My sister Carmen has been asking me to make bistec empanizado for this blog for awhile. When I wrote about masitas de puerco, my favorite thing to order from Cuban menus, it seemed only fair to write about hers. Mine came with black beans and hers didn’t, so I’d always pass her my frijoles negros. This week we made a different deal – I’d finally make the bistec empanizado if she’d write the post. Here it is and I’m sure you’ll agree it was well worth the beans.
When I was little, the center of the universe seemed to exist at Casablanca. A bustling Cuban café on 8th street in the then sleepy little town of Miami. When my grandfather took me for lunch, I loved sitting at the counter where the vinyl covered, revolving stools gave me a 360 degree view of the action. When my parents took me at night, the same café was usually empty which gave my sister and I the odd run of the place. We’d feed quarters into the jukebox and play Donna Summer songs as my father talked about what life would have been like/could be like for us in Cuba. I don’t know exactly why I chose Donna Summer. I wasn’t crazy about disco (I didn’t want to dress like a that when I grew up) but there was something about her voice that kept me coming back. It was lonely and defiant. It spoke of another world I couldn’t possibly understand at that age. The boldness of it drew me in and it was endless. Very much like the breaded steak on my plate that I always ordered for dinner.
Bistec Empanizado, a thin, pounded steak marinated in orange juice and garlic then breaded with a light layer of cracker meal, has always been my go to dish at a Cuban restaurant. It’s served with a couple of wedges of lime and a seemingly impossible challenge: figure out where to cut into this blanket of steak that’s bigger than the plate. I’d work my way through it by cutting into bite-size triangles as the spill from the florescent café lights would illuminate the quiet Little Havana main street like a Hopper painting. The entire world consisted of my parents, my sister and I and Donna Summer, who sang of a life with fabulous possibilities that had to be enjoyed in its entirety because it was the last dance. This illusion, however, would be wiped out by the time the sun rose the next morning and we belonged to the world at large again.
It wasn’t until my early twenties that I heard the term ‘comfort food’ used. It was always in reference to mac & cheese, mashed potatoes or french fries. As with most things strictly American, I thought it didn’t apply to me. That it was a catch phrase people used as an excuse to eat something they know they shouldn’t. Every time Ana Sofia asked me what I wanted her to try for this blog, I would request Bistec Empanizado. It’s impossible to get a good one in New York and having it once a year when I go back to Miami for Christmas hardly seems right. But as soon as I took my first bite, I realized why I always asked for it.
I lead a pretty great and complicated life that somehow manages to work out smoothly. I savor living in a city where every block offers you a chance for that ‘last dance’ and delivers in the most phenomenal of ways. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss that sleepy Miami town, a city that no longer exists. I miss sitting in that fluorescent lit café with Papi, Mami and Ana Sofia, feeding quarters into that jukebox, and hearing about the possibilities of the life we’ll have when we go back to Cuba, along with the echos of the sweet heartache of the life I was yet to discover here in New York. This is the recipe lets me wrap myself in that comfortable blanket of nostalgia where I can nestle until sunrise.
Carmen Pelaez is a playwright and actor whose works include Rum & Coke, Mariposas and the Loteria Plays.
1 pound sirloin steak, cut into 4 pieces and pounded to a 1/4″ thick
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 1/2 cups cracker meal made from Cuban crackers
2 eggs, well beaten
Parsley, finely chopped
*Cuban or tropical crackers are available in Latin American markets and most grocery stores. Saltines can be substituted.
Using the side of a large knife or mortar and pestle, mash the garlic to a paste with salt and pepper. Blend in the citrus juices. In a large glass bowl, pour marinade over steaks and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
Drain steaks well and pat dry, discarding the marinade. Dip the steaks in the cracker meal, then the beaten eggs, then the cracker meal again, pressing the steak into meal until well coated.
In a heavy skillet, heat 2 inches of oil over medium-high heat to 375º. Add the steaks, turning them once until they are browned, about 2 minutes on each side.
Remove from oil and drain on a rack lined with paper towels. Serve with lime wedges and white rice.
Makes 4 servings.