In Cuba, diners looking for prepared food outside the home aren’t limited to sit-down restaurants. In fact, natives are just as likely to pick up supper at a paladar — a DIY eatery that Yuris Mora describes as “a little tiny restaurant in your own home or in front of your house, selling food and plates of lunch.” Mora should know: She’s the chef/owner of Vermont’s first and only paladar, La Cocina Cubana.
The petite 27-year-old Cuban expat says she has planned to open a Cuban-style kitchen ever since she moved to Vermont with her husband, Jared Carter, in 2006. The couple met in Baracoa, Cuba, in 2003, when then-recent college grad Carter ran into Santiago native Mora on the beach. He was in the country to study national parks for a nonprofit group; she was a student of organic agriculture working as a caterer.
This spring, the couple moved from Montpelier to Burlington. Carter left his position as director of Rural Vermont in favor of a job at Burlington College teaching legal studies and working for its Cuba study-abroad program. He’s also head of the Vermont Community Law Center, which recently made headlines for its class-action suit against Pinnacle Foods Group — the big business behind Log Cabin syrup and Birds Eye frozen vegetables — for its allegedly illegal use of the label “all natural.”
The move to Burlington, with its larger population, presented Mora with an opportunity to make her longtime paladar dream come true, she says. In April, Mora served her first meals from the couple’s small apartment on South Willard Street under the moniker La Cocina Cubana, or the Cuban Kitchen.
Initially, it was her connections within the Latin community that drove business to the walk-up in the back of the big brown and purple building. Cuban-born Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca has visited several times, says Carter, who calls him a good friend. Other Cuban acquaintances have been good customers, as well, he says, adding that he and Mora have met additional expats through the new food business. This was a surprise, notes Carter, because “it’s a very small community. You can count them on two hands, maybe one hand.” However, what he describes as a “vibrant group of Cubaphiles” also quickly found its way to La Cocina Cubana.
Mora, a part-time early-education student at Community College of Vermont, serves her meals Wednesday through Saturday. She changes the menu nearly every week, usually offering seven or eight entrées, including at least one vegetarian option. Each meal comes with rice, salad, and a choice of either fried plantains or soup.
Since fresh ingredients are key, Mora asks that customers place their dinner orders by 1 p.m. that day so she has time to buy food and prepare the often-slow-cooked specialties. Though larger-scale organic farming was a fairly new trend in Cuba when she studied it in college, Mora says, she describes the food served at most traditional paladars as local, often home-grown organic and fresh.
Nearby City Market provides everything she needs for her exotic cuisine, says Mora. Yucca or ripe plantains are sometimes scarce, but, on the whole, she’s hard pressed to come up with an ingredient she can’t easily access in Burlington.
The plantains are key. When customers choose them over the soup of the day — usually black bean or chicken — Mora prepares two kinds. Tostones are brined and then pan-fried with garlic for a pungent flavor. The thin-pounded, double-fried slices are countered by thicker chunks of sweet, caramelized plantain pieces called maduros.
Last week, the fried delights were available with entrées that included shrimp in garlic-lime sauce, Creole-style pork chops, and an eggplant sauté with fresh, chopped tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and garlic.
No introduction to Cuban cuisine is complete without the national dish, ropa vieja. The name means “old clothes,” but Mora’s version doesn’t resemble the common tangle of slow-cooked, pulled meat that earned it that moniker.
Texturally, La Cocina Cubana’s ropa vieja can be compared most closely to chopped brisket. But this tender, boiled meat in tomato-based sauce differs from both that dish and traditional ropa vieja because of the chunks of green and red bell peppers, onion, and carrots. Mora says this is the version she and her three younger siblings grew up eating. With more vegetables than meat, her family recipe is a more nutritious alternative, she points out.
Mora serves it with a congri Oriental Cubano, rice and black beans from her native eastern Cuba. The white rice is cooked with the beans, turning it a purplish brown and giving it a slightly glutinous texture. Garlic, onions and cilantro are the dish’s dominant flavors.
Though many Latin cuisines are associated with heat, Cuban food leans toward the aromatic. This is a point that Mora thinks Americans — or at least Vermonters — have yet to learn. Mora, whose English is fluent but still careful and halting, searches for a word to describe this culinary tendency but can’t seem to find it. She settles on “sweet,” but adds that’s not quite right.
Umami might be the best descriptor, especially in dishes such as her arroz con pollo. The white rice she prepares absorbs a glowing yellow hue from the liberal addition of turmeric, often referred to as a poor man’s saffron. The savory taste is umami at its purest.
Green and red peppers add a confetti-like color contrast and, paired with Spanish onions, a mild sweetness that complements the turmeric, garlic and meaty stock flavoring the rice. The skin of a pair of chicken legs also soaks up the colors and flavors, though the meat underneath remains pristinely white. The heavy foil container in which Mora serves the food contains enough arroz to feed a family — or a single diner for three or four meals.
On a busy night, Mora prepares about 15 dinners. She also has catering gigs, including events for Burlington College’s Cuba study-abroad program. For every 10 plates of food she sells, Mora donates uncooked rice and beans to a local charity.
Though Mora says she grew up cooking for a big family in a small kitchen, she wasn’t making a l arge number of completely different meals in a single night. And the recent heat wave forced her to cook in an un-air-conditioned kitchen in temperatures approaching triple digits. “That’s when Yuris calls me at five o’clock and says, ‘You have to come home,’” jokes Carter. “Or ‘Dios mio!’ When she gets excited she reverts back to Spanish.”
Carter calls himself Mora’s sous-chef, helping however he can, including doing dishes. But he readily admits that his only area of culinary proficiency is in replicating his wife’s singular lime vinaigrette. The combination of lime, vinegar, cilantro and salt dresses both her ensalada de aguacate and ensalada Cubana. The latter builds on the avocado and onion of the former with the addition of fresh, juicy tomatoes and chilled slices of cucumbers scalloped at the edges.
The dressing is so transparent that, to the naked eye, the salad vegetables appear unadorned. But a quick taste proves otherwise — the cucumbers taste almost pickled with citrus. Think of it as a vegan ceviche. The avocados provide a creamy foil to the acidic cukes, tomatoes and onions.
With her business increasing slowly but steadily, Mora is sure to introduce her exotic comfort food to yet more Vermonters soon. She hopes to be a part of next year’s Burlington Farmers Market.
Mora also hints that, in the future, she may open a more conventional restaurant outside her home. Having traveled to other parts of the U.S. and found Cuban eateries in big cities such as New York, she was disappointed not to find any in Vermont. The way Mora sees it, she’s sharing her heritage with her new neighbors.
“I always wanted to bring something of my culture here — to cook for American people,” she says. “They should try. It’s tasty.”
La Cocina Cubana, 54 South Willard Street, Burlington, 431-3625. cubankitchenvt.com