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Chef John Verlinden cooks up a treat with new Cuban cookbook

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein
Chef John Verlinden cooks up a treat with new Cuban cookbook

John Verlinden or “Chef Johnny” as he’s known from his days as the proprietor of Boston’s first Cuban-American restaurant, Mucho Gusto Café & Collectibles, has recently written the cookbook, “To Cook is to Love.” As he states right up front, the book is “equal parts conversation, cookbook and memoir.”

What the book really is though, is a labor of love and a tribute to his Cuban-born mother-in-law, Aida Luisa Gonzalez de Mondejar.

Mami Aida, as she’s called, is a woman of character, strength and love who emigrated from Cuba to the United States with her husband and daughter in 1954, to begin a new life in a strange country. Through all her heartaches and triumphs, food was an expression of love and a source of great pride and self-esteem for Aida. It was how she coped with life and all its curveballs.

Chef Johnny began his adventure and love affair with food when he was a young boy growing up on a farm in Tipton, Mo. His mom worked and so it was his responsibility to make lunch for his dad, who came home from work every day expecting a hot meal. His mom began by putting out food every morning with instructions on how to prepare it and, after some time, he found himself enjoying and experimenting with food on his own. His first job was working in a local drive-in restaurant grilling burgers when he was 13 years old. He has been working in kitchens and in restaurants ever since.

Some 20 years later, through his partner and husband, Oswald Mondejar (Mami Aida’s son), he found a deeply personal connection with Cuban food. He states on his website that, “I found Cuba’s cuisine to be rich, deep and diverse — full of international influences from all of the peoples who’ve played a role in her history and complete thanks to the island’s natural bounty of tropical fruits and vegetables. ” He goes on to say that “after specializing professionally in Cuban-American food for the last 15 years, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.”

One of his goals in writing the book was “to make [Cuban food] lighter and healthier than traditional foods. The same delicious flavors the same great savory tastes but lighter and less fat and less sodium.” In the 180 Cuban-American recipes in the book, Chef Johnny has been able to accomplish this goal by demonstrating how one can substitute ingredients with healthier options such as substituting yogurt for mayonnaise in creamy salad dressings, reducing salt, cooking with healthier oil or baking certain foods versus frying all without compromising taste and texture.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Chef Johnny invited me to his home for lunch and prepared us a three-course meal. We began with an Avocado and Pineapple Salad “Ensalada de Aguacate Y Piña,” (noted in the book as the most popular salad at Mucho Gusto Café). The salad was refreshing, light and colorful, topped with a little bit of lemon juice and olive oil, and very easy to make. The main course included Brown Rice and Black Beans, “Moros Y Cristianos,” with Beef Turnovers, “Empanadas de Carne,” and Sweet Plantains, “Platanos Maduros Fritos.” The meal was completed with a Guava “Guayaba” Cake for desert, and of course Cuban Coffee or “Café Cubano.” The meal was delicious, colorful and extremely satisfying.

Another one of his goals with this cookbook is that he’s hoping “to encourage people to be thoughtful when they’re cooking.” By this he means, if a recipe calls for two teaspoons of salt to ask yourself: “what would it be like with one teaspoon?” He wants people to take a chance and experiment with food.

In addition to all the great recipes, you’ll find interesting facts and history about many of the dishes and ingredients peppered throughout the cookbook. For example, “Moros Y Cristianos” translates to “Moors & Christians.” In the book, Verlinden writes that “according to folklore, the Spaniards who colonized Cuba invented this dish to commemorate the defeat of the Islamic Empire and the liberation of Spain from the Moors who’d occupied portions of it for nearly 800 years.” Who knew?

This book hooks you completely from the moment Mami Aida says “hola!” It makes you want to read more of her story. “To Cook is to Love” is filled with photos from Aida’s life and is ripe with her tales and her recollections of growing up in Cuba; marrying at a young age (as most women did back then); following her husband to America with her daughter; having a second child in the U.S.; learning how to be a single mom — all while doing what she knew best, cooking.

This book is more than a cookbook. It’s a book filled with hope and possibilities. But most importantly, it’s really food for the soul.