A few months ago, I was sitting at my computer getting ready to write yet another column about my oak tree.
“I am officially out of material,” I told myself. “I need to take a trip to have something interesting to write about.”
It was a dreary day, so I started fantasizing about flying away to someplace warm and sunny. Without warning, the idea of Cuba popped into my head.
The island nation was in the news a lot at the time, since the president, the pope and the Rolling Stones had all announced upcoming visits. In fact, I was kind of mad that they were all beating me to the punch. Cuba has been on my “must visit one day” list for years. My parents honeymooned there in the 1940s, and it has always fascinated me that they could do it. Most of my life, the country has been embargoed and difficult for Americans to visit.
Cuba’s longtime “forbidden fruit” status makes it extra enticing (plus, it offers major bragging rights if one can get there). But that is about to disappear — possibly taking with it some of the nation’s charm. With regularly scheduled flights to Havana beginning this fall, hotel deals in the works and a dock for cruise ships under construction, the once hard-to-reach spot is in danger of becoming just another Caribbean island.
I realized it was time to stop daydreaming and start planning.
For now, the main way for Americans to reach Cuba is still through an officially sanctioned cultural exchange group. I have friends who have visited with groups focused on architecture, photography, agriculture and similar topics that I didn’t qualify for or that didn’t excite me.
In advance of the embargo lifting, the requirements are loosening. I had been getting offers from my alumnae group and other organizations, so I knew trips were available.
But their tours did not excite me. They sounded too packaged. No matter how exotic the location, I resist being shepherded on and off a bus with two dozen fellow tourists.
Plus, as you know, I firmly believe that the most worthwhile exchange takes place in the kitchen or at the dining table. For me to sign up for a group tour, I need a guarantee that it will mostly involve cultural consumption of the edible variety.
On a whim (and because travel fantasies were far more appealing than penning yet another column on leaf raking), I Googled “Cuba culinary travel” to see if anyone else had the same idea.
And like magic, up popped an organization called Access Trips that specializes in foodie travel — with a Cuba trip that sounded like I invented it myself.
Their groups were small — just eight people or fewer. Transportation was in the totally cool 1950s cars that are a symbol of Cuba. Accommodations were in luxury guesthouses rather than hotels. And the entire focus of their “people-to-people” cultural exchange was culinary, complete with visits to farms, numerous paladars (private restaurants) and markets.
Not only that, but the first opening available was in my birthday week in April. Kismet! I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate and take the sting out of the (incredibly large but I don’t look a day over some much smaller number, please tell me that even if you are lying) age that was looming.
Clearly, it was meant to be. So I persuaded my sister Margie to come along (which wasn’t hard — she likes to eat and, coincidentally, her parents had also honeymooned in Cuba). A credit card number and a few clicks of the mouse, and we were ready to roll.
We got back last week, and what a trip it was!
But oops, I’m out of space for today.
Which is according to plan, as I intend to drag out tales of this trip for weeks. (It’s either that, or adopt a new cat to write about. I fear your loyalty may not survive a spring series about the oak pollen drifting onto my patio.)
So you’ll have to wait till next time for tales of our Cuban idyll.
But I will tell you this much. It was awesome: fascinating, surprising, educational and tons of fun.
And yes, delicious.
Moors and Christians
(black beans and rice)
Adapted from Foodnetwork.com, credited to Maricel Presilla
I’ve heard tales of folks who came back from Cuba complaining that all they ate was rice and beans. I’m not sure what trip they were on (not ours, for sure!), as I mostly lament having eaten too much lobster.
We did enjoy this colorfully named national dish of rice and beans, but it appeared only as a side dish. Rather than being sick of it, I find it’s one of the things I miss the most now that I am home. I’m still working to perfect it. But in the meantime, this version, adapted from one I found online, is pretty tasty.
You may be tempted to use canned beans. But to achieve the proper dark color, this dish needs the cooking liquid from the beans. So I wouldn’t substitute them.
For the beans:
1 cup dried black beans
1 onion coarsely chopped
1 whole clove garlic
1 green pepper, coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves finely chopped
For the rice:
1 cup long-grain rice
1/4 lb. bacon (4-5 slices), 1/2-inch dice
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 green pepper, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
1 Tbsp. dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1½ tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. white vinegar
1 Tbsp. dry sherry
Soak the beans for 6 hours or overnight in enough water to cover them.
Drain the beans, then place them in a saucepan with the coarsely chopped onion, green pepper and garlic clove. Cover with 6-8 cups of water.
Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are tender but not mushy, about half an hour.
Drain the beans, discarding the mushy vegetables but reserving the cooking liquid, and set both aside.
Wash the rice several times, draining it between washings, until the water is fairly clear. Drain and set aside.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, cook the bacon until it renders its fat and turns golden. Add the chopped onion, green pepper and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until they soften and the onion turns translucent. Add the drained rice and the beans, along with the cumin, oregano, bay leaf and salt, stirring to coat them and incorporate the spices.
Add three cups of the reserved bean-cooking liquid, along with the vinegar and sherry. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat to medium low and cook, uncovered, until the liquid is mostly cooked away and you see craters forming on top of the rice.
Cover and turn the heat to low. Cook for 20 minutes more, then turn off the heat and let the pot sit for a few minutes before serving.