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Tasty trip to the tropics

It promises to be a feast unlike anything lavished on a Fargo banquet table. Way up here, practically a stone's throw from Canada, two chefs are preparing a Cuban gala of gargantuan proportions. After six months of research and planning, Caf?...

It promises to be a feast unlike anything lavished on a Fargo banquet table.

Way up here, practically a stone's throw from Canada, two chefs are preparing a Cuban gala of gargantuan proportions. After six months of research and planning, Café Muse chefs Al Arola and Chris Nelson are ready to transport some 400 to 600 people to old Havana.

They need no planes or ships. Taste buds will take people on this ride to the tropics.

Just look at the menu:

Appetizers: Yucca puffs, shrimp-buttered tea sandwiches, chorizo sausage cooked in wine, marinated fish with cilantro, chicken and yucca tea sandwiches, pumpkin empanade, spicy crab cakes with papaya chutney, plantain chips and assorted dipping chips with bean and salsa dips.

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Main table: Rum-flavored black beans and rice, roasted chicken with papaya glaze, shrimp creole, Cuban meatballs and roast pig.

Desserts: Sponge cakes with rum, rum rice pudding, flaming mango sauce over vanilla ice cream and almond cookies.

Beverages: Cuban coffee, Cuban coffee with milk, hot chocolate coffee, non-alcoholic guava batido, non-alcoholic spiced calypso punch, sangria, various daquiris and wine piña colada.

The food is part of the Plains Art Museum's annual spring gala, a fund-raising event to benefit the museum's education and outreach programs. This year the theme is "Viva Cuba!"

The spring gala is always a big event, says Sue Petry, the museum's public information manager. But this year, Clarica provided a donation that allowed the chefs at Café Muse, located inside the museum, to go all out with the menu and ingredients.

Arola and Nelson, veterans of past museum galas, say this year's Cuban theme called for the most planning, recipe-testing and preparations of any spring gala. But it's also been the most fun.

The food, along with island music, flowers and a Cuban art exhibit currently in the museum's main gallery, will set the stage for an evening much like that which people enjoyed in the 1940s and '50s -- the heyday of Cuba's nightclub era, before Fidel Castro became dictator.

When the museum's board of directors came up with the Cuban theme nearly a year ago, Arola says he took a deep breath and set to work researching Cuban cuisine.

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"I didn't know much about Cuban food," Nelson says. "We've done Russian and Mexican food for gallery openings. But Cuban was new."

Arola, who has sailed on the Caribbean Sea several times, says he knows the tastes of the Caribbean quite well and thought he was ready. But he quickly learned that the tastes of Cuba are different than the tastes of the Caribbean. That's because Cuban food was influenced by African slaves, Chinese laborers and Haitians. Each group strongly influenced the tastes of Cuba.

They discovered the building blocks of Cuban food are yucca (a root vegetable akin to a sweet potato), beans, rice, fish, chicken, mangoes, papayas, coconuts, plantains, rum and spices like cilantro and garlic.

The Internet made research much easier, Arola says. And they consulted with Cuban couple who live in Detroit Lakes, to ensure the food was authentic and not cliché.

Once they settled on their recipes, they took on the task of expanding them for a crowd. Simple math doesn't work, Arola says. For instance, they have done much taste-testing and revising to expand their almond cookie recipe to produce 1,500 of the buttery, almond-tinged little cookies for the gala.

They also plan to make 2,000 Cuban meatballs and 200 pounds of pork. The pork will be roasted in the parking lot. The pigs will be marinated in mojo (ginger, sour oranges, garlic and lemon juice). Nelson and Arola, along with baker Chris Gregory, will be crew chiefs for a volunteer army of about 40 people who will make the food Saturday.

The ingredients were not hard to get but Arola and Nelson had to make some special, advance requests from food brokers who usually provide products to Café Muse. In fact, Arola says most people would be surprised to learn that most of the ingredients for a Cuban feast are readily available in Fargo-Moorhead, if you know where to look in supermarkets and specialty food stores.

Tickets for the event are $50 and available by calling the Plains Art Museum at (701) 232-3821. A credit card can be used to reserve a ticket.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter

Deneen Gilmour at (701) 241-5525

If you go

What: Viva Cuba! Plains Art Museum annual spring gala

When: Saturday

Where: Plains Art Museum.

Time: 7 p.m. to midnight

Tickets: Tickets are $50 and are available by calling the Plains Art Museum at (701) 232-3821. A credit card can be used to reserve a ticket.

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