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Harina con Cangrejo

Despite a lifetime of research, I’m always discovering something new in Cuban food.  While it reminds me not to take anything for granted, less pleasant is knowing that my nearest and dearest have been holding out on me.  That’s how I felt when I discovered that harina – cornmeal simmered to a creamy state and topped with peppery sofritos and poached or fried eggs, ham or chorizo, shimp or crab – was a Cuban comfort food staple that everyone was having but no one was talking about.  I’d enjoyed Italian polenta prepared this way, but I  hadn’t realized there was a take on it that was much closer to home – just not my home.

Of course, it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise – after all I’d seen the tamales and vaguely remembered a sweet version of harina with dried fruits and nuts.  Home in January, I’d spent time with Humberto and Carmen Calzada who were helping me with a new project by providing me with Cuban food history and Cuban food stops in restaurants and bakeries all over Miami. Humberto was describing some of his favorites growing up when he hit on harina  which I’d never had. A few days later our family was invited over and Carmen was stirring an enormous pot of cornmeal and frying eggs in what was basically the perfectly organized kitchen I want to be in when I grow up.

An economical meal, it most likely came out of necessity but became the kind of homey favorite that when you mention elicits sighs and “oh my mother used to make…”  Since I’m half way through an almost perfect lenten season run of fish only fridays, I decided to make the crab version when I got back to Brooklyn. Unfortunately, most of the recipes I found started with clubbing live ones.  While I hate to back down from a challenge, I was not up to wacking crustaceans in my tiny ktichen in the middle of winter.  Leaving that task for the warmer days ahead and beach front vacations, I let the killing happen off-stage and brought home fresh lump crab meat from the fish store instead.

As simple to make as sauteeing peppers then letting them simmer with vino seco and fire roasted tomatoes, the only challenge was the cornmeal.  After whisking it in quickly so there were no lumps, I had to watch out for furiously hot splatters of cornmeal that would bubble out of the pot.  After I lowered the heat and gave it a few regular stirs, it more or less behaved till the rest of the meal was ready.  I toasted some bread but decided to make plantain chips with vinaigrette as well. Having made an enormous batch of harina, I sent some to my downstairs neighbors but still had enough for the next few days.  One way to make up for lost time.

Harina con Cangrejo/Cornmeal Stew with Crab

1/2 pound fresh lump crabmeat, picked through for shells and well drained
3 cups coarse yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup green bell pepper, diced
1 cup red bell pepper, diced
1 cup white onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 14.5 ounce can fire-roasted tomatoes, diced
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 large bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon pimentón
1/4 teaspoon ground celery seed

Tabasco or hot pepper sauce
Lime juice

In a large heavy pot, bring 6 cups of water to a boil. Add cornmeal in a steady stream, whisking constantly until well blended so that no lumps form. Lower heat to medium-low, stirring frequently until the cornmeal begins to pull away from the sides but is still creamy and smooth, about 15-20 minutes.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add peppers and onions and sautée until soft, about 3 minutes.  Add garlic and cook an additional 2 minutes.  Add tomatoes, white wine vinegar, bay leaf, salt, ground pepper, pimentón and celery seed. Bring to a simmer and cook until the tomatoes begin to break down, about 10 minutes.  Add the crab and warm until just heated through, 2-3 minutes.  Adjust seasoning to taste.

Divide cooked cornmeal into individual plates and top with crab mixture or blend together in a  large pot and serve. Add tabasco or hot pepper sauce or sprinkle with lime juice to taste.

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20 Comments Post a comment
  1. Cely Machado #

    Sounds yummy. I’ll try it this Sunday. I love to open your blog to see what you are cooking!!!!!

    23 March 2012
  2. I so loved the harina dishes growing up, I have to add this one to my list !

    23 March 2012
  3. They probably don’t even consider this when people ask about Cuban food because it’s so normal to them! What this….? Oh it’s like breathing!

