in and around Miami.

Citrus plays a leading role in both dishes, lending a tangy effervescence.  Quite evocative of the sunny fruit widespread throughout the Caribbean basin.  Though the dishes were featured separately, they’re natural companions.  One bite, and the exuberance makes it July wherever the diner happens to be.  Florida is the Sunshine State, after all.

Mojo Chicken is described in the June/July 2018 issue of Cook’s Country.   The vibrant colors leapt from the page, and the taste matches the pictures.  With such an introduction, it’s only natural Mojo Chicken made the list.

The Roasted Sweet Potatoes had a slightly more unorthodox journey.  They first appeared on, of all places, Alicia Silverstone’s site, The Kind Life.  Her name is about as Cuban as mine, but her recipe is spot-on.

The sweet potatoes look more than a little like home fries, though that’s the extent of the similarities.  For one thing, the sweet potatoes are roasted, not fried, though the oven still gives the skins a pleasing slight crispiness.  The taste is surprisingly complex, as the vegetable’s mild sweetness plays well with lime’s tang.  Garlic’s zing and cilantro’s freshness easily counteract the potatoes’ starchiness.

This makes them the perfect companion for the sweet and sour combination of pineapple, limes and oranges that bathe the chicken.  The fruit provides brightness, while the garlic and minced peppers contribute a little fire that emphasizes the grill’s smokiness.

It’s a pairing that inspires yearning, whether it’s of homesick Cubans in Miami, or of…you.  Don’t rely on what’s written here, though.  Now would be a good time to book a beach vacation in Miami so you can see – and taste – for yourself.

****

Cuban-Style Roasted Sweet Potatoes

  • 3 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and quartered (*1, 2)
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  •  sea salt, to taste
  • freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
  • large garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 1 and 1/2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped (*3)

Heat the oven to 400 degrees.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. (*4)

Place the potatoes in a large bowl.  Toss with 2 tablespoons of the oil and salt and pepper.  Set aside the bowl for later use.

Spread the potatoes in a single layer on the baking sheet and bake for about 30 minutes, until the exteriors are lightly browned and the potatoes pieces may be pierced easily with a knife.

Let the potatoes cool for about 15 minutes, then return them to the bowl.  Drizzle them with the remaining olive oil and the lime juice.  Sprinkle with the chopped parsley.  Toss well enough to coat the sweet potatoes thoroughly, and serve.

NOTES :

1 – If possible, use sweet potatoes with white flesh and lighter skins.  The “orange” variety is fine, but not quite as good.

2 – Though lighter sweet potatoes tend to be smaller, you still need to do more than just quarter them.  Cutting them into one-inch cubes works best.

3 – Cilantro is a great substitution, and it’s one I made.  Plus, cilantro is more widespread in the Caribbean basin than is parsley.

4 – A silicone baking mat, if you have one, is an even better choice.

*****

Grilled Mojo Chicken

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/3 cup pineapple juice
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard
  • 2 teaspoons orange zest, plus 1/3 cup orange juice
  • 2 teaspoons lime zest, plus 1/3 cup lime juice
  • 1 and 1/4 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon minced jalapeño chile (*5)
  • 6 chicken leg quarters (*6)

Heat the oil in a small saucepan and, after it begins to shimmer, add the garlic.  Heat, stirring often, until small bubbles appear and the garlic is straw-colored. About five minutes.  Let cool for five minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together in a medium bowl pineapple juice, orange juice, orange zest, lime juice, lime zest, cumin, oregano and 3/4 teaspoon of freshly-ground pepper.  Slowly whisk in the garlic oil until it’s thoroughly incorporated

Transfer half of mixture to a separate bowl and add to it cilantro, jalapeno, 1 tablespoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon freshly-group pepper.  Cover and set aside.

Whisk one tablespoon salt into the remaining mojo mixture.

Prepare the chicken by making diagonal cuts, perpendicular to the bone.  Cuts should be deep and go all the way to the bone.  Make two cuts in each drumstick, one each on the top and bottom.  Each thigh should get two cuts as well, but both on the same (skin) side.

Put the chicken in a one-gallon zip-top bag and pour half the mojo sauce (the “uncovered” half) over it.  Force out as much air as possible and manipulate bag until the sauce completely covers the chicken.  Refrigerate for anywhere from one hour, up to overnight, flipping the bag occasionally so the sauce remains distributed evenly.

About fifteen minutes before meat finishes marinating, heat one-half of a grill while leaving the other half untouched.  Place the chicken, skin-side down, on the “hot” part of the grill and heat for about five minutes, until modest char marks appear.  Flip the chicken, leaving it on the “hot” side, and cook for five minutes more.

Transfer chicken to the “cool” side, flipping it again so it’s skin-side down.  Baste with half the mojo sauce (from the bowl you covered earlier).  Close the grill and cook for half an hour.

Flip the chicken one more time, leaving it on the “cool” side.   Baste with the remaining mojo sauce, close the grill and cook for half an hour more.

Garnish and serve with sides, as desired.

NOTES:

5 – Actually, I chose a habanero chile.  As “habanero” is the Spanish term for, among other things, a resident of Havana, it seemed an appropriate choice.   Habaneros are considerably hotter than are jalapeños, but the prescribed amount works out to just half a pepper, and it’s distributed across six leg quarters.  The heat is recognizable, definitely flavorful, but it’s far from overwhelming.

6 – Whole leg quarters were unavailable; as you can see, I used six each of drumsticks and thighs.  They started as leg quarters, but the butcher separated them beforehand.  If you are using whole quarters, make a fifth diagonal cut on each, on the skin side, at the joint between the thigh and the drumstick.

 

3 thoughts on “A Night in (Little) Havana

  1. oh this is just heaven! You just transport me back to one of the best times of my childhood when we used to get together Sundays’ afternoon as a family at a local restaurant that served the absolute best Mojo Chicken! ohhh all that garlic and cilantro yummmm LOVE THIS POST TO PIECES 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks much, Daniela! Encouraging that you love Mojo Chicken too. The preparation originated in the Canaries, and the Spanish brought the recipe with them as they ventured forth in the 16th and 17th centuries. As those travels brought them to the tropical Americas, Spaniards added pineapples, limes and the like. A fortunate experiment, as it lets lucky tasters – me, you (great story about your childhood Sunday dinners!), anyone – travel instantly to the tropics. Can’t wait to try this in January, to enjoy the full effect!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh wow I didn’t know that even though my family is from Spain! (Not from the Canaries though) yes! This is the perfect “get away” dish now that… (ominous GoT soundtrack! WINTER IS COMING ❄️

        Liked by 1 person

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