Cubans eat croquetas at all hours of the day. A perfectly acceptable option for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snack, it is simple to make but a bit laborious. While its preparation may sound lofty a croqueta is essentially a humble food made from leftover meat or seafood (ground meat or seafood blended with bechamel sauce, shaped, breaded, and then fried). I stumbled upon this “croqueta station” at paladar Starbien in Havana.
Anticipating the release of Cuba Cooks with a classic Cuban Cocktail: the mojito. Made all over Cuba and beyond, the cocktail contains just four basic ingredients - rum, lime, mint, sugar. The bartender who made me this one told me his secret is to strain out the muddled mint and then add a fresh sprig for a fresher and stronger mint flavor (it also keeps the mint from getting stuck in your straw).
Keeping food fresh is a challenge in Cuba. Refrigerators are small and often unreliable. To solve this problem Ivan Rodriguez, the chef at Al Carbón, converted a closet into a walk-in refrigerator to store produce and a few suckling pigs.
Ivan Justo, a paladar located in Old Havana, is a partnership between a chef (Ivan) and a front-of-house specialist (Justo). Ivan and his paladar are featured in #CubaCooks, but since the story of how he became a chef did not make it in the book I have included it here along with some photos of his kitchen (he is not featured in the photos or video).
Ivan Rodriguez, the chef and partner of two Havana paladares Ivan Justo and Al Carbón, became a chef in 1994. The irony of graduating from culinary school during the peak of the Cuban special period, which was marked by food shortages, is not lost on him, and yet he became a chef by chance. For the most part, careers in Cuba are selected by the government, and the government had chosen civil engineering for Ivan, something he was not happy about. But Ivan was about to receive a very unexpected surprise. Given the economic desperation of the 1990s, the government needed to prop up its economy and a growth in tourism was their short-term solution. As a result, they increased the number of students accepted for careers in the hospitality industry and, fortunately for Ivan, he was given a secondary option of going to culinary school. Much to the chagrin of his parents, he jumped at the chance.
So was it love at first sight for Ivan in the kitchen? In his words….
¡Me encanto! Aunque nosotros teníamos que caminar unas cuadras vestido de cocinero, de blanco, pantalón blanco, camisa blanca, y el gorro blanco… y entonces ibas caminando para la escuela y pasaban los camiones con la gente y empesaron a gritar “sancochero!” …una burla. Eso fue ese año. Al otro año todo el mundo quería estudiar cocina… porque era una carera rápida y la única forma de ganar algún dinero…y como era el turismo en cuba…era el boom…dejamos de ser sancochero a ser mas respetado.
I loved it! Although we had to walk several blocks to school dressed in chef whites - white pants, white jacket, white hat…and as we walked to school trucks packed with people would drive by and yell “sanchochero!” (soup maker)…they were making fun of us. That was that year. The next year everyone wanted to go to culinary school…because it was a fast career path and the only way to make some money…and given the tourism in Cuba…it was the boom…we stopped being sanchocheros and became more respected.
Finca Agroecologica el Paraiso, located in Pinar del Rio, is a pretty special place. An organic farm and paladar, it is an interesting take on entrepreneurship. In the next coming weeks I will have a full look at their story but for now I want to introduce you to their very rustic kitchen. No electricity. No running water. Keep in mind this is Cuba where the heat and humidity are unforgiving. Meats are butchered under the sun and the stoves are fueled by charcoal. If you have ever wondered why Cubans - as with many other Caribbean cultures - prefer their meats well-done, just remember that fully cooked meats offer protection from bacteria that thrive in these settings.
Despite marveling at how this self-sufficient paladar (they grow all their own produce and raise their own animals) is able to execute so many meals in this very primitive kitchen, it was the vast array of vegetables they were growing and serving that really astounded me. As I will detail in #CubaCooks, Cubans have always had a love/hate relationship with their veggies, but this farm is trying to buck the trend.
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From a culinary perspective, El Litoral was probably one of the most sophisticated paladares in Havana. For starters the kitchen is organized with a traditional hierarchy - Executive Chef (Alain Rivas), Sous Chef (Yoan Maderas), Pastry Chef, etc. They also walk the line between traditional Cuban dishes (the best cascos de guayaba I have ever taste - recipe and story found in #CubaCooks) and some that are clearly influenced by foreign cuisines. When I asked Chef Alain why so many paladares serve non-Cuban dishes like paella, risotto, etc., his response was that many Cuban chefs travel via their cookbooks.
Chef Pernot organized and cooked a dinner with the chefs of El Litoral, which is located on el malecon, just a few blocks away from the American Diplomatic Mission.
First 📸 by Steve Legato
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Doña Eutemia was the first paladar I visited in Havana. Chef Hector Lara was at the stove and chatted with me about how he always loved the cooking process. When I congratulated him on serving some of the most delicious black beans I have ever eaten, and mentioned their addictive sweetness, he claimed that he doesn’t rely on sugar to flavor his beans. The chef claims that would offer one note of sweetness. Instead he adds raisins and other naturally sweet ingredients to achieve the flavor. As he said that he chuckled and admitted he had no raisins that day as the market was out of them, which left the chef to manipulate vinegar and sugar to get the flavor he was looking for.
I also got a glimpse of his piccadillo (ground beef). While I did not taste it, it was obviously made without raisins but packed with green olives - exactly how I like it.
#CubaCooks # Cuba #CubanCuisine #Cuban
On a personal note, this project was much more than just another cookbook as it took me to Cuba, my parent's birthplace, for the first time. While travel to Cuba is becoming more commonplace, it is still controversial for many Cuban Americans. And so in order to provide a context of my journey, I’ve posted my Preface.
I've heard an adage that says "Cuba doesn't take a bad picture". And it is true. But those pictures do not always tell the whole story. Just like any other Cuban tourist, I took many photos and videos of the places I visited, the people I met, and the food I ate. These personal photos tell the story of the Cuba I saw. They are not always beautiful, and they are certainly not professional looking, but there are real. Over the course of the next month, I will share many of these memories. While Cuba Cooks is packed with photos, recipes, and secrets from Cuban Chefs, many of the stories I collected were unable to be published due to space constraints. You can think of these postings as outtakes from the book.