Changes (Cambios)

After a long hiatus to concentrate on my young family I am finally back online. And oh how things have changed in the food scene in Cuba since I last wrote. Some for good. Some not so good. For starters there has been an explosion of Paladars – privately owned restaurants opening up to satisfy the growing tourist market.  In my opinion these paladars are critical to the growth of Cuba as a tourist destination. The best ones can compete on the international stage with any top restaurant.  You are less likely now to hear “I loved Cuba but hated the food” if you visit the top Paladars to eat. Places like La Guarida – images below, strive to set a new standard for Cuban cuisine.

However, the average Cuban couldn’t possible dream of eating at a Paladar where a main course costs more than their government monthly salary. Granted there is an emerging Cuban middle class. Cubans who are working hard and making a livable wage in the newly burgeoning self-employment sector and who have some extra cash to afford dining out. But we’re talking a handful.

For every new Paladar that is actually worth eating at, there are another 10 that are not. Just because you can now open a Paladar (or at least you could until last week when they closed applications for new licenses), it does not mean that you understand the food business.  So do your research before you go. Talk to those in the know to get recommendations and avoid the ” you don’t go to Cuba for the food” chorus at the end of your holiday or visit.

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Cuban food markets – the daily grind

My very local market - twenty paces from my house. I don't measure 'food miles' but 'food millimeters'.

My very local market – twenty paces from my house. I don’t measure ‘food miles’ but ‘food millimeters’.

Food.

Finding it, preparing it. Eating it. It occupies most of my day. But then I do write a food blog!

However, the same would be true if I was just an average Cuban.  Here’s a short audio about a typical morning touring the markets for food.  One thing’s for sure – insider knowledge is key for successful procurement.  Food – its a complex and time consuming business in Cuba.

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Posted in Food sourcing, History of Cuban food, Vegetables | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Casabe – A culinary time machine

Food is fascinating.  It gives us rich historical insight and cultural understanding into a country.  The raises (roots) of Cuban cuisine reflects the complex history of the island.  I’ve decided to investigate some traditional foods that give us a very direct link with Cuban history.

Casabe is a food that hasn’t changed in centuries. It is a flat bread made from yuca (cassava) flour and formed a staple of the Taíno indian diet in pre-colonial Cuba. It’s still made and eaten mostly in the Oriente (the eastern provinces of Cuba, and those worst affected by hurricane Sandy).

I thought it would be interesting to take a trip back in time by making Casabe.  The recipe is short and deceptively simple – peel, grate and drain the yuca. Add salt. Form it into patties then press these into discs and cook in a skillet. So you might think it would be quick to prepare. Wrong!  In Cuba it’s labour intensive because I do most of the preparation by hand.  Not dis-similar from the way Taíno women prepared it in the 15th Century.

My first attempt at making Casabe was on a Sunday – a good day for time-consuming recipes. There are practically back to back movies on the TV (with no ad breaks) and I set up camp in front of the box while I peeled, grated and chopped my way through the movie offering. This particular Sunday I watched ‘Water for Elephants’ while I peeled and grated the yuca. If you’re going to try making Casabe you’ll probably be using a food processor, which will make this recipe very simple. I dream of having my food processor in Cuba, but unfortunately it’s in Ireland.  (If someone wants to make my dreams reality by offering to bring my food processor in their luggage – do get in touch!).

After peeling the yuca and grating it finely you get a mass called Jao. I’ve no idea what it’s called in English, it took some digging around to find out what it’s called in Spanish!  The Jao then needs to be squeezed and drained of any residual liquid. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, raw yuca contains cyanide.  Don’t be too alarmed, as long as you squeeze it you remove the cyanide and won’t be poisoned! Secondly, to make a cracker like bread you need make sure that the flour is dry. I achieved this by putting the grated yuca in a piece of muslin and allowing it to drain into a bowl in my hot kitchen. After 2 hours I had a very dry mass.

I then moulded the flour into balls and smoothed them flat into a hot, dry skillet, cooking them for about 3 mins on each side.  I hoped that following the recipe to the letter from Cuban cookbook, Cocina con Sabor, would produce the real deal. Or maybe not…

Having never tasted Casabe before, I took myself off to my neighbour Teresa for a taste test. Teresa has a passionate interest in food and loves when I get her to taste and feedback on recipes. Her generosity and local knowledge is invaluable to me as finding ingredients is a well-honed Cuban skill that I’m still acquiring.

