Every Meal Has a Story

My typical breakfast during Cuba's wet season: eggs over easy, bread, and avocado. 

My typical breakfast during Cuba's wet season: eggs over easy, bread, and avocado. 

Every meal I make has a story. Take my breakfast this morning. It wasn’t elaborate — two eggs, over easy, and a baguette with butter and avocado. (For details on the coffee, see this post; I'll write about the pink guava smoothie in coming posts, or for something similar, see my mango milkshake recipe.

The avocado was the easy part. At this time of year, if you’re not careful while you’re walking through our backyard, you might get hit by a green orb falling from our enormous avocado tree. Finding the butter was also relatively easy. A few months ago, butter (as with many other basic items) had disappeared from the shelves of the many mercaditos (mini-markets) in our neighborhood, but, inexplicably, in recent days, butter — from Poland, no less — has been almost as easy to find as a ripening avocado. 

The baguette, on the other hand, was a product of persistence — good bread is one of the trickier items to find in Cuba, and it was on my third or fourth try to the best state-owned bakery that I finally found it. With the difficulties in finding bread, we are beginning to bake it ourselves (details to come in future posts). 

The once or twice a month delivery of eggs at my local bodega.

The once or twice a month delivery of eggs at my local bodega.

The eggs took the most effort. Once or twice a month, our bodega receives a shipment of eggs, packed in large carton flats of thirty, and when they arrive, you know it. La bola en la calle, or “the word on the street,” gets out. A long line forms in front of the small, humble shop that resembles a general store from the 1800s. A shopkeeper doles out five eggs per person per month with their libreta (or ration book). Aside from collecting this ration for a few cents, Cubans are also free to buy eggs at 55 cents per dozen — a relatively affordable price, given that the average government salary in Cuba is about $25 per month. All of the eggs are usually gone in a few hours flat. 

My breakfast this morning wasn’t particularly Cuban, but I’ve also learned that there isn’t any typical Cuban breakfast, at least not at this moment in time. It’s basically a matter of what you can get…

The Secrets of Cuban Coffee

Coffee is one of those constants in my life. In our container to Havana, we shipped dozens of vacuum-packed containers of Trader Joe's and Peet's coffee. Not long after we arrived, we also bought this super fancy Jura machine at a garage sale in Havana, from expatriate friends who were leaving Cuba. It has been one of our very few indulgent kitchen purchases, and I can't say that I regret it. I love that I can get a great cup of espresso with just the press of a button, especially when my kids wake me up early in the morning.

My favorite kitchen appliance, the Jura espresso/coffee maker. 

My favorite kitchen appliance, the Jura espresso/coffee maker. 

I used to take coffee for granted, before I moved to Cuba. On the island, I am learning about another way to drink and make coffee -- it's a slower process, as Cubans use Italian-style espresso makers on the stove, but one that is just as rewarding as I discovered at my friend M's home recently. Her family, like every household in Cuba, gets a small ration of coffee every month almost free from the government, but it’s just enough to make a couple of carafes of coffee. The government coffee is labeled “50-50” and the prevailing wisdom is that this means 50 percent coffee, 50 percent “chicharros” — or green lentils, to make it cheaper for the government to distribute. After this runs out, they usually have to look for it in the stores and it's not easy to find. It's also expensive by average Cuban standards, at about $5 per pound. Hence, it's a small, treasured luxury in households, and one that is enjoyed with plenty of sugar. 

An Authentic Cuban Coffee (without the green lentils!)

Several tablespoons ground espresso coffee
Water
Sugar (to taste)
Special Equipment: Italian Espresso Maker

Fill the lower chamber 3/4 of the way with cold water.

Fill the espresso attachment with ground espresso coffee. Pat the coffee flat. (Optional: To speed up the brewing process, you may insert and remove a spoon to create a small crevice in the coffee.) Place the attachment in the chamber. 

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Screw on the top chamber and close tightly. 

Place the maker on the stove over low-medium heat. Lift the top after five minutes and after that, every minute. Turn off heat when the maker fills with coffee. Pour into individual espresso cups, add sugar to taste, and enjoy! (The Cuban way is with at least two teaspoons of sugar!)

Plainly Delicious Homemade Yogurt, with a Cuban Twist

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In one of my recent posts, I wrote about the many basic fruits and vegetables we cannot find in Cuba. Another thing that we cannot find is decent yogurt.  Occasionally, some state-owned markets sell a watery yogurt in an unsightly large tub. There also is something called “soy yogurt” that I have been told is unpalatable. (I'll muster the courage to try it sometime soon, stay tuned.) But rather than going from market to market looking for a sub-par version, I prefer making my own yogurt at home -- and coincidentally in Cuba, I even improved upon my recipe one day when I threw in a common, but often overlooked, ingredient (read to the bottom). 

