"You don’t talk much but you damn sure can eat," observes Juan (Mahershala Ali) of 10-year-old Chiron, the main character of the Academy Award-winning 2016 film Moonlight. That is the essence of Chiron: wary of the world and starved for food and affection. Growing up in Liberty City, Miami, Chiron struggles with his difficult upbringing and sexual identity. Writer/director Barry Jenkins tells a deeply moving story about people and relationships, with all their complexities and contradictions, including love and betrayal.
The first time we see Chiron, he is running for his life, pursued by a pack of school bullies. Juan, who is Cuban, rescues him and becomes his surrogate father. Over a mountain of mashed sweet potatoes, Chiron opens up to Juan until a question about his biological father kills the conversation and Chiron’s appetite.
But Chiron keeps finding his way back to Juan and his girlfriend (Janelle Monáe)—their house and table have become a refuge. In the ocean, Juan teaches Chiron to swim and to trust. But it's a scene in a diner—after a tragedy and years of estrangement—that provides some healing when Chiron, now an adult who goes by the street name Black (Trevante Rhodes), reconnects with his childhood friend Kevin (André Holland).
Chiron surprises Kevin at the diner where he is a cook. Kevin lovingly prepares what he calls his "Chef’s Special"—pollo a la plancha, an off-menu meal for Chiron. The camera focuses on Kevin’s hands as he carefully squeezes fresh lime juice over the chicken sizzling on the griddle. Kevin makes an extra effort even with the sides. He doesn’t just plop the rice on the plate, loose. He uses a little mold to shape it so that it looks nice.
Over food and wine, facing each other in a booth, the men begin to talk again. The connection over the Cuban dish brings Chiron’s story back to Juan, back to Chiron’s childhood, standing on the shore and listening to the waves, the heartbeat of the universe, his life ahead of him. Moonlight teaches us the real meaning of cooking with love.
We have compiled a special Cuban meal for you, too, of pollo a la plancha with traditional black bean and white rice sides. Or you can go with ropa vieja and make a mountain of mashed sweet potatoes. A frozen daiquiri is the perfect accompaniment.
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The freezer is your friend for making this refreshing icy twist on Cuba's classic rum and lime drink. Chilling all the liquid ingredients, including the rum, reduces the need for ice cubes, so this cocktail will last longer without becoming watery.
Pollo a la Plancha
A citrus marinade redolent of garlic, lime juice, orange juice, and oregano soaks into and tenderizes the chicken cutlets in this quick-cooking dinner. Thickly sliced onions, sautéed until sweet and caramelized are an essential garnish. Serve the chicken with black beans, white rice, and a splash of lime juice over all.
Famous in Cuba and popular throughout the Latin Caribbean, ropa vieja features thin strands of shredded beef in a sauce of tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and spices. Searing the meat before a longer braise in the oven gives it more flavor. Serve it with rice on the side to soak up all of the sauce.
Start with dried beans for this simple, hands-off recipe. The beans will absorb the flavor of onion, garlic, and orange as they cook, while the long, slow simmer makes the beans creamy and tender.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
Perfectly Steamed White Rice
Shunned by snobs and skeptics, the microwave is a surprisingly useful tool for certain tasks, like cooking rice. It’s crucial to rinse the rice in warm water, and cover it with a dish towel, which will help it steam evenly and stay fluffy. A little extra water preserves the rice-to-liquid ratio and makes sure the rice doesn’t dry out.
The Best Mashed Sweet Potatoes
Time is the key to this amazing mash. A two-hour bake caramelizes the sugars in the sweet potatoes. Browning the butter adds a nutty flavor, and maple syrup contributes another layer of sweetness. Use the whip attachment on a mixer to aerate the potatoes until they’re fluffy and light.
Editor's note: This article is part of a series developed with A24 to celebrate the marriage of food and film during this period of self-isolation.