Having tasted the Casabe, Teresa was slow to offer an opinion. That in itself was unusual. Cubans are ‘not slow at coming forward’ as my Granny would say. When I pressed her she admitted she had never actually tried Casabe and therefore didn’t know what it should taste like. But she did think that it shouldn’t be as thick as I had made it.

This highlighted an important point for me in terms of regionality of food. While cookbooks published both inside and outside of Cuba generally have a variety of dishes from all regions, in practice Cubans tend to cook the food they grew up with. So for a born and bred Havana girl like Teresa, Casabe was not in her repertoire. And as none of my immediate neighbours were from the Oriente either I was out of luck that Sunday for an expert opinion. I did doubt the somewhat bland, chewy texture myself so decided to keep practising.  If at once you don’t succeed, try, try again.

And so my quest to cook Casabe continued… I enlisted the help of an ‘expert’ or at least a helpful friend from Holguín (which is in the Oriente) for my next attempt.  I’ll share the results and recipe for Casabe (take two) in my next blog post…

Click here to see more photos of my first Casabe making attempt on Facebook.

 

Posted in Vegetables, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Los Cubanos se inventan and I invent Lime ice cream

Los Cubanos se inventan (Cubans invent)

Cubans are the hijos (children) of that great Madre, (mother) necessity.  While I’ve not been able to find the exact recipe for their inventiveness I do think it involves a whole lot of imagination, a large dollop of ingenuity, a pinch of Cubano confidence, all simmered in the Caribbean heat.

Resourcefulness permeates every aspect of life here.  Need some porch furniture?  My neighbour Jorge, whipped up some pretty nice chairs and a table from a couple of pallets and a lick of white paint.  Ta dah! As I don’t have a porch, I use his space frequently for hanging out with my girlfriends.  Jorge accepts payment for the ‘rental’ in dulces (sweet things) and coffee.

To keep a car running whether it’s an Almendron (old American car) or a ‘modern’ Lada from the Soviet era, any Cuban lucky enough to have a car is a master at invention.  Held together with recycled or adapted car parts, along with a wing and a prayer these vehicles are mechanical miracles.

Inventing also applies to selecting a name for your baby. With a competitive desire to be unique, Cubans frequently concoct first names.  So you might get Yaneymi, a merging of Yanet and Mijail, or Leydi, a Cubanised version of the word “Lady”.

An altogether more serious and life-changing example of Cuban invention is the drug Heberprot-P, developed by the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB). Faced with a lack of basic drugs as a direct consequence of the US blocade, the development of propriety medicines has been a necessity.  And this drug for the treatment of diabetic ulcers is nothing short of a breakthrough.  Click here to watch a short video about Heverprot-P.  

Despite the much-lauded ability to invent, it struck me as strange then that Cubans are not very inventive when it comes to food.  A recent visitor to this blog, a Cuban now living in Canada, sums it up precisely; “being so isolated in Cuba makes people nervous about trying new things, the scarcity of food in general, couple that with the fact the most of us are not very open-minded and can be very stubborn and you get the same food over and over”.

My skills in the invention department were not all that bad before coming to Cuba, I have to admit.  I learned them from my Dutch grandparents who lived through the war. My Opa (grandfather) taught me never to throw anything out, to repair or recycle and to generally be inventive.  I have definitely been influenced by his McGyver tendencies. But my invention skills are being really honed in the food department in Cuba.

So in spirit of invention I’ve been trying to make ice cream using ingredients available here. Yes I know my last post was about ice cream and the best place to buy it in Havana, but I wanted to be able to create a creamy concoction at home, mainly for midnight snack purposes. Essential after a night on the tiles.  Click here to listen to more about late night snacking Cuban style!

However in terms of ice cream,  getting your hands on milk is a tricky task. And I’ve never even heard of cream here! So I needed to be pretty ingenious to make ice cream, needless to say I love a challenge. But when pondering the ice cream making dilemma I remembered a cross between a sherbet and ice cream that I had in Maui, Hawaii years ago. I couldn’t Google the recipe (limited access and dial-up speed internet before you ask!) so I had to play around a bit with what I recalled from memory. And it turns out it’s VERY simple. So here you go a recipe for three ingredient ice cream that can be made using easily sourced Cuban ingredients.