My 2-quart yogurt maker incubates milk at a steady 110 degrees Fahrenheit. 

My 2-quart yogurt maker incubates milk at a steady 110 degrees Fahrenheit. 

I confess I am a yogurt snob. When I go to the supermarkets in the U.S., I am suspicious of brands advertising themselves as “Greek yogurt” that are 0% fat. (That’s an inherit contradiction.) On visits back to the States, I usually opt for a quart of unadulterated plain whole yogurt rather than little cups filled with sugar and other additives.  

I first discovered the beauty of yogurt when I was living and traveling in Asia, of all places, doing research for my second book. Asians have a long history of making yogurt, something that might sound surprising. The yogurt in traditional back alleys of Beijing, China is amazing — thick and smooth, and delicious with a little honey or sugar, and the tradition was passed down generation of Chinese Muslim families. When I traveled through Central Asia, Turkey, and Greece, I discovered even thicker and fresher versions of the dairy product. In Central Asia, it was made from the milk cows that roamed before us over expansive grasslands. 

After my trip from Asia to Europe, I began making yogurt on my own, and it’s now a staple that is always in our fridge. It was one of the first foods both of my kids ate as babies, and my toddler son K eats it every morning still, with a touch of honey and a sprinkle of granola, homemade too (recipe to come in a future blog post). We use it as a sour cream substitute, too, since that’s also nonexistent in Cuba. I use a yogurt incubator that I bought on Amazon, the Euro Cuisine. When my family and friends come to visit us, they bring packets of yogurt starter. 

My daughter and I stocking up on milk at a not-so-super market in Havana, Cuba. 

My daughter and I stocking up on milk at a not-so-super market in Havana, Cuba. 

I have Cuba to thank for better yogurt, ironically. In Cuba, we are used to shortages of milk. Milk does not arrive in the supermarket cold, in nice half gallon containers and or gallon jugs. If it is available at all, it is in vacuum-packed UHT long-life boxes, and when I go shopping with my daughter and happen to come across it, we buy it by the dozens. And because of this shortage, I've had to search for alternatives, like powered milk. I started incorporating powdered milk into my recipe for yogurt, and it works brilliantly, if added to milk in its liquid form. (The fact that I have to say 'milk in its liquid form' is telling, isn't it?)  The result is thicker, richer yogurt -- and one that your kids will love, as much as mine do. 

Plainly Delicious Homemade Yogurt

1 quart milk at room temperature (whole or semi-skimmed, pasteurized or UHT long-life)
3 cups warm water
1 cup powdered milk (whole preferred, but skim or nonfat works as well)
1 packet of yogurt starter or 6 oz whole plain yogurt
Special Equipment: 2-quart yogurt incubator and an espresso or candy thermometer

Pour milk, water, and powdered milk into a large pot and mix until the powdered milk is well dissolved. Attach the thermometer on the inside of the pot and heat over a medium flame until the thermometer reads 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Turn off the heat and place the pot in a sink filled with cold water. When the temperature of the pot goes down to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, add the yogurt starter and mix thoroughly. Transfer into the yogurt incubator and turn on the incubator. Do not agitate or move the incubator until the yogurt has incubated for at least 8 hours, and up to 16 hours. Place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours to settle and cool it, then serve. 

Finding the Meaning of "Local" at the Cuban Farmer's Market

I spend about five to six hours of my week buying food for my family, because in Cuba, there is no one-stop supermarket like Safeway or Whole Foods. (Even daring to put the words "Whole Foods" and "Cuba" in the same sentence seems comical, or tragic ... or both!) Instead, there is a complicated mix of farmer's markets, state-owned shops, street side vendors, and black market vendors that I navigate to keep my family well-fed. 

I often go to an agro, or farmer's market, near us. It's named after its cross streets -- "42nd and 19th." When I am in California (where I grew up), I go to a Saturday farmer's market where Craig, the kids, and I stroll from booth to booth tasting samples of honey, tamales, and artisanal gelato. 42nd and 19th is not that place. I don't bring my kids here, if I can help it. For starters, the agro looks like a jail, imprisoning bananas behind its iron bars. My flip-flops are caked with mud by the end of the journey. As you approach the entrance, you notice the surreptitious vendors, rapping quietly and quicker than Tupac: "papapapapapa" "langostacamaronespescado." They're hustlers of a different kind, selling products generally only available on the black market: potatoes and lobster, shrimp, and fish. (Note to self: write a poem based on their rhymes someday.) Occasionally, I'll buy potatoes from these guys, but nothing else, because I'm not about to feed my kids seafood from a dubious source. 