    23 March 2012
  4. I love the photos and the history and cultural references behind the recipes. Great job!

    23 March 2012
  5. I will try this……thanks for sharing with us:)

    24 March 2012
  6. I will try the recipe at my home :)

    24 March 2012
  7. Yum, great post. You’re so generous with your knowledge about Cuban food. I’m going to have to make this, it looks fantastic.

    24 March 2012
  8. Do you think it would make any sense to try this recipe with tuna instead of crab?
    It looks so so good.

    25 March 2012
    • Oh and by “so so” that I meant “so very” (and not “so-so” …) :)

      25 March 2012
    • hungrysofia #

      I think so but I’d add it at the very end though. Let us know how you like it!

      25 March 2012
  9. YUMMY I grew up eating harina prepared different ways it wasn’t an everyday thing but was a “once in awhile” my grandma use to make it “pa’ engordar” she used to say LOL. cuz she’s always been thin n wanted to be more fuller lol. she would make plain harina with just salted water to top with fried eggs, sometimes she would cook it like a porridge with milk, sugar and butter, leftovers that would turn into a solid “jello” after cooling and refridgerated over night would be cut up and just had with milk and sugar to taste much like cereal.

    For main meals my grandmother often made “Harina de maiz con camarones” she would cook the harina in shrimp stock she made with the shells, add a generous sofrito, and when the harina was almost done fold in shrimp and put into a casserole dish to serve.

    Also the version we make with crab is pretty messy, we just plunge a bunch of crab legs and claws directly into the boiling pot of harina with sofrito spices and all, messy but oh so delicious I actually blogged about that one if you want to check it out:

    http://nathanscomida.blogspot.com/2009/02/harina-de-maiz-con-patas-de-cangrejo.html

    but yeah it’s considered very simple down home food, my grandmother told me it is more popular in Oriente where people tend to eat more corn products, and that it was also very popular during the great depression or wars in the past because it was cheap and filling back in Cuba.

    One of the other Cuban things most people don’t talk about is eating “Gofio” there’s a few ways to have it

    26 March 2012
    • hungrysofia #

      I have a box of Gofio in my pantry right now!

      27 March 2012
  10. Martha #

    Thanks for this. My father loved preparing ‘harina con cangrejo’ when we arrived from Cuba. At the time it was a special treat on Sundays and not expensive. Will try this weekend and see if i can reproduce the flavor i remember! Martha

    26 March 2012
    • hungrysofia #

      Thank you Marta! I thought of you when I was making it!

      27 March 2012
  11. Teri #

    Hi Sophia-
    Love reading your entries. You write with the same delicacy and grace a ballerina on stage performs.
    you know I have lived an incredibly Cuban-ethnic life-growing up in a Cuban enclave, going to schools with mostly Cuban-American classmates, etc., etc., etc. You get the picture. My culinary access to everything Cuban was immense. Sometime in the early 80s my Mom who had been a stay home mom decided not to cook anymore-she went on a culinary strike at home. Dad, in her support, who was in the food wholesale/retail business and knew every restaurantuer in the area and took it upon himself to bring home our daily meals. He brought home meals from every Cuban-owned restaurant he found. Assured by my 20s I had eaten every Cuban dish imaginable I felt a giggly great sense of ethnic pride. Could anyone possible introduce me to a new Cuban dish?
    Well many years later I moved from one Cuban enclave to another and found EVERYONE ate Vaca Frita. What on earth!! The blow was so devastating I felt like an outsider to all things Cuban!
    Another example there is a blogger I read who often writes with great conviction that Cubans pre-Castro did not eat vegetables or salads, in her case this may be true but not in everyone else’s.
    Everytime I read her remarks I cringe because from my experience adolescent battles were huge at home with my mom because vegetable side dishes were a daily staple. Where did mom get these habits from if not Cuba? In fact berro (watercress), remolacha (beets), col (cabbage), carrots (almost a daily staple), green beans (canned), lettuce, avocado,etc. were alternately served daily along with Cuban dishes. And every fruit was encouraged to eat after meals-red apples, pineapples, fresh papaya, bananas. jello big in the seventies was made and filled with strawberries, blueberries, bananas.
    So here it goes cornmeal (harina) dishes have been popular it seems for a very LONG time and accessible its recipe to most. They (recipes) appear in these popular antique Cuban cookbooks. In fact Gavilan I understand was a Havana favorite cookbook author in her time.
    de Lasa/1929
    del Valle/1933
    Gavilan/1938
    A modern day Cuban food author from the island states that it was a dish pre-revolution popular in the countryside because it was economical. But I question most things and ask why would a farmer have to skimp on food when the soil he cares for can provide him.her with anything.
    Anyway from my home experience it was eaten most with picadillo as a topping, second popular way was with a couple of fried eggs on top (which would make a delicious Cuban-American breakfast food, I think?). With the aforementioned the harina is always served straight from the pot warm and soft. When left to cool and hardened and times were a bit rough financially milk would be added and it is just fine eaten this way-sort of a cheap comfort food. Lastly dessert could be made from harina if sugar and raisins were added.
    Anyway enjoy the information-take care. Teri