Recipe notes  If you have an ice cream maker this recipe is child’s play. Stick all the ingredients in the machine and follow the manufactures instructions! Do let me know how it works out in the machine? – I don’t have one in Cuba so I used the method below. 

If you wanted you could make this even more simple, a two ingredient ice cream, just leave out the lime.  However, personally I think it needs the acidity of the lime to cut through the sweetness of the other ingredients.

Three ingredient Lime ice cream

  • 1 can (330 mls) of lemonade
  • 1 can (397 g) of Condensed milk
  • Finely grated rind of 2 Limes
  • Freshly squeezed juice of 1 Lime
  1. Mix all ingredients together in a bowl.
  2. Pour into a large freezable plastic container and freeze for 1-2 hours.
  3. Remove from the freezer and fork through until it’s a creamy texture.
  4. Freeze again for another 1-2 hours, remove and beat again.
  5. Repeat at least one more time as it ensures a really creamy textured ice cream.
  6. Freeze overnight and then it’s ready to serve
  7. I’m guessing this could keep in the freezer for up to a month. But it’s never lasted more than a few days when I make it!!!

If you’ve never made proper ice cream and indeed if you have, I encourage you to give this invention a try. This simple recipe makes a wonderfully creamy ice cream with just enough tang from the lime to give it a slight sharpness on the tongue.  Enjoy!

 Other Cuban inventions

Building a train from a bus

A crop spraying machine from scrap metal

Posted in Dulces (Sweet things), Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Coppelia – Cuban for ice cream

From little old abuelas, to raucous family gatherings, from Rockeros* with their rats, (yes really with their pet rats, see the video below to see what I’m on about) to teens on their first date, an ice cream at Coppelia is quite the Cuban institution.

Built in 1966 on the corner of La Rampa (23) and L in the Vedado district of Havana, the building is a monument to the futuristic and space age architecture of the era, with its flying saucer tower at the centre.  Cubans gather to eat, chat, gossip and flirt at Coppelia. I like it because it’s one of the few places that I don’t feel like a tourist in Havana. I frequently go with Cuban friends and I always take visiting friends from Ireland to give them an insight into the real Cuba. It’s a great place for a first date or any date for that matter.

Fortunately, Coppelia is two blocks from my house so I don’t have to run the gambit of public transport to get to it. Unfortunately, it’s nearby location makes it all too easy to pop out for ice cream on an increasingly frequent basis. Coppelia is open from 10am until 10pm Tuesday to Sunday but be warned there are nearly always long queues.  Knowing how to queue in Cuba is an important skill; Coppelia elevates it to an art form.  Here is the way I queue at Coppelia.  Firstly, I walk around all the entrances to see which queue is shortest; each line is for a different location in either the garden areas, counter or the flying-saucer shaped upstairs.  I don’t really have a preference for seating area so always opt for the shortest queue.  Though do be warned, as the shortest queue can be deceiving as people may be queuing in place of their friends.  So just when you thought there are only four people ahead of you, hey presto ten more arrive to join the person at the head of the queue!  Next you ask for el último (the last) and either stand behind them, or stand in the general area of el último, making sure that you know where your place is.  I generally make note of how el último is dressed and whoever is in front of them just to be on the safe side. Because when it get close to the time to be admitted the queue will bunch up and it’s easy to mistake your place.  In Cuba, nothing starts a row quicker than queue jumping, except maybe baseball!  Now it’s just a matter of waiting.

My Coppelia toolkit consists of the following; 1. A sun umbrella – in summer you may be waiting for up to an hour in the sun so best be protected 2. Water, queuing in the sun is thirsty work and I just don’t trust the quality of the glass of water they give you with your ice cream inside. 3. A plastic container – for taking ice cream home 4.  A newspaper. You can pick one up at the bus stop across the road.  A newspaper has a dual function. Firstly, for reading while in the queue – there generally isn’t much chatting amongst other queue members and to wrap the plastic container to keep it cool while I walk home to my freezer.

As you near the top, the queue directors will let you know where you may be seated.  If you’re alone or in a pair be prepared to share a table with a stranger and you’ll be expected to vacate your table as soon as you’re finished.  There is no lingering here as hundreds are waiting outside to get in.