I go to 42nd and 19th for the convenience -- it's relatively near my home and it has a relatively wide selection of produce. It's still a far cry from what you might find at any average supermarket produce section in most countries, but it's way better than most other markets in Cuba, which sell a monoculture of a half-dozen or so produce items. There is a pork butcher here too, but he doesn't refrigerate his meat, so I prefer to buy my pork elsewhere. No other meats are available at this market, because the farmer's markets are made up of private vendors, and the state controls the sale of all other meat/fish/poultry. (More about this in coming posts.) 

Everything at the market is local -- which sounds kind of romantic at first, until you realize that means there are no apples. Nor oranges, except for super sour ones used to marinate meat. Grapes occasionally pop up, but they are just as acidic and my kids pucker and wrinkle their noses at the thought of them. There are also no strawberries nor berries of any kind. Nor pears, peaches, apricots, nor cantaloups nor honeydews. We have learned to live without all of these fruits, staples of my childhood growing up in California. 

Bananas are reliably available throughout the year, in all kinds of different varieties. What else you can find depends on the season. In the spring, a brief two-week burst of lychees comes and goes, a fruit so exotic and such a nice change from the never-ending pineapples, papayas, guavas, and coconuts that I bought them by the bushel and froze them in zip-lock bags in one of our three fridges. In the summer, the market is practically all mangoes and avocados.  Now, in early fall with the temperatures slightly cooler by a hair, you can occasionally find grapefruit and leafy green vegetables like bok choy and a variety of spinach with bright purple flowers, among the bananas and root vegetables. It is difficult to find tomatoes, carrots, and onions this time of year. 

I usually go on Tuesday mornings, as that is when you can generally find the best selection of fruits and vegetables. It's a mess on the weekends and like many other farmer's markets in Cuba, it's closed on Mondays. It takes me about an hour of careful browsing and negotiating to buy what I need, and I've learned never to take a list anymore because a shopping list is really a wish list in Cuba. I looking for what's fresh and think about recipes after I shop, rather than the other way around. 

I love this vendor's fan, keeping her cool in the sweltering heat. 

I love this vendor's fan, keeping her cool in the sweltering heat. 

I usually spend about an hour and $10 on everything -- it's cheap for me, but a fortune for most Cubans, many of whom rely on state-provided salaries of $25 per month, remittances, and "inventando" -- inventing --whatever they can. Most come lugging a big knapsack or makeshift pushcarts and take public transportation to and from the market, because cars (even the Old 1950s Chevys) are rare luxuries.

A retired lady at the back of the market sells good espresso, from a thermos and sold in rare plastic cups that she reuses. She tells me she gets her coffee from her relatives in the Oriente (the east of the island) who mail it to her to supplement her paltry pension of less than $10 per month (this is one example of inventing). A cup of her espresso costs 1 Cuban peso, or 5 cents. At the end of my shopping trip, I need a jolt of caffeine to carry everything back to the trunk of my car!

 

Ten dollars -- almost half of the monthly government salary -- gets us this much food. 

Ten dollars -- almost half of the monthly government salary -- gets us this much food. 

Cuban espresso for 1 Cuban peso (5 cents) in rare plastic cups! 

Cuban espresso for 1 Cuban peso (5 cents) in rare plastic cups! 

 

 

 

 

 

The Perfect Mango Milkshake (and how to make a Kids' game out of it)

Making this drink/snack becomes a memory recall game with my son. 

Making this drink/snack becomes a memory recall game with my son. 

For the first few months I was living in Cuba, I attempted to make this drink often but was tasting much better versions on the streets, from the international hotel near our house to the curbside kiosks that sell batidos by the glass for 3 Cuban pesos -- about 12 cents! Finally, after quizzing enough vendors, I found learned the secret from a bartender at the Melia Habana hotel: salt. Just a pinch, to bring out the sweet and tanginess of the mango. It’s kind of like what Indians do to make lassis, but more subtle. The other thing I like about making this drink is that my toddler son K can help out -- we make it a memory recall game, where I ask him, "And now that we've added the mangoes (etc), what else do we put in...? " 

The Melia Habana mango milkshake. 

The Melia Habana mango milkshake. 

The sugar content on this is a little high — but believe me, the rush is worth it, especially if you count it as a dessert. It’s the perfect snack for my kids when they come back from school. Even if they’re a little weary and tired from a long day, this puts them back on track. The fiber doesn’t hurt either!

