Despite January's gray skies, slushy streets and frigid temperatures, things are warm and sunny inside the Crews house in Grayslake.
Julian Crews (yes, the same Julian Crews you see on WGN news) and his family have just cooked up a colorful skillet of Cuban-style chicken and rice. Translated arrozo con pollo, the traditional dish is one Crews, a first-generation Cuban American, grew up eating. One bite of the piquant casserole transports him to the tropical clime and palm-lined streets of Havana.
"Both my parents were born in Cuba. … My family left Cuba in the 1960s and couldn't take much with them," says Crews, who was born in New York, schooled in Miami and then settled in the Chicago suburbs. "But they grabbed their cookbook, and I'm grateful for that."
His great-grandfather Julio's recipe for arrozo con pollo in that loose-leafed cookbook starts the traditional way, with sofrito. "The base of Cuban cooking is the sofrito," Crews explains.
Onion, sweet peppers, garlic and tomato sauted in olive oil (or sometimes in bacon drippings) with a pinch of sea salt and vinegar until they turn soft and savory.
Another family favorite, his great-grandfather's slow-cooked black beans -- frijoles negros -- also defined Crews's childhood.
So when Julian Crews was on a news assignment in Cuba in 1999 he looked forward to trying the island specialty. The excitement turned to disappointment.
"I was with (then-governor) George Ryan on a humanitarian mission and at a nice restaurant they served up classic black beans," he recalled. "I realized it wasn't as good as what I made at home."
So after a lot of research and a lot of years, Crews decided to share some of his heirloom recipes with Cuban food enthusiasts via Old Havana Foods. Those black beans and the family's sofrito debuted with the Old Havana Foods label in November 2008, "60 days before the bottom fell out of the economy," Crews said.
For nearly two years the company -- which now includes refried beans, bean dip seasoning, long-grain rice and Chile Cubano (a sweet, tomato-based chili that makes a wicked base for sloppy Joes) -- has relied on "modest" Internet sales.
"It's a real family operation here; the kids help me put on labels, recipe tags," he noted.
After his morning and noon-hour news segments he hits the street peddling his products and meeting with suppliers and manufacturers. The natural seasonings, for example, hail from McHenry County while the black beans get canned in downstate Illinois.
Those efforts are paying off. Today, Old Havana Foods products can be found in specialty grocery stores in Lake County and distribution continues to grow.
"Who would have thought that Chicago's North Shore would go loco over Cuban frijoles negros," Crews said after 300-plus cans sold in one Winnetka store in less than a month.
Crews said his products open a window to a new cuisine that many think of as exotic.
"Cuba has historically been a cultural melting pot," Crews said. "Spanish cuisine was a major force in Cuban cooking," but French and African expats who settled in eastern Cuba after the revolution in Haiti as well as Chinese immigrants who landed in Havana have had a spoon in the pot as well.
He said unlike some other Hispanic cuisines, Cuban food is not fiery. "It's a savory spicy, not a hot spicy," Crews said. "It's a departure from what people are used to."