An Interview of Botanical Interests in Cooking and Cuba By Way of Miami

Now that the days are getting longer and the temperatures warmer, it seems like everyone’s fingers are itchy for a little bit of gardening these days. This week, I’m happy to present a special botanical post to satisfy all the green thumbs out there.  In the kitchen, our around-the-world culinary escapades take us to Cuba, where we are making Santiago Pork Roast, a slow food recipe that takes two days to prepare from start to finish.

And in this post, you’ll also meet one of our blog readers, Jorge J. Zaldivar, a Cuban-American farmer who is dedicated to preserving Florida’s horticultural history in Miami via food and fruit. Welcome to Week 11 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020!

That’s Jorge on the left and Chef Daniel Boulud on the right!

There are quite a few readers of the blog who live in Florida and enjoy gardening and adventuring around their state. I’m hoping this post in particular will offer some new insight into their favorite hobbies. Jorge is a font of knowledge when it comes to botanicals and is anxious to share all that he has learned in regards to horticulture, cooking and connecting with others in this tropical landscape.

In addition to being involved in the farming of heirloom guava varieties, Jorge is deeply connected to promoting the tropical fruit community of South Florida in so many interesting facets. He operates PG Tropicals (creators of locally sourced artisanal products including tropical fruit jams and jellies), writes a food blog called Sub-Tropic Cookery which features the recipes and botanical adventures of vintage cookbook author Alex D. Hawkes (1927-1977), and previously sat on the board of the Rare Fruit Council International (RFCI) headquartered in Miami and the South Florida Palm Society (SFPS). I caught up with him to discuss his Cuban heritage, his passion for plants and his inherent interest in food history. He also recommends some of his most favorite places to visit in Miami and shares a few Cuban themed eateries in his town that all newcomers to South Florida must check out. Let’s see where he takes us…

In The Vintage Kitchen: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Jorge J. Zaldivar, I was born in Miami, Florida to two parents from Cuba’s Oriente province. Cuba had six provinces prior to the communist regime reapportioning and dividing everything. My mother’s side is from Manzanillo, the birthplace of el Son, one of the island’s most important musical genres.

A vintage map of Cuba circa 1947
No other country has originated a greater number of musical styles and genres than Cuba, this is due to the melange of interesting cultures, particularly African and their rhythms. My father’s side is from Banes, Cuba where the U.S. Airforce U-2 airplane was shot down in 1962. I currently live in Miami-Dade County and travel between home and the farm which is just North of the Florida Keys in Homestead’s Redland.
Redland, located at the entrance to the Everglades is South Florida’s farm country. It’s known for its red clay soil and unique agricultural products that do not grow anywhere else in the United States. Photo by Jorge J. Zaldivar
Tell us a little bit about your Recipes Lost blog. What inspired it and what attracted you to the culinary explorations of Alex Hawkes?

While collecting cookbooks and hunting for Caribbean recipes, not only did I discover Time Life’s Foods of the WorldThe New York Times Int’l. Cookbook and various other titles, I found Alex D. Hawkes’, A World of Vegetable Cookery (1968). I noticed in the flap that Hawkes was from Coconut Grove, my very same zip code in fact. I made it my mission to learn about his story which has resulted in researching and writing his biography which is laden with stories and recipes from my hometown, many botanically inclined and filled with wonderful anecdotes.

American botanist and cookbook author Alex Hawkes (1927-1977) worked extensively throughout his life in the study of tropical horticulture including that of orchids, palm trees and bromeliads. He also traveled frequently around the Caribbean islands collecting authentic recipes. Photo courtesy of Sub-tropic Cookery.

His other titles are highly recommended such as his books on Rum (1972), Shrimp (1966), Caribbean and Latin America flavors (1977) and his coveted South Florida Cookery (1964). The Sub-Tropic Cookery blog was my dedication to Alex D. Hawkes and some of his recipes, this was done via my Recipes Lost project.