Mango Milkshake 

Makes 2 -12oz servings

14 oz. frozen mango
1 1/2 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup powdered milk (nonfat or full cream)
pinch of salt 

Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Serve immediately, or you may refrigerate and serve up to 12 hours later.

The Most Delcious Flan You Will Ever Taste

This flan was so good that I forgot I was supposed to take a picture of it! 

This flan was so good that I forgot I was supposed to take a picture of it! 

I used to think that it was acceptable to make flan from a box, something akin to making Jell-O. (One of the rare “instant” foods you can occasionally find in Cuba is packaged flan, imported from Mexico.) But then I tried our housekeeper’s and it was revelatory. Flan is one of those things you encounter in almost every restaurant and home across Cuba. But our housekeeper M’s has so far been the best we have tasted, no joke. Her secret: a blender, important to eliminate the lumps. Also, I learned from M that there’s no gelatin in a good, homemade flan — it’s just the gentle steam of a double boiler that creates its soft, gentle texture.

Making this in Cuba comes with its challenges -- for one thing, even though the ingredients are simple, there are some times when I can't find sugar in the markets -- in a country that practically invented the sweetener! Eggs and milk are sometimes a challenge. Also, double boilers are difficult to source (and we neglected to ship one when we moved here). In Cuba, we improvise one by inserting a bundt pan inside of a steaming pot of water. The bundt pan makes it cook more rapidly. The active time on this homemade dish is 10-15 minutes and another 15 minutes for steaming — making it much quicker, and way more delicious, than your “instant” flan from a box.  

For the caramel: 
3 tbs white sugar
1/4 cup water

For the flan: 

3 eggs
1 1/2 cups powdered milk
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups water
1 tsp vanilla

Place the ingredients for the caramel in a small saucepan and heat over a medium flame, stirring occasionally until the sugar browns and thickens. Turn off heat. Pour into a bundt pan. 
 

Place all the flan ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Pour into the bundt pan, over the caramel. Place the pan in a large pot partially filled with water and cover. Boil for 20 minutes, or until a knife comes out clean. Let cool for at least 30 minutes then invert onto a plate. Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving. 

 

Fried Plantains

The number of different types of bananas in Cuba is confusing. There are bananas that are eaten like raw, the only way we know how to eat them in the U.S. There are bananas for making plantain chips, tostones (a kind of biscuit-like dish made from bananas), and those for this delectable dish.  If you can’t find plantains, you can actually use regular bananas. Just make sure they’re on the ripe side. This is a foolproof kid dish — I have never seen my kids go crazier for any food that for “Platanos maduros fritos!” — a common refrain in my home. I can’t mention the dish by name without them craving and screaming for them, so when I talk to my housekeeper, I call them the “cosas amarillas” — the yellow things. 

3 very ripe plantains (they should be soft and the skins a little dark)
1 cup of vegetable oil for frying

Cut the plantains at a slight diagonal angle into slices about 1/4 inch thick. Add enough oil in a medium frying pan to submerge the plantains and heat on high. Add enough plantains to cover the bottom of the pan and fry for 3-4 minutes until they soft and slightly gooey. Drain on paper towels and let cool a few minutes before serving. 

Cuban Black Beans

What I love about black beans and rice is that they go well with almost any protein. In addition to going well with the roast chicken recipe I posted, you can pair them with scrambled eggs, roast pork, fried chicken, roasted fish, and sausages. We’ve even eaten them with hot dogs, the rice and beans a healthier stand-in for white hot dog buns — what could be more kid-friendly?  

 

2 cups dried black beans
1 large green pepper, sliced in half
1 1/2 tbs vegetable oil
1/2 yellow onion, minced
4 large cloves garlic
1 tbs minced fresh cilantro (or culantro, a Cuban herb, if you can find it)
1 tsp minced fresh oregano (or 1/2 tsp dried oregano) 
1 dried bay leaf
1 tsp white sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp white vinegar
1 tsp cooking wine (vino secco)
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp olive oil 

Soak the beans for 3-4 hours or overnight. Boil the beans in a pressure cooker with 2 1/2 quarts of water, half the pepper, and 1 tbs vegetable oil until soft, about half an hour to an hour (depending on how long you’ve soaked them). Turn off the heat. 

Mince the other half of the green pepper. In a small frying pan, heat 1/2 tbs of vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and green pepper and stir for 4-5 minutes until the onion and garlic are well browned. Add the contents of the pan into the pressure cooker and mash the beans with a wooden spoon. Add the rest of the ingredients except for the olive oil into the pressure cooker, cover, and boil for 10-15 minutes until it is well thickened. Remove from heat. Add a tsp of olive oil and stir before serving, with steamed white rice.