A creature of habit, I always order the $5 peso ‘ensalada mixta’ (mixed salad), which comprises of five scoops.  If you’re looking for a smaller portion you could go for ‘Jimagua’ (twins) two scoops. But there are options from one to five scoops. Most Cubans I know will have at least two ensaladas mixtas and it’s not uncommon for a family to order twenty ensaladas mixtas to share.  Many, like me, order again just before they leave so that they can take it home.  On a recent visit a woman nearby ordered sixteen ensalada mixtas.  Five of which she ate at the table, the other eleven I saw her put into her container which was housed in a very glamorous black handbag.  Watch the video above to see her stuffing her handbag with ice cream!

The flavours available at Coppelia vary on a daily basis.  Usually there are at least three flavours but can be up to six or seven on a good day. My favourite flavours at Coppelia are those that I hadn’t tried before coming to Cuba. I find any more ‘normal’ flavours like Fresa** (strawberry) or Chocolate, unintentionally get compared to the food memories in my head, and they never taste as good. So now I create new food memories by trying the flavours like Almond, Pineapple and Coconut.  If you go early, generally before lunch, you’ll have a good choice of flavours as they tend to run out in the afternoon. Also you’ll be more likely to get cake and biscuits with your ice cream. Personally, I ensure that I always have biscuits by buying a $5 peso pack from one of the many street sellers outside.

Coppelia is always extremely busy in summer.  Even in winter you will still be queuing, the video above was taken in January and you can see that every table is occupied.  However, I discovered during the most recent rainy season that Coppelia doesn’t have long queues on rainy days. So my tip is head for ice cream when it rains!

At the moment I’m working on home-made ice cream recipes using the ingredients available in Cuba.  While I don’t think I’m going to challenge Coppelia’s dominance in the ice cream market any time soon, it’s fun and challenging to find ways to make ice cream without the difficult to get your hands on, milk or impossible to get your hands on, cream. I’ll share my ice cream making adventures with you soon!

Notes:

*Rockeros – term given to people who follow rock music.

**If you ever get the chance, do watch the Cuban movie Fresa y Chocolate.  Now a cult-classic it’s the first Cuban movie to feature an openly gay character. And Coppelia is the setting where the two protagonists first meet. Indeed Fresa and Chocolate are still frequently used metaphors for gay and straight respectively.

Posted in Dulces (Sweet things), History of Cuban food, Tengo hambre! Where to eat in Havana | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Why Cuban food is like Rumba

‘¿Cuál es el punto?’ (What’s the point.. of TheCubanFoodBlog?) my friend Nurys asked me the other day.  I figured if she was asking then you as a reader would probably be asking too.  So here goes.  The aim of my blog is threefold.  First and foremost to share the foods, cooking techniques and recipes of Cuba with a wider audience as I experience them from living within Cuban society.  The best way I know how to describe Cuban food is to liken it to Rumba music. Rumba is a uniquely Cuban fusion of African and Spanish musical traditions, so too is Cuban food. 

Secondly, taking the same ingredients locally available, combine them with alternative recipes and a whole lot of experimentation to produce some modern Cuban-Fusion recipes.

And lastly I hope that you as a reader of TheCubanFoodBlog will gain some insight into the culture and essence of Cuba, a country which has captured my imagination and heart.  OK so I didn’t explain it quite so eloquently in Spanish to Nurys, but she got the point.  Today’s blog post focuses more on the second point – taking Cuban ingredients and experimenting.

What, no meat?!

In Cuba there is a very strongly held belief that unless you have meat as part of your meal that you are under-nourished somehow.  My Cuban friends would be prepared to and have gone without fruits, vegetables and milk products to be able to afford to buy meat.  Personally I believe that as omnivores we are designed to eat a variety of foods including vegetable and animal protein.  However, I also believe that we eat far too much animal protein aka meat in our diet and that we should be encouraged to eat more vegetable protein.  So where is this little healthy-eating rant taking us, you may ask?  Unbeknownst to my Cuban family and friends I have subtly been introducing some interesting veggie recipes to mealtimes. Call it meat-free Mondays, Wednesdays and sometimes Fridays!  So today’s blog is going to be a vegetarian recipe that I frequently use to entertain Cuban friends.

