Cuban Family Cooking in a Vegetarian Kitchen

by Cecilia Peterson

there isn’t any question about it—food ties families together. Recipes are passed down through generations. Family history is recorded in the dishes we prepare when all of the relatives get together under the same roof. We remember a familiar smell wafting from the kitchen, enticing people to gather around the table to share sustenance and love—of which there is no difference.

I am a college student who lives at school most of the year. Eating with the family, let alone eating good food in general, has become a rare treat. Whenever I come home, familiar aromas welcome me back—black beans simmering in a large pot, fresh garlic and onions, cumin, and caramelized plantains.

It used to be that I would walk in the door and welcome something else—the smell of some sort of meat roasting in the oven. My mother is Cuban, and Cuban food is not exactly vegetable-based. Meat, especially pork, is a staple in the Cuban household. Imagine being a half-Cuban daughter, trying to explain to your Cuban mother why you don’t eat meat anymore. First, she’ll give you a look, raising her eyebrows in disapproval. You know what she’s thinking—“What have they been teaching you in that liberal arts school of yours?” Then, she’ll ask you what you’re planning on eating if you don’t eat meat. She’ll remind you that it’s not exactly a common thing for a person in this family to become vegetarian. “What will you eat when we go to abuela’s (grandmother’s) house?”

This got me thinking. Though meat is no longer an option in my diet, that shouldn’t mean I have to give up my family’s cooking. I can be vegetarian and still continue preparing and eating traditional dishes. It just required a little experimenting. I discovered that, in addition to a few things that were already vegetarian, many Cuban dishes translate perfectly into vegan dishes. Here are a few of my favorites.

Recipe Index

Frijoles Negros (Black Beans)

(Serves 6)

Though cooking Cuban black beans might seem like a gimme, I rarely have had a version as good as my mother’s. Her recipe is far more flavorful than any other I’ve tasted and deserves recognition. This version replaces the usual chicken broth with vegetable broth without losing any of the flavor.

  • 1 pound dry black beans
  • 5 ½ cups water, divided
  • 1 Tablespoon salt
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cube vegetable bouillon
  • 2 medium white onions, minced
  • 1 green bell pepper, minced
  • 2 pimentos, minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 4 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar (Use your favorite vegan variety.)
  • 1 Tablespoon white vinegar

Rinse the beans thoroughly, put them in a bowl, and add water to cover the beans. Soak overnight.

Once the beans have soaked, place them in a large stockpot with the remaining water, salt, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil and simmer until soft, approximately 1-1/2 hours.

Add the bouillon, onions, green peppers, pimentos, garlic, cumin, oregano, and 2 Tablespoons of olive oil. Simmer and stir periodically. Beans will begin to thicken.

When beans coat the back of a wooden spoon, they are almost done. Add the remaining olive oil, sugar, and vinegar, and mix thoroughly. The beans will be ready to serve, preferably over white rice.

Note:  This dish will last for approximately a week in the refrigerator and for a few months in the freezer. It tends to get better as time goes on and the flavors mingle with one another.

Total calories per serving: 383 Fat: 10 grams
Carbohydrates: 58 grams Protein: 17 grams
Sodium: 1,182 milligrams Fiber: 13 grams

Madures Fritos (Fried Ripe Plantains)

(Serves 6)

Fried ripe plantains—sweet and slightly toasty from being caramelized—are extremely satisfying next to black beans and rice.

  • 1 cup canola oil
  • 3 yellow-black plantains, peeled and cut into 2-inch slices

Heat the oil in a skillet. When oil begins to smoke slightly, fry the plantains until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot.

Total calories per serving: 86 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 14 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 1 milligram Fiber: 1 gram

Croquetas de Frijoles (Bean Croquettes)

(Makes about 20)

Traditional Cuban croquetas have either ham or cheese in them. Since these were one of my favorite foods as a kid, it was imperative for me to develop a meatless alternative to them once I became vegetarian.

  • One 15-ounce can black beans
  • One 15-ounce can pinto beans
  • ½ cup grated carrots
  • ½-¾ teaspoon finely minced canned chipotle pepper, depending on how much spice you like
  • Approximately 1 teaspoon adobo sauce (available in the Latino foods sections of most grocery stores)
  • ½ teaspoon cumin
  • 1 cup chopped onions
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • Olive oil to sauté onions and garlic
  • Salt and pepper to taste, divided
  • 1 cup cracker meal (usually located near the bread crumbs in supermarkets)
  • ½ cup soymilk
  • Canola oil for deep-frying

Drain the beans and place them in a medium mixing bowl. With a potato masher, mash until beans are smooth. Add carrots, chipotle peppers, adobo, and cumin. Mix until uniform.

In a small skillet, sauté onions and garlic in olive oil, seasoning with a little salt and pepper. When onions are translucent, turn off the heat and mix the onions and garlic with the beans. Place mixture in the refrigerator for approximately one hour.

