Lourdes Castro taught herself how to cook. Now, she gives cooking classes in New York and Florida and has written a cookbook to help the rest of us. Here, she shares 10 iconic recipes that honor her Cuban heritage.

Many great cooks grow up around great cooks and learn by osmosis through years of hanging out in the family kitchen. Lourdes Castro didn’t, and it’s one of the reasons she’s such a terrific cooking teacher. She doesn’t assume students have kitchen smarts, because she didn’t when she started out. Instead, she gives them the info they need in a totally accessible way—both in her classes in New York and Florida and in her recipes, which appear on the following pages.

Castro, who grew up in 1970s Miami, learned to love food by eating at Cuban restaurants with her Cuban-born parents. When she began pursuing a master’s degree in nutrition at Columbia University, she finally began to cook as a way of learning about food science. At home in her Manhattan apartment, she started making dinners (“experimenting,” she jokes) for friends. Her approach was scientific: “I’d go to the market and analyze ingredients. When I saw a plantain, say, I’d think about carbohydrates and sugars, and it helped me understand the best way to cook it.” Today, Castro teaches food science at New York University and is the culinary director of Miami’s Biltmore Hotel. Her first cookbook, Simply Mexican, was published this spring.

Still, Cuban food is what she knows best. At a recent class, Castro taught some students how to make several iconic Cuban dishes, explaining that the cuisine combines Spanish, African and Caribbean influences using starchy ingredients like yucca, lots of garlic and seafood—and, she points out, “no leafy greens.” Castro always teaches while she cooks. “She can’t help herself,” says her friend Judiaann Woo.

Castro began with a lesson on how to make the sweet fried plantain slices called maduros, rolling the unpeeled plantains on the counter to soften them. She demonstrated how to prepare rice the Cuban way: sautéing garlic in olive oil before adding the rice and water, so the grains become rich and fragrant. And she made a classic enchilado—a delicious tomato-based seafood stew that gets extra tang and sweetness from ketchup, pimientos and vinegar.

Castro had one final lesson for her students, many of whom are serious coffee drinkers: how to prepare café cubano. For a foamy crema to top each cup, she whisked espresso and sugar together as if she’d been doing it her entire life. And that was her big lesson of the day: If she can cook, anyone can.

More Delicious Recipes:

Beef and Olive Empanadas
Credit: © Miki Duisterhof
Jerk Cornish Game Hens
Credit: © John Kernick
Maria's Margarita, PX • Alexandria, VA
Credit: © Tina Rupp

Lourdes’s Lesson Plan

For ensalada de aguacate, Cubans prefer smooth-skinned Florida avocados to the bumpy-skinned Hass avocados; Floridas are a little milder.

astro recommends rolling the unpeeled plantains on the counter to soften the flesh, producing a more tender maduro.

To check for doneness, pinch a bean with your fingers: If it feels soft, it’s ready.

If you are short on stovetop space, Castro recommends finishing the rice in the oven.

By soaking the plantains in salty water for one minute, they’ll emerge perfectly seasoned.

Very different from the well-known Mexican enchilada, Cuban enchilado is a tomato-based seafood stew, typically made with shrimp.

Sautéing shredded beef in small batches until it turns crisp and delectable is the secret to perfect vaca frita.

Adding eggs to the warm milk mixture can scramble them; to prevent that, add the milk mixture to the eggs very slowly in order to increase their temperature gradually.

Castro whisks one-quarter cup of sugar into one tablespoon of hot espresso until it’s frothy, then pours a pot of espresso into it.

Making mojitos in a pitcher doesn’t work—it’s impossible to distribute the lime and mint evenly, plus the club soda tends to turn flat.