I’m not a vegetarian!

There are a few reasons why I don’t eat lots of meat in Cuba.  Firstly I actually like preparing and eating vegetarian food. Secondly, the storage of meat is somewhat suspect here. A general lack of refrigeration, coupled with high temperatures can see meat sitting uncovered in the sun for long periods of time.  Now that doesn’t really matter as long as you cook the meat to 71 degrees Celsius (160 F) but I’m still adapting to Cuba and can’t quite stomach the thought of cooking meat that’s been in the sun too long.  I guess all those years of health regulations and inspectors in my former life in the restaurant business has left me more aware than most of the importance of food hygiene and storage.  Thirdly, being a Yuma (foreigner/outsider) means I haven’t got the same connections for acquiring meat on the black market as Cubans.

When I first invited Cuban friends Jose Miguel and his wife Yanesel over for burgers one Friday, I neglected to say they would be vegetarian.  Let’s face it their salivating mouths and rumbling stomachs were prepared for juicy beef burgers. Being a foreigner, it is assumed (not always correctly) by most Cubans that I have substantially more means than locals and can therefore afford to buy good quality meat everyday. Imagine then the look of disappointment on Jose’s face when I told him the burgers were made from black beans! It was heart breaking. Lesson learned. Now I just invite people for Friday burgers, don’t tell them what’s in them until they have eaten and liked them. Then I drop the ‘vegetarian’ bombshell.  And even Jose Miguel has been converted.  Last time I invited him over he actually requested my hamburguesas de frijoles (bean burgers).  A little victory.

If you’d like some ideas for tasty meat-free meals why not try my Cuban inspired Black Bean Burgers.  They freeze brilliantly so are a great stand-by for an impromptu burger party!

Ingredient notes:

Ají is a small non spicy capsicum it looks like a Habanero chilli pepper but without the heat.  You can leave this out if it’s not available.

Culantro is also known as Recao, Mexican coriander or Spiritweed.  If you can’t get hold of any you can use a bunch of Cilantro (coriander) instead.

Cuban Black bean burgers

  • 1 ½  cups (400g) cooked black beans
  • 1 medium onion chopped
  • 1 bell pepper chopped
  • 4 small ají, (a variety of very small bell peppers) or use a very mild chili
  • 4 medium cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons soya or vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon chopped culantro
  • 1 egg lightly beaten
  • Pinch of salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1 cup (115g) dried breadcrumbs.  Note: You may need less or more breadcrumbs depending on the wetness of your beans and the freshness of your breadcrumbs.

Method:

  1. In a frying pan over a medium heat, fry the onion in the vegetable oil until soft.
  2. Add the garlic, large and small peppers, cumin and coriander and continue frying until the bell pepper is softened slightly but not fully cooked or browned. Remove pan from heat and allow mixture to cool.
  3. Put the beans, cooled onion mixture, culantro, egg and salt and pepper and lime juice in a food processor.  Pulse until the mixture is combined but there is still some texture to the beans. You should be able to still see some whole beans. At this stage the mixture will be moist and too soft to handle.
  4. Using a spoon, in the bowl of the food processor (remove the blade first) mix in the breadcrumbs, a few tablespoons at a time until the mixture becomes stiffer and forms a more solid dough-like mass.  Depending on the moistness of your beans you may need to add more or less breadcrumbs to form the dough.
  5. Using floured hands divide the mixture into 10 equal sized balls and then form the balls into patties with your hands.  Refrigerate for at least an hour to firm.
  6. Remove the burgers from the fridge and fry in a little oil in a pan or on a griddle.  They can also be cooked on the BBQ but they are somewhat delicate so move them with a flat spatula not a tongs.
  7. Serve in a lightly toasted bun with whatever fillings you fancy.  I use slices of tomato, home-made pickled cucumber and caramelised onions with a large dollop of mustard and tomato ketchup. And a slice of cheese when I can get it.
  8. These black bean burgers can be stored covered in the fridge for a day or two or in the freezer for much longer. To freeze lay the burgers flat and not touching each other into a freezer bag on a plastic chopping board and place into the freezer in a flat position.  Freezing this way ensures that the burgers do not freeze to each other and can be removed individually.
  9. Once frozen which takes about 4-5 hours, remove the plastic chopping board.  The burgers will now store for up to 3 months. Assuming you don’t have an extended power cut like we do at times in Havana. In which case you might be having an unexpected bean burger party!

