Of Women and Salt Paired with Papas Rellenas
Hello there hungry readers!
As promised, I have an extra special Perfect Pairing for you today and I’m so excited to share with you, but first, I want to just recap a little bit about the book, Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia. If you haven’t read my full review yet, you can read it here. But just to give a little summary, I loved the way this story was told. Each chapter was from a different character’s point of view and it was all about these women who were connected through either being family or having a shared experience and they were all powerful in their own way.
A large storyline throughout the book is this family’s story of their life in Cuba and how some of the family left and came to the US after Fidel Castro came to power. This major part of the storyline is where I got the pairing for this book.
Now, I could have just looked up Cuban recipes on the internet and created something from what I learned, but this book is all about family, it’s about connection. And so, I thought, who better to go to than my Uncle Eric?
My Uncles Eric and Lane are both amazing cooks, but Uncle Eric knows Cuban food. He was born in the United States, but his family is from Cuba. So I asked my Uncles for some recipes that I might be able to make for this pairing and boy did they provide! I finally decided to go with Papas Rellenas (Cuban Stuffed Potatoes). These happen to be a favorite of my grandparents and they told me it’s their favorite Cuban dish that Eric has made for them. Trust me, it did not disappoint.
The first thing I did was make my mashed potatoes. I peeled and chunked my russets and put them in cool water in the pot before putting them on the stove. I brought it up to a boil, boiled them until they were soft, drained the water, and then mashed them. You don’t want to add any kind of butter or cream to the potatoes because you want them to be very stiff. Also, russets are the best for this recipe because they contain a lot of starch which is good for frying.
After they were all mashed, they went into a container and into the fridge to cool and rest. I had to label mine “Do Not Eat,” because in my house, food in the fridge gets taken for lunch or eaten for a snack if it is just sitting in there, and I didn’t want this to go missing. I had to label my meat too!
Next, I started on my meat. I did all my chopping and prepping ahead of time. Then I put my ground beef into a hot pan and got it browning. Once it was browned, I drained the excess fat and then added the onions and bell peppers until the onions were translucent. It took 2 or 3 minutes. Then I added my garlic and let that become fragrant. Then I added my tomato sauce, olives, raisins, and seasonings. And let it heat through. If your mixture looks a little juicy after it cools, feel free to give it another drain. You want to get rid of excess moisture for frying because too much moisture will cause your papas to burst.
I let everything sit in the fridge overnight and just really get to know each other. Then the next day I formed my potato balls. Uncle Eric told me the best way to do this is with a scooper and a tablespoon. This makes even portions for everything so that each ball is the same size. I used the ice cream scooper for the potatoes and then flattened it out against my palm. Then I took a tablespoon amount of meat mixture and put it in the middle. Then I took my hand and used it to curl the sides of the potato up and then I sealed the top, making a nice potato ball. I made a ton of them.
I put them in the freezer to firm up for a bit, then brought them out again for breading. I coated them in egg and then in seasoned breadcrumbs. Then I put them back in the freezer to firm up before frying. They also freeze very well so you can make a large amount and then just pull them out and fry them whenever you feel like eating some Papas Rellenas.
When they were nice and firm, I heated some vegetable oil on the stove in a dutch oven. My oil was around 375℉. You want your oil nice and hot to get the potato balls nice and golden brown. Remember that your oil will cool when you keep putting in frozen potato balls. You may need to turn up the heat after a few minutes. I use a thermometer to keep tabs on the temperature of my oil.
Fry until golden brown and then place in a 200℉ oven on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. The parchment paper will soak up any excess oil and the warm oven will ensure that the very center of the ball will be warm when you are ready to serve. When you have finished frying all the Papas Rellenas, serve right away. They are really good on their own or with garlic aioli.
Now, Uncle Eric and Uncle Lane sent this recipe to me, but Eric learned to make this from his mother and his aunt, who both grew up in Cuba and have amazing stories of their own. I asked Eric about his family’s story and I wanted to share some of it with you.
