In The Kitchen With Olivia Lopez

Her kitchen is the heart of the home that she shares with her boyfriend and fur baby. Lopez says family is the most important thing and their kitchen is where they spend quality time together.

In this kitchen we dance.” It’s not just a cute sign that hangs in Lopez’s kitchen—it’s everyday life for her and boyfriend Rudy Perez. Most evenings you can find them cooking together, laughing and dancing, with festive Cuban music playing and their beloved golden lab, Luca, attentively watching.

“The music is the energy,” she offers, “and the energy changes the food.”

Lopez cooks at least five nights a week, often the simple yet comforting, fragrant dishes of the Caribbean island where her father grew up: beans and rice, arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), and sweet, strong, aromatic Cuban coffee.

For a Cuban family, she explains, food and love are inherently connected.

“Even if we did have a huge house, the kitchen is always going to be the center,” Lopez says. “Everyone’s always drawn there, whether you’re having Cuban coffee at 3 o’clock for a pick-me-up, a full-blown dinner or breakfast with Cuban toast and Cuban coffee. When you have a family get-together, you bring this, I bring this, and everybody meets in the kitchen; it’s the focal point.”

She also has some strongly held beliefs about Cubans. “They’re the happiest people I’ve ever met,” she enthuses. “They are happy and they are positive.”

Lopez is seemingly always smiling, whether you see her at Trilogy at Ocala Preserve, where she works as a community representative, meet her on a bicycle trail or follow her lifestyle blog on Instagram where she highlights such topics as fashion, styling and décor. She makes her secret sound simple.

“One of the things that makes me who I am is that I love every aspect of my life,” she reveals. “From my dog, to the kitchen and having that family time, to what I do as a career, to my hobbies to—everything!”

Lopez had the opportunity to travel to Cuba for the first time in early 2019. And while she says her grandmother visits Cuba often, her father has never returned to his native country.

Lopez was able to meet some of her boyfriend’s relatives there—he is the only member of his family to have emigrated to the United States—as well as some of her family members and family friends. She even had the opportunity to meet her father’s kindergarten teacher, who still lives in the same neighborhood some 40 years later. She vividly recalls their heartwarming, emotional encounter.

“My dad gave me an old address from one of his first houses, from when he was 10,” she begins. “He was like, ‘Olivia, the streets there are completely different.’ We found it but it wasn’t easy.”

When the teacher came to the door, Lopez started by saying in Spanish, “You don’t know me, but my dad used to live here…” Lopez gave the names of her dad and grandma. Then the woman went into her house and brought back a photograph of Lopez’s family: “Me, my dad, my grandma—I don’t know her,” Lopez says of her dad’s kindergarten teacher. “She had our family’s picture in her living room.”

An avid photographer herself, Lopez was able to capture photographs of the neighborhood today, which she compares side-by-side with old family photos taken long before she was born. Not much has changed.

“I would ask people, ‘How do you live?’” she recalls. “And they said, ‘What are we going to do? This is our life and we have to make the best of it.’”

That’s a life lesson Lopez took to heart. “That is their mentality,” she explains. “That’s why they’re happy, they’re positive. I think that’s a huge thing, your outlook on life. It’s all about your outlook and your perspective. They have chosen to flip their perspective on life—’we’re alive and we’re going to have a good time while we can.’ And then somebody opens a bottle of rum and someone’s making coffee and that’s how it is. Isn’t that cool?”

Arroz Congri (Cuban Black Beans and Rice)

  • 1 pound dried black beans, rinsed well
  • 1 medium white onion, finely chopped (about 1-1/2 cups)
  • 1 green bell pepper, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 3-4 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons fresh oregano, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
  • Sea salt to taste

Step 1

Rinse the beans and pick out any small stones. › Put the beans and 8 cups water along with 1 bay leaf in a medium-size pot or pressure cooker. › Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer. › Partly cover and cook until tender, about 1 to 2 hours. (Time will vary depending on the bean.)

Step 2

Meanwhile, make the sofrito. Put the oil in a medium-size pot (large enough to hold the rice as well) over medium heat. › When hot, add the onion, green pepper and garlic. › Add a pinch of salt to taste. › Sauté until the vegetables are soft. › Stir in the oregano, cumin and bay leaves and remove from heat.

Step 3

Drain the beans, reserving the broth and being careful not to break the beans. › In a large measuring cup, add the vinegar and wine, 1 cup of the reserved bean broth and enough water for all the liquid to measure 2 1/4 cups. (Olivia’s tip: “The trick is to use the water from the beans for the broth. It’s a huge thing!”)

Step 4

Put the sofrito back on medium heat, add the rice and stir to combine. › Cook the rice for 1 to 2 minutes, then add the seasoned bean broth/water mixture and the salt. › Bring to a boil, stir, then reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for 17 minutes. › Remove from heat, fluff with a fork and return cover to pot for 10 minutes.

Step 5

Remove bay leaves and put rice mixture into a mixing bowl. › Gently mix in the beans, being careful not to break them. › Season well with salt and pepper and transfer to a serving bowl. › Serve hot.

Serve with fried plantains, yuca or meat of choice.

For more information, visit her Instagram @oliviaandrealopez

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