This vegetarian rendition of the Latin American staple, rellenos de papa, consists of soft mashed potatoes with a crispy exterior and a cheesy, eggplant filled interior. For an extra kick, serve these vegetarian potato croquettes with a herbaceous mojo sauce for an extra kick.
Country Number 42- Cuba
Cuba was always one of those mystical places that Nic and I had always dreamed of visiting. As such, when Nic was offered a work trip to Cuba a couple of years ago and was able to bring me along, we were both over the moon at the chance to explore such a fantastical destination. Cuba was truly as weird and wonderful as we could have hoped for: its culture was a colourful, intoxicating cocktail whose afterglow lingered with us for months to come.
A Brief History of Cuba
To give a very diluted history of the largest of the Caribbean island nations, Cuba was long inhabited by the Ciboney Taino people from the 4th millennium BC until Spanish occupation in the 15th century. It was occupied by Spain until the turn of the 20th century, when during the Spanish-American War of 1898, it was occupied by the United States, and four years later it became a nominal republic. For the first 40 years of the 20th century Cuba remained in this state, with the US funnelling a substantial amount of money into the island nation as it became a playground for bourgeois American holiday-goers. The Spanish had imparted their architecture, religion, and culture to this island, and we still saw the remnants of US influence in the colourful vintage cars and crumbling hotels which populated Cuba’s cities.
In 1952, in consequence of the previous decade’s increasing political polarisation and economic tension, a military coup led by Fulgencia Batista overthrew Cuba’s fragile democracy, leaving Cuba in a dictatorship. Surprise surprise, this dictatorship was rife with corruption and tyranny, which led to the 26th July Movement in 1959, which deposed Batista and replaced the dictatorship with a communist government piloted by Fidel Castro. Since 1965, Cuba has remained a communist state. This, unsurprisingly given its proximity to the US, caused conflict during the Cold War, culminating in a near-miss of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Relations between Cuba and the US have remained tense, with heavy trade embargos placed upon Cuba.
As with many other countries in many other points in history, Cuba’s chequered history has contributed to its unique, varicoloured and vibrant culture. Salsa music and dancing spill over onto the streets and its cities are abound in artists, authors and great thinkers. Whenever we stayed at a casa particular, we were shown generous hospitality, and the various locals we got to know were warm, thoughtful individuals.
That being said, there is a sadness about the country as well. Its grand, beautiful architecture is crumbling and dilapidated, its population are subsisting on a non-liveable base wage that leads many of them to other under-the-radar business in order to survive. Except, of course, for the political élite, who for some strange reason are still able to live in sprawling mansions and dine at the nicest restaurants while receiving the same wage as everyone else. While the locals shared some positive feedback about the benefits of communism as a socio-political system, severe restrictions on freedom of speech and lack of access to the outside world were notable.
Taking all these factors into consideration, it is unsurprising how much of a mark Cuba left on us. It was honestly a country unlike anywhere else we’d ever been: remarkable, glowing, and poignant. If you want to read up on tips for travelling to Cuba, check out Nic’s blog about it here.
History of Cuban Cuisine
The trade embargo has led to very limited access to overseas products, which often leads to rather barren supermarkets. For example, in the month preceding our arrival there was a bread shortage leading to a complete absence of bread on the shelves. Frequently, the locals rely on the agros (local farmers markets) in combination with government-mandated rations stores, to provide the basics. These factors lead to a rather sparse range of ingredients for Cuban cuisine, with the same few vegetables, rice, and black beans appearing in various forms. Given these limitations however, the Cubans manage to work quite well with what they have. While the fare is plain and limited, it is nourishing and reasonably tasty.
The breakfasts provided by our casa particular were often my favourite meal of the day, consisting of a large spread of bread, eggs in various styles, a platter of fresh tropical fruit, pikelets, pastries and a strong coffee. For lunch it is common to frequent the local cafeteria which sells Cuban pizza and sandwiches. There are a variety of dinner options. One of the key examples is the Cuban “family style” restaurant, which provides many dishes in the middle of the table to be shared with the group. The dishes would generally include plantain or sweet potato chips, soup, rice, black beans, meat, root vegetables, seasonal salad, and fruit. There were also a few higher end restaurants and international menus, where tapas were especially popular,
Popular Cuban Vegetarian Dishes
- Papas Rellenas – This Latin American variation of potato croquettes consists of soft potatoes with a crispy, fried exterior, and can be made vegetarian by stuffing it with various vegetables and cheese.
- Fried plantains and sweet potatoes – Another Latin American staple – plantains and sweet potatoes sliced up and fried to a subtly sweet crisp. Tasty with a salsa or mojo sauce.
- Empanadas – While not served everywhere, the vegetable and cheesy pastry parcels were available at some restaurants.
- Rice and black beans – a staple in many restaurants, it may be a bit plain but it fills one up.
- Bocadillo con queso – this dish consisted of a small pottle of guava marmalade with grated cheese on top. Believe it or not, this is a popular national dessert in Cuba.