My First Real Cuban Meal

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I was despondent not long after I arrived in Havana. People laughed when I told them I was a food writer. “Boy, you’ve come to the wrong place!” they replied. There was nothing super about the few supermarkets that existed; the dim aisles sparsely stocked with Russian pasta and mysterious frozen chicken parts were the saddest I’d seen in the world (and I’ve been to many developing-world places). The butternut squashes and the cucumbers at the farmer’s markets were misshapen and filthy.  The first state-owned restaurant we went to served limp spaghetti in a watery tomato sauce and something called “chicken gordon blue” — an endearing mistranslation but nevertheless bland version of the French dish. 

But then I tasted my first homemade Cuban meal. It was in our own home, and cooked by M, a housekeeper we’d recently hired. After thawing the frozen chicken I’d bought at the market, M marinated them with lime, cumin, and garlic and roasted the poultry in the oven until the skin was crisp and crackling. Accompanying the chicken was a large bowl of rich black beans, simmered with onions, chicken stock, and green peppers for hours on our stove. She steamed white rice, fluffed and seasoned with a sprinkle of oil and salt. The beans could go over the rice, or on the side — it was a matter of preference, she said. And fried plantains, sweet and so soft they were bordering on gooey. The kids devoured the meal and shouted in unison for more “platanos maduros fritos!” a refrain that now echoes through our kitchen on an almost daily basis. 

In my last post, I provided a recipe for Roast Chicken, and over the next week, I’ll provide the rest of the recipes to make this delectable meal … check back to make your own complete Cuban dinner.

Cuban Roast Chicken

Unlike many food items, chicken is fairly easy to find in Cuba — and I was surprised to discover that most of the chicken consumed on the island is actually from the United States, despite the embargo. (Several loopholes in the embargo allow American food and medicine to enter the country.) This is a Cuban favorite and one of our family’s favorite recipes; the kids love the drumsticks, and my daughter loves the chicken skin, just like her momma! You can use the leftovers for next-day pasta or even a pizza topping -- though it's so good that you're unlikely to have any leftover. 

4 chicken thighs and drumsticks, skin on
Juice of 1 medium lime
4 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp salt
Optional (non-authentic, but tasty) additions: 1/4 tsp cayenne, dash of lemon pepper 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Make several deep, well-spaced slits in the chicken. With your fingers, coat the inside and outside of chicken with the seasonings. Allow to marinate in the fridge for 3-4 hours or overnight. Bake for 30-45 minutes in the oven until the juices run clear and the skin is crisp. 

 

The chicken goes well with rice & beans (recipe to follow next week) or mashed potatoes.

A Daiquiri Celebration

It's funny that I'm beginning my blog with posts about drinks. I'm practically a teetotaler for one thing, as most of you who know me already know... and this is supposed to be a blog about feeding a family, after all. But there are some days when you need a drink after a day with the kids, and other days when you need one to celebrate.

Yesterday was a cause for celebration -- the first direct commercial flight between the U.S.and Cuba in more than half a century took off from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and landed on the island .A couple of friends of mine were on the flight, and they described jubilant flight attendants giving speeches and hurriedly serving drinks and sweeping them away before touching down 50 minutes later. When the Jet Blue flight landed in Santa Clara, a small city a couple of hours away from Havana, applause erupted through the cabin, and it was not just for this historic flight. Cubans clap every time their planes land in Havana, one of their more endearing habits. My kids and I have joined in on our touchdowns in Cuba, too. To celebrate the historic flight yesterday, we had a round of frozen daiquiris in our home, with our neighbors M & O.

See my friend Mike's report: https://apnews.com/624ea057420748a1a77d7493458e9b71

And the Daiquiri Recipe below.

Frozen Daiquiri Recipe

To give the drink a pink tint, I added a few drops of maraschino cherry juice from a jar we’d brought back from the U.S. (You can’t get maraschino cherries, or any other kind of cherries for that matter, in Cuba.) 

Serves 2 

2 ounces white rum
1 1/2 tbs sugar
1 ounce lime juice
1 tsp maraschino liquor
(Optional: 1/2 tsp juice from a maraschino cherry jar)
12 ice cubes

Put all the ingredients in a blender and beat until smooth. Divide between two daiquiri or wine glasses and serve. (For the kids, I made virgin daiquiris with the following: 1 1/2 tbs sugar, 1 ounce lime juice, 1 tsp maraschino cherry juice, and 2 cups of ice.)