With relations with Cuba improving daily after 50 years of hostility, we felt like celebrating with a Cuban dinner.
If we were in south Florida or even most big cities, that would be as easy as visiting a lively Cuban restaurant, But here in Napa Valley, we instead asked two Cuban-Americans for help.
Suzanne Besu Truchard, the wife of vintner Anthony Truchard, and Miguel Massens, a chef at The French Laundry, both volunteered to prepare some of their favorite dishes, and we ended up with a feast worthy of any celebration.
The food they prepared is a distinctive blend that includes fruits, seafood and vegetables eaten by the native people who were extinguished by disease, war and overwork.
It also features foods that the Europeans from the Iberian peninsula brought, such as rice, saffron, and especially the pig that’s a staple of Cuban meals, plus tubers like cassava and taro from Africans and even food from indentured Chinese workers.
Both Suzanne Truchard and Miguel were raised in Miami, although they met here.
Massens’ father and mother were both born in Cuba, but met and married in Miami. He was born there, too.
He received a bachelor’s degree in business at the University of Florida, then a master’s in hospitality at Florida International University. After working in hospitality at Hilton hotel restaurant, he ended up in the front of the house at Daniel, the restaurant of famed chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud in New York.
He became interested in cooking, however. And not wanting to spend thousands of dollars at a cooking school, also apprenticed part-time in the kitchen at Daniel, and then took a job in smaller, less-formal sister restaurant BD Bistro, where he could have more responsibility.
From there, he worked at a Cuban restaurant in New York, where he learned to cook classic dishes — though his family often ate Cuban food, he wasn’t that interested in food until he was about 18.
A year and a half ago, he joined The French Laundry team, and after stints at the pop-up Ad Lib, joined the signature restaurant in Yountville when it opened a temporary kitchen during renovations.
He’s now one of three working in the restaurant’s butchery, a rare function in restaurants as most buy meat ready for cooking or pay minimal attention to it.
Suzanne was born on the naval base in Puerto Rico, but was raised in Miami. Like all Cuban girls, she helped her mother cooking the Cuban food they enjoyed.
She got her undergraduate degree at Harvard and a law degree at Northwestern, then practiced law in Miami. While interviewing for a job in San Francisco, she visited wine country with a friend, and Anthony gave the tour when she visited Truchard. That led to a cross-country romance that culminated with their marriage.
She worked in house as a lawyer at Quintessa, then went freelance. She and Anthony have a son, Anthony III, who just turned 2.
A classic Cuban menu
Massens started with the classic appetizer of double-fried smashed plantains, tostones, and added potato chip-like fried plantains and malanga or taro, another tropical root vegetable. We enjoyed them with mojitos.
We had to include lechon asado, or roast pork, almost a national dish. Although they’re surrounded by seafood, pork is the Cubans’ favorite meat.
A whole pig is often roasted whole in a Caja China, a plywood box with an aluminum lid where hot coals are piled. We didn’t have one handy, so Miguel used an oven.
He prepared the lechon as they did at the Cuban restaurant he worked at in New York. He braised the pork, cooking it in a turkey brining bag with the mojo for maximum flavor, resulting in the shoulder falling apart like pulled pork.
The pork also can be marinated first, then roasted in an oven for crispy skin. This is more suitable for slicing. For this, shoot for a temperature of 175 degrees instead of 195 degrees for the fall-apart pork.
Although it might have seemed overkill, Suzanne made her special arroz con pollo, rice with chicken, which she calls a Cuban paella.
We had to include plain white rice and black beans, which are served at every Cuban meal, plus yuca con mojo, yucca (cassava) with the ubiquitous Cuban garlic-lime and olive oil sauce. We also added in a salad and green beans.
Dessert was Suzanne’s flan with strong coffee, and naturally we served the meal with Truchard wine — in this case syrah and roussane.
As we cooked and dined, we listened to Cuban music — both older favorites like “Siboney,” “Malagueña” and “The Breeze and I (Andalucía)” by Ernesto Lecuona from the Xavier Cugat and Desi Arnez bands, and more modern salsa and other popular Cuban favorites.
Everyone agreed that it was a wonderful feast. Those who hadn’t visited Cuba hope to do so. One of the party, photographer and sailor Martha Blanchfield, is on a sailboat racing from Key West to Havana.
The next day, leftover roast pork and Cuban bread was put to good used in Cuban sandwiches, the odd but tasty grilled sandwich of roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickles and yellow mustard.