As a fellow Craig Claiborne fan, what do you like about his recipes and/or his approach to cooking?

Craig Claiborne (1920-2000) – longtime Food Editor at the New York Times and the inspiration behind the International Vintage Recipe Tour

As a cookbook collector the goal was to try and put a finger on this guy with loads of books and a New York Times column. Hawkes is more of my personal Claiborne but the two did meet and speak for an interview. He was mentioned in Craig Claiborne’s: A Feast Made for Laughter.

the-new-york-times-international-cook-book
The vintage 1971 cookbook that launched the International Vintage Recipe Tour.

In the end what I like most is how important the NYT Cookbook became. Of all his books the NYT Int’l Cook Book is my favorite aside from the work he did with Pierre Franey for Time Life’s Foods of the World. I have not pursued their books together as much as I should have. There’s always time for 60-Minute Gourmet and the many evolving themes of cookery.

It’s wonderfully fascinating that you are a part of the Rare Fruit Council International in Miami. How you are involved there? How did your interest in rare fruit come about?

I have served on the Board of the Rare Fruit Council Int’l. (RFCI) in Miami. As I began studying our history I fell in love with the story and am getting documents ready to formalize an archive for the Council. By becoming the official Historian it will allow members to notice that these documents are not just historical and sitting here. I intend to help spread awareness of the RFCI’s efforts to promote rare tropical fruits in this region and to put all this wonderful information to good use again.

I discovered the RFCI when I found their famous Tropical Fruit Cookbook, the rest is history. I am also the 2020 President of the South Florida Palm Society (SFPS) and Member of the Tropical Fruit & Vegetable Society of Redland (TFVSR) at the Fruit & Spice Park.

Tell us a little bit about PG Tropicals. Do you make all the preserves yourself? What inspires you about it? 

PG Tropicals is the partner that purveys fruit from Guavonia Guava Grove in Homestead’s Redland Agricultural Area. All of the preserves are made in small batches, generally to order which are purveyed to a portfolio of dedicated chefs and artisans committed to the same ideals I believe in. As we say “Keeping it local”, which comes with other benefits such as lowering our carbon footprints and positively affecting our community.

PG Tropicals’ platter of sliced fresh guava and Redland Guava marmalade

What is your most favorite tropical fruit and why?

This is as difficult as the infamous “What’s your favorite mango?” question. The reason I neglect answering this question is because the seasonality of fruit allows most divine fruits to shine at the proper time of the year. It’s just perfect in design right? Just imagine, it’s the peak of winter and you have had a great year sampling plenty of longan, lychee, sugar apple, guanabana, mamey, abiu, and plenty more to boot.

Tropical fruit display at Redland’s Fruit & Spice Park

When you haven’t tasted mango for some months and you find a bag in the deep freeze, victory. When your taste buds catch a glimpse of that flavor and your mouth lights up that’s when you notice how special each fruit is, and how mango although not the best, is certainly in a class of its own when you experience that taste again. I find it difficult to choose just one. I am also fascinated at how the fruit is seasonal, not all plants are ever bearing. It shows us some patience.

Did you study botany/agriculture in school or did you explore these fields of interest on your own?

I studied Elementary Education at Florida International University, I also DJed on the student radio station and had a quite successful classic 1970s disco / dance radio program. I am lucky to have grown up in a family that always had plants everywhere, whether the nursery they operated pre-Hurricane Andrew (1992), and our yards.

Under the palm trees in Miami, FL. Photo by Matthew Hamilton.
My grandfather left us a considerable number of palms and curious fruit trees. My father loves to grow plantains, sugar cane and citrus. His brother ventured more towards the ethnobotanical route filling in all the loose ends with medicinal plants and herbs in addition to various fruit crops such as mamey, avocado, Bixa (annatto), mango, guava, guanabana, canistel, mammee apple and many more worth exploring and enjoying. In Cuba, my family lost various acres of land which was originally given to my great grandfather for fighting in the war of independence against Spain. As my father has told me, “From here to the end of the block and much more.”

