The Secret Ingredient from Marta’s Cuban American Kitchen

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My uncle is here with us visiting from Cuba. Of course that means that my entire family is going out of their way to show him a good time for the duration of his stay. We’re taking him places and showing him around Southern California and all that it entails.
“Que quieres ver?”
“Quiero verlo todo.”

He wants to see everything.
He wants to do everything.
I struggled with what to feed him.
“Que quieres comer?”

He wants a taste of everything.
Really? Cuban food? American food?
Rather than guess, I decided it would save me a lot of time and energy if I just asked if there was anything specific he was craving.
He responded that since I was asking, he was kind of looking forward to having a good old-fashioned steak. I was ready to immediately go pick up some rib-eyes and slap them on the barbecue (which I’m sure he wouldn’t have objected to, but that’s not important right now), when he suddenly got a kind of wistful expression and launched into the description of the steak of his dreams;
Thinly sliced, tender, marinated with garlic and lime, smothered in crisp onions, and sprinkled ever so slightly with fresh parsley. He actually closed his eyes when he got to the part about the fresh parsley.
To be honest, it was a little heartbreaking.

“Con mucho gusto.”

I was going to do whatever it took to recreate that moment that was obviously stuck in his memory from much happier times. I went to the butcher and got some top sirloin and asked him to please slice it paper thin. He asked me three times if I was sure I wanted it sliced so thin. That beautiful cut? Was I sure? He almost cried, but did it according to my specifications. (If he had been a Cuban butcher there wouldn’t have been even a moment’s hesitation, but that’s not important right now).
I went home and I could barely prepare the steaks and marinade through my tears.
I served the steak and he took the first bite. It was perfect, he said. Just perfect. Exactly what he wanted and it tasted exactly how he dreamed it would. Even better, he said, because he could feel the love with which it was prepared. He was so, so very grateful. Of course he wanted to know my secret.
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I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my secret ingredient was the ocean of salty tears that I cried while I was preparing the marinade. Apparently they must taste just like love. Who knew?
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Bistec de Palomilla
3 lbs. Top Sirloin steak – sliced very thin
10 garlic cloves – diced
juice of 2 fresh limes
1 yellow onion thinly sliced
salt and coarse black pepper to taste
olive oil (twice around the pan)
3 Tbsp. Fresh chopped parsley
1) Rub about 2/3rds of the garlic into the steaks on both sides
2) Squeeze the juice of one of the limes onto the steaks.
3) Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4) Place the steaks into a plastic ziplock bag.
5) Add the sliced onion to the bag.
6) Place the bag in the refrigerator and allow to marinate – preferably overnight, but at least for one hour.
7) Remove the steaks from the marinade and pat dry. Reserve the marinade. Set the onions aside.
8) Heat olive oil in a large frying pan.
9) Fry the steaks quickly about 1 minute per side and remove to a warm platter.
10) Squeeze the juice of the other lime into the pan and stir, this will “clean” any burnt bits from the pan.
11) Add the remaining marinade, onions and garlic to the lime juice and quickly stir together over medium heat for about 5 minutes. The onions should still be crisp and the garlic should not be brown.
12) Pour the onion mixture over the steaks on the platter. And garnish with the chopped fresh parsley.
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VERY IMPORTANT: Close your eyes and savor that first bite and thank God for freedom.

19 thoughts on “The Secret Ingredient from Marta’s Cuban American Kitchen”

  1. Marta, I’m a steak nut who loves those 5 inch NY Strips cooked rare, but when it comes to plain home comfort food, the palomilla steak with the onions, garlic and parsley, plated exactly how you have done in your picture really bring me back to those steaks my abuela made for me. And who cares if you’ll be repeating it for hours afterwards….a real pleasure!

  2. May I ask how your uncle was able to leave Cuba to visit the U.S.? I’m not familiar with the rules the Cuban gov’t has on their citizens leaving to another country (especially the U.S.). Also, doesn’t your uncle have the urge to seek political asylum while he’s here?

  3. Marta,
    FIrst of all the story is beautiful. I’m not the big baby that Val is but you had me on the verge of tears.
    It’s not impossible for Cubans to leave the island to visit relatives abroad but very difficult. He would need to get a visa from the U.S. and permission to leave Cuba from the regime. I suspect that Marta’s uncle is an older man and that’s usually who they give these types of permissions to, older relatives. For one thing an older person is less likely to abandon their homeland. For another, if they do, it’s one less mouth to feed and pension to pay.
    Most elderly visitors from Cuba to the U.S. do return though, usually several pounds heavier.

