A frita is the Cuban take on a burger, flavored with paprika and cumin and topped with crispy shoe string fries. (Photo/Betty Cortina)

In honor of Cuban Independence Day, a classic frita

Today marks the 111th anniversary of Cuba’s independence from Spain, and what better way to celebrate than with…a burger? Okay, not just any burger—a traditional Cuban frita, the tiny island nation’s take on the classic American patty sandwich.

While many a Cuban cookbook features a frita recipe, few mention its history, in part because it remains unclear. What is known is most often tied to the wistful memories and anecdotes of exiles long gone, the kinds of stories I grew up hearing in my own family. Fritas, my elders would say, were Cuba’s original street food, sold at propane-fueled carts—a precursor to the food truck!—that lined busy Havana sidewalks or parked in front of sporting events. They were the national snack.

By the 1960s, along with the many Cubans who fled the island’s second revolution, the frita found its way to Miami. Long dominated by a generation of elders, the city’s most popular frita restaurants have been around for some 30 years: There’s El Mago de las Fritas which is not to be confused with El Rey de las Fritas, which is different from Frita Domino, which claims to be Miami’s first frita stand, dating back to 1962.

But now, a new generation of Cuban kids growing up in an ever food-centric America is taking the frita to new places. Case in point: after years of working in great kitchens around the world, and after being named a StarChefs.com Rising Star, local chef Alberto Cabrera opened his own gastropub, Bread + Butter, where interprets the frita with a kimchi flavored chorizo patty. And one of the city’s best known food trucks, Cubancube, recently introduced the “Freakin‘ Frita” made in artisanal spirit with bread they bake themselves.

The recipes, of course, vary everywhere you go and they’re often intensely guarded. (El Mago de las Frita, for example, has never shared his recipe…with anyone!) That said, the frita essence is clear: a small, thin patty of meat or a blend of meat and pork or chorizo is spiced with cumin and paprika. It’s fried, slathered in a ketchup-like sauce then topped with onions—fried or raw—and the trademark mountain of crispy shoestring fries.

The recipe below is an adaptation of several I’ve studied and experimented with through the years. The patty is an amped-up version of the one that comes from a cookbook authored by Nitza Villapol, Cuba’s version of Julia Child. The sauce is an adaptation of Glenn’s Not-So-Secret Frita Sauce featured at the always funny icuban.com.

Cuban Frita (Photo/Betty Cortina)

Cuban Frita (Photo/Betty Cortina) (Photo/Betty Cortina)

CLASSIC CUBAN FRITA 

3/4 lb ground beef (preferably ground chuck)
1/4 lb ground pork (or ground Spanish cured chorizo)
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup cream
1 small onion, grated
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 egg, beaten
1 T ketchup
2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp fresh ground pepper
1 tsp Spanish sweet paprika
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp worcestershire sauce
Canola oil, 2 T or more if needed

To serve
Small potato buns, split in half
Spiced ketchup (recipe below)
1 onion, very thinly sliced and fried in canola until golden
Canned shoe string potatoes

1. Combine the two meats in a large bowl. Soak the bread crumbs in the milk to form a paste. Add to the meat and combine, using your hands. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. Form into small round balls, about 3 oz each.There should be 10 to 12. Place them in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours to allow flavors to blend and the meat to firm.

2. To prepare, flatten into a thin patty, about 1/2 inch thick. Pan fry them in canola oil over medium high heat. Cook until medium well.

3. To serve, slather spiced ketchup (recipe follows) on both sides of the bun. Place cooked patty on bottom half; top with fried onions, plenty of shoe string fries and the top half of the bun. 4 to 6 servings.

SPICED KETCHUP
1 can tomato paste, 6 oz.
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons sweet, smoked Spanish paprika
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 cup panela
1/4 cup white vinegar
1 T Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon salt

In a small saucepan, whisk all ingredients together and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and let simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool.

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