Would you ever consider moving to Cuba? 

I wouldn’t consider moving somewhere that is simply 90 miles, and a boat ride away from lunch or supper. More Americans lived in Cuba pre Castro, or pre revolution as we say. This is known because of the major interests and financial investments U.S. corporations had on their neighboring island. I would not choose to reside in Cuba until they hold democratic elections and acknowledge the nationalization of property that occurred. It is the largest mishandling and misappropriation of U.S. assets in history. As an American I cannot let that go unnoticed. It’s hard to be on one side of the Atlantic Ocean, is what I am trying to say.

How does your Cuban heritage influence your cooking?

I always wonder if Chinese people or other cultures around the world explore “international” food as much as we do here in the United States. What I am trying to describe is that I find it very humbling to imagine that aforementioned Chinese example, cooking traditional food and fare in China, without the need or desire to explore other cuisines. This is what I consider humbling, because these people may not know anything else, yet here in the U.S. where options are plentiful, I along with other cooks are simply trying to emulate the flavors that encapsulates these humble Chinese cooks and many other cultures around the globe.

I am enamored by finding my own Cuban flavor and trying to get it just right, in the eyes of my grandmother and those that have perfected these recipes for us to say, “that tastes Cuban.”I strive for perfecting the flavors of Cuba to ensure that our heritage is not offset by a few distasteful events in our island’s history. 

Photo by Tijana Drndarski

Who first taught you how to cook?

I learned to prepare Pan con Ajo aka Garlic Toast by mashing garlic with a pestle, then olive oil and salt is added to the mortar. This is to be slathered on Cuban bread, which is then optimally toasted. This is the teachings of my parents and grandmother. I recall my abuela’s / grandmother’s first apartment in Miami Beach prior to the cultural wave that took over and transformed it into that hyper busy city it is today. I recall sitting on the counter with her learning to peel garlic.

Tell us a little bit about life in Miami. If one of our readers was to visit the city for the first time, what five places would you recommend that they visit first?

1. Fruit & Spice Park in Homestead’s Redland, Miami’s bucolic countryside to visit the only botanical park in the United States that showcases several hundred species of rare tropical fruits that grow nowhere else in the continental United States. Please say Redland to appease the locals, as Redlands is a city in California! 

Fruit & Spice Park is situated on 37 acres and boasts over 500 varieties of fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs and nuts as well as plant specimens from around the world.

2. Los Pinareños Fruit Stand who has been open for business in Little Havana’s Calle Ocho (8th St.) for over 40 years. Situated directly adjacent to the eternal burning flame dedicated to the Cuban Bay of Pigs 2506 Brigade, on Cuban Memorial Boulevard & Memorial. The proprietors are from Pinar del Rio in Cuba hence the name “Pinareños”. A region famous for their Guayabita del Pinar rum made with guavas, among other things. 

Los Pinarenos. Photo courtesy of progresoweekly.us. Read more about this history of this fascinating market and fruteria here. 

3. Azucar Cuban Ice Cream Co. Since you are already on Calle Ocho (8th St.) drop by Domino Park across the street and get some of Miami’s freshest and most unique flavors of freshly made ice cream.

Azucar Ice Cream Shop. Photo by Sarthak Navjivan

4. The Kampong in Coconut Grove, is open by appointment only. This is the home of Dr. David Fairchild. The foremost food explorer that changed that American palate more than any other individual in modern history.

Facing Biscayne Bay at Dr. Fairchild’s Kampong. Photo by Jorge J. Zaldivar
Photo by Jorge J. Zaldivar

His thousands of plant introductions not only gave Washington D.C. their famous cherry blossoms, but our plates are indebted to his introduction of broccoli, soybeans and countless other staples the American diet simply couldn’t live without. (Drop by Ariete nearby or Chug’s Diner for some Cuban snacks.) 

