Liza Gershman has taken photos in 43 countries and 46 states, according to her biography. But Cuba holds a special place in her heart.
Her first time on the island was in 2003 through a trip organized by Global Exchange. She could tell that her guide’s remarks were all scripted, and the participants had no time to wander around alone. But “I still fell in love with the spirit of the people,” she said.
It was only a matter of time before she would create an excuse to spend more time there. And that’s what she did, recently producing a cookbook that blends her skills as a photographer with her admiration for all things Cuban.
“Cuban Flavor: Exploring the Island’s Unique Places, People, and Cuisine” is a love letter to the cuisine first and foremost, but with its gorgeous photographs of people and landscapes, that spirit she talks about also comes through, one of resourcefulness, resilience and fortitude.
Those qualities are reflected in the headnotes for many of the recipes, which reveal that not every ingredient may be available in Cuba at any given time. While the Cuban cook is used to substituting or doing without, American cooks should have a much easier time.
“It’s really unpredictable whether on this given day you can get x, y or z,” said Gershman. “It was really important to me to communicate the very real challenges a Cuban person goes through to get a meal there.
“While [today’s] ’50s time-capsule image of Cuba seems really great to tourists, for the people who are living in it, and the way in which their food system is structured, it’s very challenging. They can’t always get protein, and that’s something we can’t gloss over. I felt I owed it to the Cuban people to shed light on it.”
In addition to the food shortages that are a way of life, she writes in the introduction, “In a typical Cuban home kitchen, you’ll find tools from the 1950s like pressure cookers and rice cookers, broken utensils, dull knives, and mismatched china. It’s a wonder that anyone can actually cook. But the resilience of the Cuban people perfumes each savory dish, as always.”
Her photos of final dishes weren’t shot there, but rather in a photo studio at home.
“The American audience and eye expect a certain quality,” she said. “You’d have a really difficult time photographing high-quality food photos plated there because of inaccessible ingredients.”
Gershman, 42, lives in San Francisco. She is a Bay Area native whose family came from Riga, Latvia, and settled here during the Gold Rush. They were the first family to own and operate a dry-goods store in Contra Costa County.
In Sonoma County you’re immersed in such a rich food culture, it was a part of who I am.
“Since they came to America so early, there wasn’t a huge Jewish community for them to be part of,” she said. “Even my grandmother wasn’t raised religiously.”
She grew up in Sonoma County, in a secular family. “I didn’t have a lot of Jewish people in my life, so I think I always craved more of it,” said Gershman, who learned about different religions in college and came to feel strongly identified with Judaism, “proud of everything that our ancestors have done so we can live the lives we live.”
Gershman said she played with cameras her whole life and had her own darkroom in college. After obtaining a master’s degree in literature, she went to photography school in Missoula, Montana. She has worked in the industry ever since.
She has made a career as a lifestyle photographer, which, of course, includes a lot of food, but she also served as Gov. Jerry Brown’s official photographer during one of his campaigns.
“I never set out to be a food photographer, but in Sonoma County you’re immersed in such a rich food culture, it was a part of who I am without knowing it,” she said. “So before people were photographing and Instagramming and blogging, people were marrying food and lifestyle and travel together.”
Gershman has no culinary training but obtained the recipes for her book after befriending a number of restaurant chefs in Cuba, spending time in their kitchens as they cooked.
“I don’t cook very often, but I’m a great eater,” she said. “I love going to farmers markets and picking out ingredients, seeing the whole process from start to finish, seeing how the food was grown and who grew it, the preparation and the final results.”
So what’s in this cookbook? Well, it’s certainly not kosher. For years, pork fat was the most common cooking fat. Pork — when available — is still used widely, as are chicken and beef. Black beans and rice are in heavy rotation, as are tropical fruits.
One of Gershman’s favorite recipes is Ropa Vieja, considered the national dish of Cuba, in which steak is slow-cooked with onions and peppers, spices and capers, and then garnished with olives, capers and cilantro and served over a bed of rice.
The book also includes a section with travel tips to Cuba; she leads trips there numerous times a year.
“The rules for traveling there have become so complicated, it’s hard to keep up,” she said. “Obviously I keep abreast of the current regulations and make sure we’re within the bounds of them.”
“Cuban Flavor” ends with her favorite itineraries, suggested packing lists and tips before you go.
The national dish of Cuba, “rags” or Ropa Vieja, is savory and delectable. When spices are few and far between, this dish’s peppers bring forward a wonderful light spice. Most every kitchen has a slow cooker (a holdover from the 1950s).
- 2 lb. flank steak
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 1 tsp. garlic, minced
- 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
- ½ cup water
- 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
- 1 green bell pepper, thinly sliced
- 1 jalapeño, seeded and thinly sliced
- ½ tsp. dried oregano
- ½ tsp. cumin powder
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ cup green olives halved
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tsp. capers (optional)
- 1 Tbs. cilantro, chopped (optional)
Generously season the flank steak with salt and pepper.
Combine onions, garlic, tomatoes and their juices, water, bell peppers, jalapeño and spices in the slow cooker. Add the flank steak, cover and cook on low for 8 hours.
Remove the meat and let it rest approximately 10 minutes. Discard the bay leaf and stir in the capers, olives, and 1 Tbs. of cilantro into the sauce. Shred the meat into fine strips and then add it back into the sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot over rice.