The Magic is in the Mojo

Monday, October 26th, 2015


It is not a secret that I love Latin food. Amongst my great appreciation for the multitude of cultural highlights and culinary delights I often find myself drawn to Cuban food. There is a very specific flavor profile that proliferates: a mix of acidic citrus, ripened tropical fruits, black beans spiked with herbaceous culantro, and tender braised meats. It is simple, flavorful, and comforting. My introduction to Cuban food was in Miami, at Restaurant Versailles in Little Havana.Versailles encompasses one and a half city blocks with a restaurant, bakery, and cafe. Order the oxtails, try the ropa vieja! In what has now become a tradition for me when I visit Miami, I like to go the the sidewalk cafe window and order a Cafe Cubano, a pack of cigarillos and do as the the locals. Sit and watch.

One of the most popular sauces found in Cuban cooking is mojo.The sauce is said to have originated in the Canary Islands and you can find variations of it through out Caribbean cooking. If you look up the word mojo, with no culinary context, it is defined as a magic charm or magic power. It is no surprise to me that the word has this duel meaning because it does in fact has transformative and magical powers. I would rank it among my top five favorite sauces…


Mojo Chicken

All-Propose Brine
One whole 4-pound chicken, best quality available
Grapefruit Mojo
Spice Rub
Charcoal Grill

Yields 5 quarts
2 quarts water plus 3 quarts ice water
7 ounces kosher salt
7 ounces sugar
3 bay leaves
3 peeled garlic cloves

Bring the two quarts of water to a boil in a medium sized pot. Add in the sugar, salt, bay leaves, and garlic. Stir to dissolve and remove from heat, let steep for 10 minutes. Add in the 3 quarts of ice water, stir to incorporate. Keep brine in the refrigerator until ready for use.

Grapefruit Mojo
Yields 4 cups
3 medium sized shallots, rough chopped
1 habanero, deseeded and rough chopped
7 cloves garlic, peeled and rough chopped
¾ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 ½ Tablespoon dried oregano
1 dried bay leaf
Juice of 3 grapefruit
Juice of 2 navel oranges
Juice of 3 limes
1 Tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of kosher salt
1 teaspoon champagne vinegar

Add the olive oil to a medium sized pot and place over medium-low heat. When oil is hot add in the garlic, shallot, and habanero. Fry in the oil until the vegetables begin to caramelize, about 10 minutes. Add in the cumin, coriander, black pepper, oregano, and the bay leaf. Fry in the oil for about 20 seconds. Turn off the heat and add in all of the citrus juice at once. Stir to incorporate. Place mixture in a blender and blend until smooth. Add in salt and vinegar, check seasoning. Allow mojo to cool down before using.

Spice Rub
Yields enough for 1 chicken
2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon dried oregano

Combine all ingredients together and reserve.

To Prepare:
Two days before you plan on serving the Mojo Chicken, spilt the chicken in half. This can be accomplished by cutting out the backbone of the chicken and cutting in-between the breasts. If you have a neighborhood butcher shop they can do this for you. Place the chicken in a container and pour the brine over until it is fully submerged. Make sure the brine is cold before using. Place the chicken in refrigerator and brine for 12 hours or overnight.

Remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry with paper towels. Discard the brine. Reserve 1 cup of the mojo so it can be served on the side with the chicken. Place each half of the chicken into a gallon zip-lock bag and carefully pour the other 3 cups of mojo equally between the two bags. Squeeze out as much air as you can and seal the bags. Allow the chicken to marinate for at least 12 hours or overnight. Store in refrigerator while marinating.

After 12 hours remove the chicken from the mojo marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Discard the marinade. Rub about 1 tablespoon of olive oil over each of the chicken half’s. Spread the spice rub over each piece of the chickens evenly. Set chickens aside while you prepare the grill.

If using a charcoal/wood grill begin by building a medium sized fire on just one side of the grill, preferably the side that has air vents on it. Once the coals have burned down, place the chicken on the grill directly over the coals. Flip after two minutes or so and cook for another 2 minutes. This is done to sear the skin and crisp it up. After both sides have been seared move the chicken to the side of the grill without coals. Close the grill and allow the chicken to cook, flipping it over every 15 minutes or so. If you have a thermometer in your grill you want it to be about 350 degrees inside the grill when it is closed. At this temperature the chicken will take about an hour to cook. Remove the chicken when an internal temperature of 160 degrees has been reached, be sure to check the temperature of the legs.

Serve the chicken with the reserved mojo, rice, beans, and plantains. Put on Buena Vista Social Club and make some classic daiquiris.



My Inherited Love of Cabbage

Thursday, October 8th, 2015


I preformed in one play in my life. And in that one play, I was given one line. That line could not have been better assigned to any student in the entire 3rd grade.

Cabbage… I love Cabbage!

– Whitney Otawka, as said in the 1987 stage performance of the Elf and the Shoemaker preformed at Maple Elementary School in Fontana California


It is no surprise that the foods we love and crave are foods that take us somewhere. That place can be a childhood memory, the comforts of home, or defining moments in our lives. For me, cabbage is a tie to my family history and the mysterious and untraceable roots of the Otawka’s. There is only one item that I inherited over time that links me to my surname and that is my copy of “The Anniversary Slovak-American Cookbook” published in 1952. My mother was given this cookbook by my paternal great-grandmother who was, I have been told, an amazing cook. She was born in Hungary in 1885 and lovingly referred to a Bubba. I never met her, nor did I know my grandmother, but I share in their love of cabbage, sour cream, paprika, and dumplings. Christmas is not Christmas with out nut roll (kolacky) and as a child I looked forward to the white and pink wafers know as oplatky that would arrive in the mail wrapped in a palm leaf every Easter. These are small ties to a small family that I do not know well, but there is one thing I can be certain of and that is our love of cabbage.

So today I start with the beginnings, a classic comfort food, cabbage and noodles. It is inexpensive and extremely easy to make. We are fortunate to still have some chanterelles popping up here on Cumberland so I have included them for a little extra layer of flavor.



Cabbage & Noodles with Chanterelle Mushrooms

2 heads savoy cabbage
12 tablespoons unsalted butter
3½ teaspoons kosher salt
3 teaspoons Hungarian paprika
2 cups chanterelle mushrooms, cleaned
1 clove garlic, minced
1- 12 oz package of medium egg noodles

For the cabbage, cut each head into four equal pieces. Using the larger side of a box grater, grate all of the cabbage. Heat a large pan over medium heat. Add in 6 tablespoon of butter. Add in the cabbage and reduce heat to low. Slowly cook the cabbage for about 30 minuets, stirring frequently. Do not let the cabbage brown. Halfway through the cooking time add in 2 tablespoons butter, salt, and paprika. Set aside.

In a large pot bring 3 quarts of water and 3 tablespoons of salt to a boil. Add in egg noodles and cook for recommend length of time, around 7-8 minuets. Strain the noodles from the water and toss with 2 tablespoons of butter. While the noodles are cooking heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a medium sauté pan. Add in garlic and sauté for 30 seconds. Add in chanterelle mushrooms. Sauté until cooked through, around 3 minuets. Season with kosher salt.

To plate, toss the cabbage and chanterelle mushrooms with the noodles in a large bowl. Share with your loved one!