Healthy Cuban Cuisine

Last night I taught a cooking class at the Michael Ann Russell Jewish Community Center, where I work as the Nutrition Coach on staff. That campus caters to a gigantic Latin community, so I took on Cuban cuisine, which was new to me. I like challenges though, so I found recipes for vegan versions of Ropa Vieja (a typical Cuban dish), which I served over nutritious quinoa, empanadas, which are common among all Latin cultures, fried plantains, and virgin mojitos (even though we kept joking that it would have been nice to have some rum, lol!).

Ropa Vieja literally means “old clothes”, so it’s typically made with shredded beef which represents the torn, old clothing. I used seitan, which is “wheat meat” as a substitute, as it gives the “appearance” of meat, with a similar texture. Setian is a nice vegan alternative to tofu as it has a pretty impressive protein content (21 grams per serving!!).

The trick to Ropa Vieja, is that you have to make the “sofrito” first, which is the base sauce. You add the seitan after it’s been simmering for a while. You will see this in the recipe listed below.

Empanadas, or Latin calzones (as they are the Latin version of this Italian food, although a lot smaller), originated in Spain and have been around for thousands of years. They are common in places like Columbia, Argentina, Cuba, Costa Rica, and Mexico, just to name a few. The fillings can be endless possibilities, so that’s why this dish was easy to modify and make vegan. I used sauteed broccoli and Daiya cheese inside whole wheat dough.

I know frying is not typically seen as “healthy”, but it’s usually because of the oil being used. Frying in coconut oil is safe because it has a high smoke point and the oil does not burn and become rancid. It also adds some killer flavor to your food!

Mojitos, which originated in Cuba, had to be a part of our meal! They are traditionally made with rum, sugar, sparkling water, lime and mint. We just omitted the rum for last night’s class. 🙁

I hope you get a chance to try these recipes soon and enjoy them! If you desire more international recipes, need help with meal planning or want help eating better FOR LIFE, contact me! I make eating healthy FUN and anything but boring!

Ropa Vieja with Seitan in Sofrito (pictured up top)

(Serves 3-4)

Ingredients for Sofrito:

6 grape tomatoes

2/3 large onion

1 medium sized green pepper

2 garlic cloves

1 tbsp. olive oil

Generous pinch of salt

1 bay leaf

½ tsp. oregano

½ tsp. cumin

3 tbsp. sherry

Ingredients for Ropa Vieja:

8 oz. seitan

2 tsp. olive oil

1/3 large onion (rest of onion from sofrito)

few splashes of tamari or soy sauce

1/8 tsp. cumin

Sofrito from recipe above – yields about 1/3 c. – 1/2 c.

1/2 c. tomato sauce

1/2 c.  Mushroom broth or veggie broth

2-3 tbsp. frozen peas (optional)

Cooking instructions:

  1. Make sofrito first; sauté veggies on medium for 10 min stirring occasionally.  Add all seasonings and sherry, lower heat and sauté for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally until the veggies are soft.  This can be made in advance and refrigerated for a few days until ready to make the rest.

  2. Add the tomato sauce and broth to the sofrito and let it continue to simmer on low while you prepare the seitan.

  3. Cut up seitan into slivers, 1/8” thin

  4. Sauté the slivered seitan in oil on med high with onion and cumin and add 3-4 splashes of soy sauce to the pan when dry to caramelize and brown seitan for about 4-5 minutes.

  5. Add sofrito, tomato sauce, and broth, and peas if using, to the seitan and simmer for 5 minutes to meld flavors.

Serve over rice or quinoa (my personal fave!)

Sautéing the seitan separately helps to crisp it up a bit before adding it to the sauce which has been richly built up on its own.

Ingredients for empanada dough:

2 1/4 cups whole wheat flour

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 cup earth balance or other vegan butter

1 1/2 teaspoons of arrow root powder

1/3 cup cold water

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

Mix the above with your hands, form into a ball and refrigerate in plastic wrap for 1 hour.

Vegan Empanada Filling Ideas – mix & match or create your own!

  1. Potato & Onion

  2. Steamed Broccoli & Daiya Cheddar Cheese

  3. Steamed Spinach & Cheese

The filling possibilities are endless! Have fun and get creative!

Roll the dough, form circles using a glass or another object (or form approx. circular shape).

Add filling. Bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes on foil with some flour on it. Enjoy!


Coconut oil


Heat coconut oil in large pan. Add in sliced plantains and cook until browned and a little crispy.

Drain on paper towel or brown paper bag. Serve hot.

Virgin Mojitos


3 tsp. organic sugar

1 lime, juiced

A few fresh mint leaves

8 oz. Soda Water

Mix all ingredients together. Enjoy!

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