American botanist, photographer and author Dr. David Fairchild (1869-1964)introduced over 200,000 exotic plants to the United States as well significant agriculture crops to our modern diets including kale, quinoa and avocados.

5. HistoryMiami Museum is certainly worth the visit in Downtown Miami. Go here before everything else, even though it’s last on the list! So it helps you understand the city you are about to explore.

HistoryMiami is Florida’s largest history museum in the state.

Also check out Edible South Florida for the most updated and relevant info to South Florida. They are the only FREE local print magazine available. I am their Goodwill Ambassador and highly recommend scouting out a copy while in town.

For new tropical home gardeners, what three trees, flowers or plants would you most recommend for their gardens?

Carica papaya
Psidium guajava

Plinia jaboticaba

From left to right: Papaya plant (Carica papaya), Guava tree (Psidium guajava), Brazilian tree grape (Plinia jaboticaba)

What is one tropical fruit everyone should know about or experiment with in the kitchen?

The most overlooked fruit by far is fruta bomba, papaya. Botanically Carica papayais one of the fastest growing plants in the tropics. It’s not a tree, just like bananas, which are botanically speaking herbaceous plants. Papaya, aside from being one of the healthiest and best things you can eat, is so versatile that a separate homage is needed.

Antique botanical illustration of Carica papaya by Berthe Hoola van Nooten circa 1863
The leaves can be used for a tea and eaten after being boiled. The seeds add a piquant taste to a salad dressing. The pulp can be made into juice and smoothies. Baked into a delicious Eve’s Pudding or pie. Papain, meat tenderizer is derived from this wonderful plant. Improved cultivars exist in various colors of gold and orange. The fruit is nutrient dense with antioxidants, among the best things one can eat. The ability to use it raw as a vegetable, pickled or in soups is also a fact that makes this much overlooked fruit truly utilitarian.
 

It’s available in most ethnic markets and should certainly be approached by more people in the United States with access to quality fruit. The imported or Florida grown varieties are excellent. A word of note in Cuba many regions call this fruit, fruta bomba (bomb fruit) because the word papaya is actually a vulgar term for female genitalia in some parts of the island. When you cut one open you’ll figure it out. Nonetheless do not fret because botanically the species of the Carica genus is papaya.

Although some people are reluctant to buy papaya because of the smell, it’s a must to try it. This recipe is the most accessible, and the lemon helps mellow it out. This “breakfast papaya” is from none other than Dr. David Fairchild’s files, which we have Alex D. Hawkes to thank. 

If you could only grow one fruit for the rest of your life, which would you select and why?

I cannot answer this question easily. I guess if it had to be my entire life I would choose coconuts, the fruits of the Cocos nucifera palm. That way I can die drinking coconut water. Didn’t think that was coming right?

Coconut Tree. Photo by Kilarov Zaneit.

If you could invite 5 famous people from history, living or dead, to dinner at your house who would you invite?

As silly as this would turn out and the criticism may turn out to be a blunder I would invite for the purpose of my personal story…

The dream dinner party! Clock-wise from top left: Dr. David Fairchild; Ann Seranne and Eileen Gaden; Alex D. Hawkes; William “Bill” Whitman; and Richard D. James.
1. Alex D. Hawkes
2. Dr. David F. Fairchild
3. William F. Whitman
4. Ann Seranne & Eileen Gaden (I know it’s two people but they are a team!) Eileen was the original Food “Blogger” Instagrammer IMO. 

5. Richard D. James (Aphex Twin) maybe he would DJ

Photo by Francesco Gallarotti

 What are two goals you hope to accomplish this year?

I want to continue expanding my rare plant collection, mainly grown from seeds. I also want to take every opportunity I can to lower my carbon footprint in everything I do. Composting, traveling, wastefulness, conserving resources, water management and many more ways to positively impact the planet. 

