“I often thought if we could put the United States and Cuba in a big bag and shake them up we’d get the best of each,” says John Verlinden. As co-owner of the former Mucho Gusto Cafe, Verlinden and his husband, Oswald “Ozzie” Mondejar, who live in Brookline, attempted to do just that. In the kitchen, Verlinden was creating updated versions of traditional dishes, while Cuban-American Mondejar handled the front of house. Their Boylston Street restaurant and collectible shop, which was in business for five years beginning in 1995, introduced Cuban cuisine to the Boston area in a space that Verlinden describes as “an ‘I Love Lucy’ set.”
As the couple closed the restaurant and moved on to other things (Verlinden, 61, is now a personal chef and caterer, Mondejar is a senior vice president at Partners Continuing Care), they decided to collect a few favorite recipes for customers and friends.. “I was planning to make a little booklet, a dozen pages or so,” says Verlinden. Instead, he wrote “To Cook Is to Love,” which includes dozens of recipes woven together with stories on Cuban history, life, food, and music as told by his mother-in-law, Mami Aida, who emigrated from Cuba in the early 1950s. Aida inspired the recipes at Mucho Gusto and cooked in the restaurant kitchen. “She’s a spitfire,” Verlinden says.
Q. How did a farm boy from Tipton, Mo., become an expert in Cuban cuisine?
A. I met Ozzie in Baltimore in 1985. Then I met his mother a few months later and she made us a Cuban meal. I said, oh man, I have to learn how to make this. She was kind enough to let me work with her and her mother in the kitchen. They loved the fact that the little American wanted to learn about their food.
Q. What dish made you fall in love with the food?
A. I’m thinking it was maybe ropa vieja [shredded beef] and I know of course we had rice and beans. It’s a mixture of so many cultures. Spanish and African are the primary influences, but also North American. Plus you have the tropical vegetables that make the cuisine so rich. Cuban cuisine is highly seasoned, but it’s not picante. It’s sabor suave, which means “soft flavors.”
Q. You began the book as a Mucho Gusto booklet. Then what happened?
A. I thought it would be nice to have just a few little stories from Aida’s childhood. I started interviewing her and then it was like, oh wow. Here’s this very ordinary woman, but what an extraordinary life she had. I need to tell this story.
Q. Where did you start?
A. I asked Aida, how did you learn to cook? She said, “Honey, I’ll tell you a secret. I didn’t know how to cook. I was already married and I had to make dinner for my husband. And God taught me how to cook.” So we titled one of the chapters “God Taught Me How to Cook.”
Q. What’s in the book beyond mojitos and Cubano sandwiches?
A. Every cuisine has a beef stew of some kind. In Cuban cuisine it’s carne con papas, meat and potatoes. We have tuna noodle casserole. I have six or eight empanadas, including a few vegetarian recipes. Empanadas are a great way to use leftovers. They are the proof of reincarnation. You come back better the next time when you’re reincarnated as an empanada.
Q. Tell me what you mean when you describe your food as “nuevo Cuban.”
A. When people in the US think of Cuban food, they think delicious but high-fat and high-sodium, not the healthiest food in the world. I really made the substitutions of healthier ingredients: olive oil for sauteing, canola oil for frying, nonfat milk, yogurt rather than sour cream. I also introduced more garden vegetables to the cuisine. My goal was to make it healthier but preserve those wonderful flavors I fell in love with.
Q. Have you traveled to Cuba?
A. I’ve been to Cuba seven times. We still have family there. We also have a project there. It began as a book project, taking books to libraries. We started taking medical supplies to hospitals and schools for children with disabilities after the horrible hurricane they had a few years back.
Q. Today in Cuba, what is everyday cuisine?
A. One of the things that’s heartbreaking for me is that the average Cuban would have a difficult time getting the ingredients together to make the simplest recipe in the book. You get milk only if you have a baby or an elderly person in the house. Finding spices would be impossible. But if you go to the most humble home, they’re going to have Cuban coffee for you and some little treat. And they love to have a good time. All you need is a bottle of rum and it’s a party.