On a balmy afternoon in January of 1969, my mother and her family left their sprawling farm in Cuba for the promise of a new life filled with opportunity in the United States.
Like many other immigrant families, they worked hard to assimilate into the culture of their new home country. My grandfather went to work at an automobile factory, while my mother and her siblings attended school in an unfamiliar language. With a picture-perfect house in a sunny southern California suburb, they soon morphed into a seemingly typical American family — but anyone invited over for dinner would quickly realize that their Cuban traditions remained.
While her neighbors busied themselves by hosting cookouts on their backyard barbecues, my grandmother spent the better part of her day sweating over that night’s offerings, which she made with the produce from her small makeshift replica of the family’s old farm that she built in the backyard. Dinners featured classic Cuban dishes like starchy yucca smothered in sauce, cumin-scented black beans to drape over white rice, a fresh and crisp salad jeweled with plump slices of avocado, and aromatic and savory meat dishes, which slow roasted in her tiny oven — the scent wafting through the neighborhood like an unspoken invitation to come by for dinner.
When I was little, I relished our weekly family dinners at my grandparents’ home. We would arrive before the meal and my grandmother always reserved a special task for me in the kitchen.
One of my jobs was to pick the sour oranges from the tree that were needed for the traditional Cuban mojo sauce, rich with citrus and garlic, which is served alongside most meat dishes. Unlike other varieties of oranges, sour oranges retain their pucker when ripe, making them ideal for marinades and sauces, but almost unbearable to eat raw.
I remember taking great care to only select perfectly ripe pieces of fruit. They couldn’t be too green, as that might damage the branch, preventing future growth, and they dare not be too soft, as that meant the fruit had spoiled. The tell-tale sign of a ripe sour orange was the unmistakably technicolor hue of the peel and the ease in which it snapped from the branch. After I collected a few in my mini apron, I proudly presented them to my grandmother, and together, we’d get to work on the finishing touches of the meal.
As the family gathered hungrily around the beautifully adorned table filled with platter upon platter of food, the mojo sauce would be ceremoniously placed in its reserved space between the aromatic roasted chicken and the rice and beans. Amid the cacophony of chewing mouths and generous displays of appreciation, my grandmother would pass me a secret smile, as we both knew the meal would not be complete without my addition.
When my grandmother passed away, she left with me her legacy in the kitchen. These days, Shabbat dinner is hosted at my house, and while I don’t have a makeshift farm in my backyard, I do the best I can to honor the Cuban culinary traditions passed on to me from the previous generations. Chances are that if I’m serving aromatic roasted chicken, there will be a dish of mojo sauce alongside it — and we may even welcome some neighbors searching for the origin of the scents permeating the area.
Aromatic Cuban Roasted Chicken
One 4-5 pound whole chicken, giblets removed
3 sour oranges (or 2 navel oranges and 2 lemons)
5 cloves of garlic, minced and divided
2 Tablespoons fresh oregano, minced and divided
4 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
2 onions, sliced
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup chicken broth
Mojo sauce (recipe to follow)
1) In a large plastic bag, squeeze the juice of the sour oranges (or oranges and lemons), add 3 minced cloves of garlic, 1 tablespoon of minced oregano, 2 tablespoons olive oil, salt and pepper. Add the whole chicken, seal the bag, and place in the refrigerator to marinade overnight (the longer this marinates, the better).
2) The following day, remove the chicken from the plastic bag, and blot dry using paper towels.
3) Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
3) Meanwhile, in a small bowl, create a rub for the chicken by combining 2 minced cloves of garlic, 1tablespoon minced oregano, the cumin, salt, pepper, and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Massage the rub into the chicken, making sure to get the mixture between the skin and the flesh. Using kitchen twine, tie the legs together.
4) In a baking dish, arrange the sliced onions in a single layer, and place the chicken breast-side-up over the onions. Add chicken broth to the dish, and cook in the oven for 30 minutes.
5) Remove the chicken from the oven, and lower the oven temperature to 375. Using kitchen tongs in the cavity of the chicken, turn the chicken so it is breast-side-down, and replace in the oven for another 30 minutes.
6) Remove the chicken from the oven, and baste with the liquid. Flip the chicken one more time so that it is now breast-side-up, and finish cooking for 30-35 minutes, or until its juices run clear.
Allow chicken to rest for 15 minutes before carving. Serve with the roasted onions from the baking dish and mojo sauce.
Traditional Cuban Mojo Sauce
¼ cup olive oil
3-4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1 small onion, finely diced
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, minced
3 sour oranges (or 2 navel oranges and 2 lemons), juiced
salt and pepper to taste
In a small saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the garlic, and stir constantly, so that the garlic does not burn. When the garlic turns slightly golden, add the onions, and sweat until they are translucent. Add the oregano, sour orange juice, salt and pepper, and lower the heat to medium low. Simmer for 10 minutes. Serve hot, alongside meat.
To read more about Jennifer Stempel’s culinary adventures, check out TheCubanReuben.com