My grandfather was one of eleven brothers and sisters, and my grandmother had six brothers. It was common place for their houses to be filled regularly with aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews and every other family member imaginable. This made dinner time quite challenging. Family meals were often scrounged together from limited resources, and they felt fortunate on the instances when meat was included with their meals. As kids they were expected to eat whatever was served, no questions asked. Both of them told stories about not being allowed to leave the dinner table until they ate everything on their plates regardless of whether or not they liked the dish. If they or their siblings were feeling particularly stubborn, they were forced to sleep at the dinner table and would be served whatever was left over from the previous night’s dinner for breakfast. Food was not something to be wasted; there were too many mouths to feed.
As you can imagine, it was beyond their comprehension when I told them I was adopting a vegetarian diet. The idea of not eating food that was abundantly available was obscene in their mind. I remember my grandfather staring at me incredulously with complete disbelief in his eyes and saying “en el país de la abundancia te vas a morir de hambre” (translation: In the land of plenty, you’re going to starve to death.)
It made no sense to them. I get that now. It’s funny when I think back on it because my grandfather was both perplexed and proud that I was willing to take a stand for something I believed in, and that I was fortunate enough to make such a choice. I could decide what I wanted to eat based on moral convictions, something he never imagined. Although they didn’t understand and were a little indignant about it at first, my grandmother was quick to accept it and immediately began altering her cooking to accommodate me, after all she didn’t want me to “starve.”
Lucky for me they were great cooks, and beans and legumes were already staples in our Cuban diet. They adapted by making separate portions of beans for me and omitted the meat. Although my grandfather would grumble, and they thought I was crazy, they wanted to help me succeed and survive on my new dietary choices. Lucky for me, they loved me enough to take me seriously and taught me how to cook some of my favorite dishes in ways that coincided with my new found ideals. I deeply appreciate what they did for me and realize now it illustrates their great character.
Cuban chícharos, aka Green Split Pea Stew, is one of my grandmother’s favorite dishes. Traditionally it’s made with ham, pork belly and chorizo which produces a deep smoky, rich flavor. My grandmother reduced her pork intake years before I adopted a vegetarian diet (she claimed it made her arthritis flare up,) so this was a recipe she was familiar making without the traditional meats. Cubans also add potatoes and calabaza (squash) to make this recipe thick and stew-like instead of the thin soupy consistency traditional for the American version of this dish. My goal when I recreated this recipe was to achieve the same rich smokiness as the conventional recipe and create flavor layers using spices instead of meat. The end result is fragrant, full of smoky aroma and flavor and tastes perfectly spicy without being hot (picante.) This a very hearty and satisfying dish, especially when served over a bed of white rice with a side of sweet plantains. One taste and I’m sure you will agree it’s muy sabroso (quite delicious.) Buen provecho!
Makes approximately 6-8 servings
1 lb. Green split peas
8 C Water
1 Bay leaf
scant 1 TB salt
1/2 TB dried oregano
1/2 TB ground cumin
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp ground chipotle
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp liquid smoke
5 small red potatoes peeled and cut in half
12-15 oz of Calabaza or Winter squash peeled and diced into large chunks
2 TB Olive Oil
1 small-medium sweet onion diced
1 green bell pepper diced
6 celery stalks diced
3 large carrot stalks diced
4-5 garlic gloves minced
Pro Tip: Peel, cut and freeze the remainder of the squash and have it readily available for stews all winter long.
Follow the directions on the package of the split peas to determine if they need to be soaked overnight or not.
Rinse the peas thoroughly and remove any impurities. Add water, split peas and bay leaf to a very large stock pot and bring to a boil. Boil on high for approximately 10 minutes (adding a wooden spoon to the pot helps prevent the water from boiling up and spilling over.) Then bring heat down to medium-high and add salt, oregano, ground cumin, paprika, ground chipotle, liquid smoke, potatoes and squash. Cover and cook for 10-15 minutes. This will allow the root vegetables to soften and the spices to infuse the peas with flavor. Stir occasionally. In a separate pot or skillet heat olive oil to medium heat and add onion, celery and carrots. Sautée for 5 – 7 minutes or until onions begin to soften, then add garlic and sautée for an additional 2-3 minutes or until onions are translucent. Add the vegetables to the stew and stir to combine, reduce heat to medium low. Simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally for an additional 10-15 minutes. During this time the stew should thicken as the potatoes and squash slightly break down. Once beans are soft, potatoes and squash are fork tender and the desired consistency is achieved, remove from heat and serve. If the stew thickens too quickly you can add more water. This recipe can easily be portioned into containers, frozen and enjoyed on a later date.
Nutrition Facts per serving (6 servings)
Fat: 5 g
Cholesterol: 0 mg
Potassium: 772 mg
Carbs: 72 g
Fiber: 24 g
Sugars: 9 g
Protein: 22 g
Vitamin A: 327%
Vitamin C: 70%