In a small mixing bowl, combine the cracker meal with a little salt and pepper to season. Lay out a 1' x 1' sheet of waxed paper. Roll the bean mixture out into logs measuring approximately 3 inches by 1 inch. Lightly dip each one in soymilk, and proceed to roll them in the cracker meal.

When croquetas are rolled, heat a large pot with enough canola oil to deep-fry the croquetas. Use a slotted spoon to lower each croqueta into the hot oil and fry until it turns light golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot with ketchup.


  • You may freeze breaded croquetas before frying them. They will keep for several months. They will keep for a week or so in the refrigerator, but they will get soggy right away.
  • The best way to eat leftover croquetas is the Cuban way, smashed between two pieces of French bread with lots of ketchup.
Total calories per serving: 169 Fat: 12 grams
Carbohydrates: 13 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 169 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Picadillo, Sin Carne (Ground Hash Without Beef)

(Serves 6)

This dish can be served over rice or stuffed into Empanadillas. Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) substitutes well for ground beef because it soaks up every flavor.

  • 2 cups Textured Vegetable Protein or TVP (available in natural foods stores and some well-stocked supermarkets)
  • 1-½ cups warm water
  • Extra-virgin olive oil to cover bottom of a very large skillet
  • 1 white onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • One green bell pepper, chopped
  • One 8-ounce can tomato sauce
  • ½ teaspoon thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ½ teaspoon oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • ¼ cup white vinegar
  • 10-12 green olives, chopped
  • 5 capers
  • Salt to taste

Soak the TVP in warm water until soft and rehydrated, approximately 5 minutes.

Cover the bottom of a very large skillet with olive oil and heat on high. When oil begins to smoke slightly, throw in the onions, garlic, and bell peppers. Once the onions are translucent, add the TVP and the remaining ingredients. Combine well and simmer over very low heat for approximately 30 minutes. Liquid should be reduced to a quarter of the original amount.

Serve over rice immediately or stuff into Empanadillas.

Total calories per serving: 271 Fat: 20 grams
Carbohydrates: 15 grams Protein: 15 grams
Sodium: 385 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Masa para Empanadillas (Dough for Baked Turnovers)

(Makes 16 large empanadillas)

Empanadillas, known as empanadas in South America, are fist-sized pockets of crisp dough filled with just about anything you can imagine. Picadillo. is especially good in them, but you can try anything from mashed potatoes to tofu to chocolate and nuts.

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ cup nonhydrogenated vegan margarine
  • ½ cup vegetable shortening
  • ½ cup warm water
Additional flour, as needed

In a large bowl, combine flour, salt, and baking powder. Add margarine and shortening and blend with your hands to make a coarse meal. Add water and mix well, adding more flour or water to make a soft dough. Knead in the bowl until smooth and elastic. Cover bowl with plastic and allow dough to rest for 30 minutes.

On a lightly floured surface, roll dough into a log. Cut dough into sixteen 2-inch rounds. With a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out each circle until it has a diameter of approximately 5 inches.

In each circle, place approximately 2 heaping Tablespoons of the filling of your choice in the center. Moisten the edge of half the circle with water, fold the dough in half, and press firmly to seal. Crimp the edges with a fork and pierce the top to allow steam to escape during baking. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. When chilled, place empanadillas on a large baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Let cool for 5 minutes and serve.

Note:   Baked empanadillas last no longer than 2-3 days in the refrigerator before they become soggy. However, if you freeze them before you bake them, they will last for months.

Total calories per empanadilla
shell (without filling): 185
Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 18 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 272 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Arroz con Leche (Rice Pudding)

(Serves 6)

A vegan version of the popular dessert.

  • One 14-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
  • 2-½ cups soymilk
  • A little lemon zest
  • Pinch of salt
  • One 2-inch cinnamon stick
  • ½ cup short-grain rice, such as arborio or Valencia-style rice (available in the gourmet section of many supermarkets)
  • ⅓ cup sugar (Use your favorite vegan variety.)
  • ¼ cup raisins (optional)
  • 2 Tablespoons nonhydrogenated vegan margarine
  • ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • Ground cinnamon for sprinkling

In a heavy, non-stick 4-quart saucepan, bring milks, zest, salt, and cinnamon stick to a boil.

Add rice, reduce heat to low, and barely simmer for an hour, stirring very frequently. Stir in sugar and raisins and continue cooking and stirring, making sure none of the ingredients stick to the bottom of the pot. Stir until very creamy.

Remove from the heat and discard the zest and cinnamon stick. Stir in margarine and vanilla. Serve at room temperature or chilled, garnished with a few sprinkles of cinnamon.

Note:   This dessert lasts approximately a week in the refrigerator.

Total calories per serving: 306 Fat: 20 grams
Carbohydrates: 29 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 56 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Cecilia Peterson wrote this article while doing an internship with The Vegetarian Resource Group.