  4. Henry,
    That you were “on the verge of tears” is close enough for me. =D
    Henry is absolutely correct. My uncle is 89 and still has sons and grandchildren back in Cuba. There’s no danger of him staying and the regime knows that.

  5. I hope your uncle enjoys his time out here. If your in the Los Angeles area may I suggest taking him to a pupuseria? It’s a Salvadorean dish made of maseca and a choice or cheese, pork, frijoles or both cheese and pork together. You can also take him to Original Tommy’s burger. BTW, that bistek looks delicious! I can get have two platos of those! =)

  6. Once upon a time, in the horrible bad old days before the glorious revolutionary era, lower middle class Cubans could eat like this without any help from relatives abroad or selling their bodies to foreign visitors. But of course, that’s just a meaningless detail. At least now they can say they’re not beholden to the Empire (and they’d better say it, too, or else).

  7. j2tharome,
    Love the pupusas! Great suggestion. I’m more hesitant about taking him for a Tommy burger, having had a near-death experience once myself, but that’s a story that’s not fit for print..
    I’m right with you there. In deference to my mom, who’s 94, I have to bite my tongue. Graciously, my uncle is doing the same. Which is fine because it would be redundant to point out the glaringly obvious. (I have practically bitten a hole right THROUGH my tongue, but that’s not important right now.) 😉

  8. I remember my grandmother making steaks like this as a child. I would then take a piece of bread and mop up the mojito. MMMMM. If any left over steaks, she would then cook up some strips of green peppers to add to the onions and perejil and she would make little steak sandwiches “para la merienda”. Those were my favorites. I think they were called “pepitos” but I am not sure.

  9. Martica,
    As usual … great read!! Thanks for sharing.
    j2tharome, the Cuban regime would never allowed more than one person from the same family unit to visit the US together. My cousin came by himself years ago and decided to seek asylum. However it took him almost 6 years and a lot of $$$$, to get his wife and daughters to finally join him in Miami.
    Speaking of meat … our family met and befriended a couple of young Cubans who used to play for the Cuban National Futbol (Soccer) team and who defected a few months ago. They are now playing for a local professional soccer team. When I asked them what they would like for me to cook … the first word that came out of their mouths was “carne” (meat). In conversation, I asked them since they were members of a national team, if they were able to eat better than regular Cubans … the answer was no. They explained that they knew when their facility would be toured by foreign visitors, because that day they would have decent food, instead of the “Sancocho”, they would eat chicken, but never carne!
    I hope your uncle can eat and enjoy plenty of good Cuban food which was readily available BC (before castro). I wish him a good visit!
    I wish you well 🙂 Melek
    “Man loves liberty, even if he does not know that he loves it. He is driven by it and flees from where it does not exist.” ~ Jose Marti

  10. This sounds fantastic. I will have to make this one day soon and perhaps see if my “other family” (my best friend’s family… his parents and grandparents were Cuban exiles) like it!

  11. Oh my! I’m trying really hard to stay away from meat, but these bistecitos are irresistible! I also needed some Kleenex: this are my Dad’s favorites… hopefully, pretty soon I’ll be able to prepare them for him with the same amount of love and tears.

  12. Yes, Marta, I think I catch your drift. I can forgive those who were part of the problem, at least some of them, but it can be very hard, especially if they never really come clean. Maybe some of them just can’t admit, even to themselves, having been so seriously wrong. But I expect you’re doing the noble thing.

  13. Marta,
    I got my husband reading your blog now, and he asked me to pleeeeeese…make the palomilla steaks the way you made those top sirlions. Got to go buy some palomilla steakes. 😉 Thanks for the recipe.

  14. Marta, your posts always move me.
    This one made me cry. Your Easter post brought tears to my eyes.
    Very well done.
    Until I began reading this blog, I never understood why my dad called everyone (and The Pope!) a communist. Now I understand…. and it is heartbreaking.

  15. mamimundo –
    My dad used to call the Herald Examiner and the L.A. Times communist rags. I get it NOW.
    (thanks for your kind words.)

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