    26 March 2012
    • hungrysofia #

      This is wonderful! Thank you for the information!

      27 March 2012
    • I couldnt agree more about the vegetables & fruits, sometime of raw salad any combination of tomatoes, cucumbers, watercress, lettuce, thin slices onions dressed in lime or lemon, salt and olive oil, or vegetable type escabeche dishes (in which firmer vegetables were boiled or steamed first then tossed in vinegar, salt, and olive oil and thinly sliced onions, vegetables prepared like that were cauliflower, remolacha, green beans, broccoli, etc.) some were also simply boiled or steamed and served smothered in mojo such as calabaza, even italian squash, cabbage wedges were served in similar fashion sometimes as well. Oh and potatoes and carrots made an appearance every now and then too.oh and one can never forget AVOCADO oh and occasional cob corn.

      Couldn’t agree more about the fruits, specially canned fruits, a variety of jello dessert type stuff with assorted fruits, fresh fruit served with cheese as well, or the occasional batido, eating bananas was an everyday thing, plantains at different stages of ripeness, mamey, etc.

      and yeah I read the whole “non-vegetable” thing from that author and could not have disagreed with her more… specially considering pre-castro Cuba atleast the Western half of the Island was home to A LOT of people of Spanish descent, and Spaniards (my grandma is from Madrid) and salads are something very common and that can sometimes cannot be missing in a table in that cuisine, and is very much carried over into Cuban cuisine… in my house the vegetables or at least a simple “ensalada cruda” cannot be missing from the table, sweet types of red wine were also very common to have at the table as well

      4 April 2012
  12. maritza #

    Ana, I always enjoy your blog, it is so rich I can almost taste the food!

    I have love affair with harina. My mother always cook harina with picadillo and my grandmother who is from Santiago de Cuba always makes it with enchilado de cangrejo. While we lived in Cuba she always called my mother when she made it to go eat at her house or had a large portion set up for us to take home and we would walk from one side of Havana to the other to get the wonderful dish that was always a little hot because my grandmother loves seafood and hot peppers. I used to cook it in San Francisco when I had summer lunch parties and I served it with chicken picadillo and always told my non-Cuban friends that they were eating a “typical” Cuban dish of harina with alligator meat. They were usually horrified and delighted at the same time. I cook harina in in any way I can, with shrimps, picadillo, sofrito, eggs..and I love I love it!

    7 April 2012
  13. hungrysofia #

    I have to remember the “alligator meat” trick! Maybe gator empanadas? Thank you so much for writing in!

    7 April 2012
  14. Made this last night for the very first time! I added a small red chile to the crab for an extra kick. Delightful!

    17 July 2014

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