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
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.