Photo by Gabriel Jimenez

One thing that I really admire about Jorge is his passionate commitment to understand all aspects of tropical fruit trees and plants, from studying to growing to eating.  Horticulture is such a slow, steady, scientific  pursuit that requires much patience, time and thoughtfulness in order to achieve successful long-term results. It is inspiring to see the ways in which he is bringing information learned from past botanists and recipe collectors forward into the light of our modern day landscape.

Like the growth of a fruit tree, our recipe also requires a bit of time and patience in order to be successful. With just a few basic ingredients, it’s simple to prepare but does require 15 hours from start to finish. Most of the time is spent in marinating (12 hours) in the fridge and then roasting (3-3 1/2 hours) in the oven, so it leaves plenty of opportunity to do other stuff in your life while waiting for dinner to be ready. Maybe in that time, you can start planting the seeds of your own tropical garden:)

The recipe calls for a large roast 6-7 lbs., but you can also easily cut all the ingredients in half, and make a smaller 3lb version if you aren’t feeding as many people during these days of quarantine. Like Thanksgiving turkey, this makes a wonderfully delicious dinner that has all sorts of potential and possibilities when it comes to serving. I’ll talk about that in a minute, but first here’s the recipe, so that you can get to marinating already.

Santiago Pork Roast (serves 8-10)

1 loin of pork (6-7 lbs)
1 large onion, thinly sliced in rings
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
3/4 cup soy sauce
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

2 cloves garlic finely minced

Place the pork loin in a roasting pan or  glass dish and scatter the onion rings over it. Combine the remaining ingredients and stir until the sugar dissolves. Pour this over the meat and cover with plastic wrap (Note:  you can also transfer all the ingredients into a plastic Ziploc bag and marinate it that way, which is what I did). Refrigerate 12 hours or so, turning the meat once in while.

After 12 hours, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Remove the meat from the plastic Ziploc bag (if using) and place in a glass dish or roasting pan.

Bake, basting frequently about 3 and 1/2 hours or until the meat is thoroughly cooked.

(Note: if you are using a smaller cut of meat, you won’t need to bake the roast that long. The general rule of thumb when it comes to pork at this temperature is 20 minutes of cooking time per lb. When it is ready, the internal temperature will read 145 degrees.)

Let rest for about 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

Filled with flavor notes of lime, ginger and garlic, this roast turned out to be wonderfully delicious. The caramelized sugar adds a bit of sweetness to the roasting juices, which makes its own rich sauce for drizzling. The onions, had an unexpected crunch to them and a sweet tangy taste that reminded me a little of pickled vegetables.

Traditional Cuban serving companions with Santiago Pork Roast are black beans and fried plantains. You could also serve it alongside rice, another staple in the Cuban diet. I wound up making sandwiches. Served on rolls, each one was layered with thinly sliced pork, mixed salad greens, mayonnaise, a drizzle of the juice from the pan and a pile of the roasted onions. It was delicious, I forgot to take a photo of them:) If you didn’t want to use rolls, bread works also – ideally, it would be a loaf of Cuban bread. Perhaps you could even follow in Jorge’s footsteps, and make garlic toast, just the way he made it with his grandmother.  Possibilities abound. Culinary creativity awaits! Cuban style pork roast is open to everyone’s interpretations.

A big cheers to Jorge for sharing his slice of tropical paradise with us. Cheers to all the agricultural accomplishments of the botanical gardeners that settled the Sunshine state and made it beautiful. And cheers to vintage Cuba for providing us with a new favorite roast recipe!

To keep up with Jorge, find him on Instagram, Twitter and his blog.

Next week, we’ll officially be one forth of the way through our Recipe Tour, as we hit the three month mark! Join us for Week 12, next Wednesday when we visit Czechoslovakia via the kitchen! In the meantime, keep your chin up and stay healthy please.

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