Eric’s parents and grandparents were wealthy business and landowners back in Cuba. His uncle attended school with Fidel Castro and never got along with him and later was part of a group that fought against him. Eric’s parents were educated and spoke English. They also had passports. Because of this, when Castro came down out of the hills and started going into the homes of the wealthy and killing them, his parents were able to flee. With his older brother, Eric’s parents fled Cuba with only what they could take on the plane and $7 in his father’s pocket, leaving their land, businesses, and wealth behind. They would never see Cuba again.
Eric’s father was 22 years old when they fled, his mother was 18. His aunt and uncle didn’t make it out in time and had trouble leaving the country, but were able to secure passage for their four young children through Mexico. Eric’s mother was now in a new country with no money and charged with taking care of five small boys: her son and her four nephews. Eric was born shortly after. Eric’s father was able to get a job making cardboard boxes. To supplement income, Eric’s mother learned to cut hair and made and sold meat pies.
Later, Eric’s father worked as a salesman, doing well and climbing the ladder, eventually becoming a manager over several locations. When her children were grown and self-sufficient, Eric’s mother went back to school and became an electronic engineer and went on to work on spy satellites, often joking with her family, “I would tell you what I do, but then I’d have to kill you.” Eric’s parents both became citizens in 1976 at the bicentennial at the LA Coliseum.
Eric learned to make Papas Rellenas in the kitchen with his mother and aunt.
This Perfect Pairing is dedicated to Eric’s mother, an incredible woman.
In Loving Memory of Martha Matilde Marmelina Zayas-Bazan de Fernandez
Jan 26, 1937-Dec 11, 2019
Papas Rellenas (Cuban Stuffed Potatoes)
Recipe by Eric Fernandez
2 ½ lbs Russet potatoes (about 8 medium-sized potatoes), peeled and chunked
1 lb lean ground beef (90% lean)
1 small green bell pepper, finely diced
1 small onion, finely diced
½ cup tomato sauce
½ cup green olives with pimentos, sliced
½ cup raisins
1 ¼ tsp salt, divided
1 ¼ tsp pepper, divided
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ tsp paprika
¼ tsp cumin
1 cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs
Vegetable oil for deep frying
Place potatoes in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, cover, and cook until tender.
In a large skillet, brown the beef. Once browned, drain excess oil, then add onions and bell pepper. Cook until onions are translucent. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute until the garlic is fragrant. Stir in tomato sauce, olives, raisins, ¼ tsp of salt, ¼ tsp black pepper, paprika, cumin, and oregano. Stir and heat through. Cook for ten minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely uncovered. If your mixture seems extra juicy, drain the excess liquid. (This mixture can be made a day ahead, best if refrigerated overnight.)
Drain potatoes and let them cool completely. Once cooled mash with remaining salt and pepper. (Also best if made a day ahead and refrigerated overnight)
Beat eggs thoroughly and place in a bowl. Put bread crumbs in a separate shallow bowl. Remove meat filling and potatoes from the refrigerator.
Use approx 2 heaping tbsp of potato (I use an ice cream scoop to measure it out so that it’s even every time) and flatten it out into a patty on your palm. Take one heaping tbsp of meat filling and place it in the middle of the patty. Cup your hand to curl up the sides of the potato to form the ball. Use your other hand to seal it up. Roll gently in your hands and then place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Continue this process until the potato and meat mixtures are gone.
Place the baking sheet with the potato balls in the freezer for at least 30 minutes to firm up. Once firm, remove from the freezer, roll in egg, then in bread crumbs, coating completely, and place back on baking sheet. Place back in the freezer for at least 15 minutes. These can be made ahead, frozen solid, and stored in the freezer for up to six months.
In a deep skillet or dutch oven, fill halfway with vegetable or peanut oil. Bring the temperature of the oil to 375℉. Fry 3-4 potatoes at a time to avoid cooling the oil too much. Fry for 1-2 minutes, or until the outside is golden brown. If shallow frying, turn balls halfway through but be gentle as they are delicate. It is better if you can deep fry them. Once cooked, place on a paper towel and sprinkle with salt, or into the oven at 200℉ on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet until ready to serve.
Serve with garlic aioli.