CHEF’S DISH: Chicken, peas and a Chilean childhood

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It’s a dish that has its roots thousands of miles away in the Chilean countryside of the 1970s. But its inspiration came at a heavy price...

Fabian Cruz’s father was jailed as part of General Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship.

The rest of the family became refugees and his mother took them to live in the relative sanctuary of the Chilean countryside.

As a boy Fabian was inspired by watching his mum, who managed to be creative with very simple ingredients.

The family lived on home-grown food infused with spices to bring out dramatic flavours. Meat was an occasional highlight, in the form of chickens the family reared themselves.

And that’s the basis for the renowned Pollo Con Guisantes dish at Cubana, in Sheffield’s Leopold Square, where Fabian is head chef.

He has added twists over the years – different spices, bacon and more – making the dish hugely popular with his Sheffield following and a big hit on the Cubana menu.

Fabian Cruz has been head chef since the popular tapas bar and restaurant first opened on Trippet Lane in 2000. He developed the menu from a handful of dishes to the all encompassing selection it is today.

Up until last July diners mixed with salsa dancers and the busy bar. But the move to Leopold Square changed all that.

Now Fabian and his five chefs – including Erhant Xhaja who has been with him 12 years – have their own dedicated restaurant.

Fabian’s love of cooking began when he arrived in Sheffield in 1978.

“I was studying engineering and wanted to make some extra money. I started as a pot washer and watching the chefs persuaded me to retrain,” he says.

“I was lucky enough to meet a lady who taught me some of the most popular South American dishes, like empanadas and meatballs – dishes that have become hugely popular at Cubana over the years.”

Word of his culinary talent spread and he ended up cooking in renowned local restaurants from Kito’s in Woodseats to Pavarotti’s on London Road.

His Cubana dishes have been enjoyed by thousands over the years. And that means everything to Fabian: “The thing I enjoy most is knowing the people I cook for have enjoyed a good meal. I’d pack my bags and retire otherwise.”

And the simplicity of Chilean life post-Pinochet remains a mantra for Fabian.

The garden at his Gleadless home has been turned into an allotment, brimming with vegetables, spices and a chicken coop.

“If I ever get enough money I’ll do a Jamie Oliver and get a couple of pigs and start my own farm!” he says.

Pollo Con Guisantes

INGREDIENTS: (serves 4)

2 chicken breasts,

cut into strips

2 red peppers - sliced

½ pint chicken stock

500g fresh garden peas

100 g smoked bacon, 
 chopped

200g tomato purée paste

1 glass red wine

2 tsp of ground cumin

Salt & pepper to taste

Oil for cooking

METHOD:

1. Cut the two chicken breasts into strips around 2cm wide.

2. Add a touch of olive oil to a pan and heat. When it’s hot add chicken and seal all over. Continue to cook on a moderate setting until chicken is slightly browned.

3. Add sliced red peppers and smoked bacon to the pan. Cook, stirring, for 2 mins on a moderate heat.

4. Stir in the tomato purée paste and chicken stock.

5. Add salt and pepper to taste, then the ground cumin.

6. Continuing to stir, add the fresh garden peas and red wine.

7. Bring the mixture to the boil then simmer gently for 20-30 minutes so the sauce is allowed to reduce and thicken.

Enjoy and savour the aroma – it takes me straight back to the Chilean countryside!

TO SERVE:

Serve with rice, cous cous or simply fresh or toasted bread – they are all recommended accompaniments.

Cous cous is a particular favourite with Cubana guests... as is a glass or two of good red wine to wash it down.

I’ve done many variations of this dish over the years. Feel free to experiment as you gain confidence.

My variations have included replacing chicken with duck, which also works very well.