After the passing of his mother, photographer Romulo Yanes celebrates her life by cooking the recipes of his childhood: Cuban ropa vieja, tender fried plantains, black beans, yuca, and a custardy burnt caramel flan.
“I would love to have your mom’s cooking at my birthday,” my partner, Rob, said to me last fall. He always loved certain dishes that she made, especially her ropa vieja and beans and rice. My mother had passed away earlier that year, in June. This would be the first time cooking these meals without her.
I grew up in Cuba with my mom’s cooking. Later, when we lived in the U.S., we would cook together whenever she visited from Florida. But neither of us wrote anything down. Nevertheless, I took the challenge on.
There was a freshness in my mom’s cooking. It was homely and not overly fussy. Her black beans began with a base of sofrito: garlic, onions, and green pepper gently cooked for a long time in olive oil. It gave them a mellow flavor that didn’t hit you over the head and really went well with everything else—the rice, the sweet fried plantains, the boiled yuca, and the tender shredded beef of the ropa vieja. It was the perfect meal.
I had made her black beans, and I had, I thought, perfected her flan. But I never thought that my ropa vieja came close to hers. Even so, I cooked my mother’s recipes for 30 people on Rob’s birthday. It was a huge success and a perfect tribute to her.
In re-creating that meal here, there was a moment when I thought, Let me add the yellow and red peppers instead of the green, for color. But you know what? That’s not the food that I remember. I started embracing the brown colors and tones and the earthy richness of the dishes. A lot of the time, at restaurants and in cookbooks, you see Cuban food separated—the rice is served in one bowl, the black beans in another bowl, the meat in yet another. I wanted the food here to look as it did when I grew up eating it in our home—mom would put the rice and beans down on the plate together, and you could add meat or yuca, or plantains if you liked, and enjoy it the way you wanted to.
The one thing that’s not just as mom made it is the flan. It’s less sweet than her version. But I know she loved my flan. With mine, you can have a second slice. —As told to Karen Shimizu