Adaptations:

You can also add other vegetables into the burger mixture depending on what is available. I’ve used cooked and chopped green beans and cooked sweet corn.  You can also add extra chili to spicy things up, dried or fresh it doesn’t really matter.

I hope you enjoy making and eating these burgers, perhaps as a meat-free Monday meal. Or maybe just when friends come over for casual burgers on a Friday.

 

Posted in Beans, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

¿El por qué del CubanFood Blog?

¿Por qué Cuba?
Fui a Cuba a aprender salsa durante unas vacaciones y me enamoré, no de un hombre, sino del país. Regresé a menudo de vacaciones, pero me di cuenta de que la única forma de entender de verdad el país era hablar el lingo, así que me mudé a La Habana para aprender español. Durante ese proceso de aprendizaje me di cuenta de que quería vivir en Cuba.

¿Por qué es sobre gastronomía?
Siempre he sido aficionada al buen comer. Cuando era niña, jugaba con mi hermana a los restaurantes y cultivaba verduras con mi abuelo. Decidí que sería crítica gastronómica cuando fuera mayor. La vida da muchas vueltas, pero el placer de experimentar con la comida y compartirla con los demás ha sido constante. De hecho, abrí un restaurante con mi hermana y pasé algunos de los años más gratificantes e importantes de mi vida. También hice amistad con muchos clientes hasta que la llamada de Cuba se hizo irresistible.

¿Por qué un blog?
Tanta gente me ha preguntado por mis experiencias en Cuba, que pensé que podría transmitirlas a través de un blog. Además, como la mayor parte de mi vida diaria en Cuba gira en torno a la comida, me pareció apropiado que fuera el tema principal del blog. La comida en Cuba es, de muchas formas, el reflejo de lo que han vivido y están viviendo tanto el país como sus ciudadanos. Yo únicamente me limito a observar.

En este blog vierto únicamente mi propia opinión. No trata de política, pues ya hay muchas otras páginas en internet para hablar de eso. Espero que se convierta en un espacio desde donde quien quiera pueda acompañarme mientras exploro Cuba mediante su gastronomía.

Posted in About me | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Betty’s black beans

In my opinion abuelas (grandmothers) are the lynchpin of Cuban society, it very often falls to them to keep the house running while everyone else goes out to work.  They take on much of the childcare duties too.  Abuelas have the time to tour the markets daily to hunt for food.  They’re also at home during the day and can take advantage of the Carretoneros (street-sellers) as they sing their pregones (songs to attract business). Click here to see a carretonero in action in Centro Havana

My neighbour Angela is in her late 50’s, her mother in her 80’s and yet the abuela does the cooking everyday for the entire family, all four generations of it who live together.  The grand-daughter who’s my age, would readily admit that she barely knows how to cook beans – a stable in any Cuban kitchen. However she is an important breadwinner in the family, working her official state job as a Math teacher during the day, unofficially at night as a Math tutor.  At weekends or whenever the opportunity arises she’s a photographer for weddings and quinceaneras (the celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday, marking her passage from childhood to adulthood).  Her time is better spent earning both Pesos and CUC so that food can be put on the table, she says she’ll learn to cook when she retires.

I like spending time with grandmothers in Cuba.  They are strong and wise matriarchs. I learn a lot from them. Not just about cooking but about life in another era.  My recipe for Cuban black beans below is an amalgam of very many recipes from abuelas gathered over the years in Cuba. Each has its tried and trusted recipe and each one will tell you theirs is the best. So at the risk of offending many Cuban abuleas here is my version which I will defend to the last.

In testing my recipe I very often thought of my grandmother Betty, with whom I share many personality traits.  I feel close to her in Cuba and often wonder what she would make of my love affair with this country? I have a feeling she’d move here too!  One day while cooking it occurred to me that my Granny would surely put rum in her beans. Her cooking was  enriched with alcohol wherever the recipe called for it, and sometimes when it didn’t.  So I tried it. It works. It adds a je ne sais quoi to the beans that I like. Who knows maybe Betty was a Cuban abuela in another life? Here you are then, inspired by and in honour of – Betty’s black beans.