Vegetarian rating of Cuban Cuisine:
Making Vegetarian Potato Croquettes (Rellenos de Papa)
There are a few parts to croquettes, but they’re simple enough to make. You simply prepare the potatoes by making mashed potato. This is followed by dicing and sautéing up the vegetables and tossing with the cheese. After everything is cooked, you create balls by forming a disc with the potato in your hand, filling it with a small spoon of filling, and wrapping the potato around it to form a ball. You then dip this in beaten eggs and then a bread crumb mixture, before medium-frying them in oil.
How to make Vegetarian Potato Croquettes (Rellenos de Papa)
There are a few parts to making these vegetarian croquettes, but they’re simple enough to bring together.
- Make mashed potatoes by boiling chopped up potatoes in salted water until tender, draining, and mashing with butter, salt and pepper.
2. Sauté onion in a frying pan over a medium heat until softened. Add garlic and sauté for another minute. Next, add chilli, cumin and tomato paste and sauté for another two minutes. Add diced tomatoes and eggplant and season with salt and pepper, cooking until tender. Mash eggplant up, remove from heat, and stir in cheese and parsley.
3. While waiting for both the potatoes and filling to cool, prepare the mojo sauce. Heat oil in saucepan over medium heat, add garlic, cumin and oregano and gently fry until garlic is golden. Remove from heat and, once cool, add all other ingredients to small bowl then mix in oil.
4. Once both potatoes and filling are cool, continue with the assembly of the croquettes. Scoop 1/3 cup of potato into the palm of your hand, forming a disc. Place a small spoonful of filling inside the potato, and wrap the potato around, forming a ball-shape.
5. In one bowl whisk eggs. In another combine flour, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper. Dip potato balls in eggs and then coat in breadcrumb mixture. Repeat with all the croquettes.
6. Heat a few centimetres of vegetable oil in a deep sautéing pan until very hot. Cook the croquettes in batches, turning as needed until golden brown on all sides. Remove and place on paper towel to absorb oil.
Ingredient notes for Vegetarian Potato Croquettes (Rellenos de Papa)
- Flour – Substitute with GF flour blend to make it GF.
- Panko bread crumbs – panko are our go-to bread crumb option, but you can also blitz up leftover bread if that is what you have on hand.
- Mozzarella cheese – we chose mozzarella for its malleability, but if you prefer a different, less elastic cheese you can substitute that. A blue cheese or goats cheese would work nicely (although not very Cuban).
- Eggplant – we find eggplant adds a lot of flavour for a vegetable, but if you want to try another vegetable go ahead, get creative! Do it the Cuban way and work with what you’ve got for that month.
Serving suggestions for Rellenos de Papa
They are best served hot with a fresh salsa or mojo sauce, and perhaps a simple salad of fresh vegetables on the side.
Other potato dishes to try
Vegetarian Potato Croquettes (Rellenos De Papa)
- 6 medium potatoes (peeled and cubed)
- 2 tbsp butter
- Salt & pepper to taste
- 2 eggs
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup panko bread crumbs
- 1 bottle vegetable oil
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 red onion (finely diced)
- 4 garlic cloves (minced)
- 1 chilli (finely sliced)
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tomato (diced)
- 1 eggplant (diced)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tbsp parsley (chopped)
- 1 cup mozzarella cheese
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves (minced)
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- 1 red chilli (thinly sliced)
- 2 limes (juiced)
- 1 orange (juiced)
- 1 tsp salt
- Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Place cubes of potato in pan and boil until fork tender.
- Once tender, drain potatoes and put back in saucepan. Mash potatoes, mixing in 2 tablespoons of butter and salt and pepper to taste as you do. Set aside to cool.
- Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a pan over medium heat. Add diced red onion and sauté until softened.
- Add garlic cloves and sauté for another minute. Then add chilli, cumin and tomato paste and sauté for another 2 minutes.
- Add diced tomato and eggplant and season with salt and pepper. Cook until eggplant is soft. Use back of fork to mash pieces of eggplant in pan.
- Take pan off heat and stir in parsley and grated cheese. Set aside to cool.
- Scoop up 1/3 cup of mashed potato and use the palm of your hand to press into a flat disc. Place a spoonful of filling in the centre of the disc. Wrap the mashed potato around the filling completely and shape to form a ball. Repeat with remaining mixture.
- Whisk eggs in a shallow bowl. In a separate shallow bowl, mix flour, panko bread crumbs, salt and pepper.
- Dip the croquettes into the egg to coat them, then fully coat in the bread crumb mixture. Repeat with remaining croquettes.
- Heat a few centimetres deep of vegetable oil in a saucepan till very hot. Cook the croquettes in batches, turning them as needed, until they are golden brown.
- Once cooked, remove the croquettes from the oil place on paper towel to absorb oil.
- Heat oil in saucepan over medium heat. Add minced garlic, cumin and oregano and fry for a few minutes, until garlic is golden brown. Take off heat and leave to cool.
- Add all other ingredients to small bowl then mix in oil.
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