A note about ingredients:

Please bear in mind that my Cuban recipes are based on ingredients that are available in Cuba. If you’re cooking this anywhere else you will be able to substitute and add ingredients that we just don’t have access to.  For example you might use olive oil instead of soya/vegetable oil.  But olive oil is a luxury most Cubans can’t afford.  It costs about 12 CUC for 75mls. For perspective that’s half a month’s official wages for a Math teacher.

Betty’s black beans

Ingredients

Sorting black beans

  • 1 cup (175g) of black beans, sorted and cleaned thoroughly. Click here to watch bean sorting Cuban style
  • 5 cups (1200ml) of water
  • 4 leaves of culantro (Also known as Recao, Mexican coriander or Spiritweed.  If you can’t get hold of any you can use a bunch of Cilantro (coriander) instead.

For the sofrito: Click here to watch a video about sofrito [Sofrito is a fragrant combination of aromatic ingredients used to season countless dishes in Cuba.  The ingredients are cut into small pieces, and slowly sautéed  in cooking oil before being added to a dish.  It’s so important in Cuban cooking there are songs about it!] 

  • ¾ cup (100g) of onion, chopped
  • ¾ cup (100g) of green bell pepper, chopped
  • 5 small ají washed, deseeded and roughly chopped. (Ají is a small non spicy capsicum – looks like a Habanero chilli pepper but without the heat.  You can leave this out if it’s not available.)
  • 3 cloves of garlic crushed
  • 1 teaspoon of dried cumin
  • 1-2 tablespoons soya/vegetable oil for frying sofrito
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tablespoon of vinegar (white wine vinegar or balsamic will also work)
  • 2 teaspoons of rum (preferably 3-year-old or older) or you can also use a dry white wine
  • 1 teaspoon of sugar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons of chopped Cilantro (coriander) to serve

Method:

  1. Having sorted the beans rinse thoroughly in cold water.
  2. Place the beans in the pressure cooker and add 5 cups of water.
  3. Allow the beans to soak overnight. (If you live in a very hot country you might want to put the beans to soak somewhere cool as high temperatures will start the fermenting process).
  4. Leave the beans in the soaking water and next day add 4 culantro leaves to the pressure cooker, place the lid and weight on the pressure cooker and cook the beans for 25-30 minutes. Depending on your pressure cooker.  At this stage the beans should be cooked and will mash easily with a fork.
  5. While the beans are cooking prepare your sofrito. In 2 tablespoons of oil fry the chopped onion, bell pepper, and small pepper until soft. Add the garlic and dried cumin and fry for another minute until the cumin releases it’s aromas.
  6. When the beans are cooked add the sofrito along with the bay leaf, vinegar, rum and sugar to the pressure cooker. Add salt and pepper to taste. Replace the lid and allow to cook for a further 15 mins on a very low heat stirring occasionally.
  7. Remove the bay leaf.
  8. Sprinkle with chopped coriander just before serving.  These beans are great served with rice and a salad or as an accompaniment to pork or fish.  And they are even better if eaten the next day as the flavour intensifies.

Musical beans

The not-so-secret ingredient in Betty’s beans – Havana Club rum!

I hope you enjoy cooking and eating Betty’s black beans.  But even if you don’t get round to cooking the beans, do your ears a favour and listen to Mongo Santamaria’s Grammy nominated tune “Sofrito” (click here to listen).  It’s a measure of just how important Sofritos are in Cuban cooking that this musical legend wrote a song about it!!  On a side note – it never ceases to amaze me the amount of songs in Cuba that are the subject of food.  Songs about rice, beans, meat and all manner of fruit.  In a Cuban song, a singer may genuinely be raving about juicy mangoes for example, but it’s equally and indeed more likely that those same mangoes are a metaphor for something altogether more sexual.  But I think that’s a blog post for another day!!

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Song dedication – now that’s a first

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I would have a song written and dedicated to me. It’s like a Cuban version of ‘Single Ladies’ Here’s a taster of the salsa track. The full remixed version will be released later in the year.

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Gracias

Gracias. Thank you.
I’ve always thought it’s important to say thank you. Especially to those who have generously, and selflessly  given of their time.
For Emer, Paul, Roger, Phil and Jose who have all helped me to get TheCubanFoodBlog up and running, a short but sweet thank you speech.
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