Kitchen Diplomacy

A weekend jaunt to Havana inspires a girls’ dinner party with Caribbean flair.

ABOVE The writer brings the next dish to the table while (left to right) Hunter Oswalt, Margaret Langdon Hamilton, Marisa Inge and Candace Cooksey enjoy wine, plantain chips and their first taste of a true Hemingway Daiquiri. Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

Much like the 1960s tourists who were drawn in droves to Havana and hypnotized by its pursuits, I have always been fascinated by the little island 90 miles off Florida, equal parts tropical paradise and forbidden fruit. Young enough that I didn’t live through (or at least remember) the Bay of Pigs disaster or the Cuban Missile Crisis, history didn’t trump my curiosity, and I wanted to catch the first plane that came available. Because of the newly relaxed visa protocol, I acquired the paperwork needed for a long weekend jaunt and checked one gigantic box off my bucket list. Havana, ¡aquí vamos!

There is no way to sum up in a few words what we saw, learned and experienced. But food is the perfect way to get to know a people and its culture. Dining in Cuba has long been under government control, and Communist bureaucrats are not known for appreciating haute cuisine. However, Cuba’s “Presidente Raul” recently loosened restrictions on private enterprises, including restaurants, and the food scene on the little island is beginning to flourish once again. Paladars, private eating establishments run out of family homes, are attracting international attention for serving inventive and high quality food, despite the many roadblocks the chefs undoubtedly face. Cuba’s cuisine is a melting pot, heavily influenced by their long relationship with Spain and Africa, with a strong dash of Caribbean flair. The flavor combinations are unique and exciting!

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There is no better way to share memories of an exciting trip than to prepare a meal with friends. Some of my favorite gals gathered al fresco to try a taste of Cuban treats over traditional Hemingway Daiquiris. Everyone was feeling the tropical vibrations, helped along by Havana Club rum and a bunch of laughs. The island was off-limits for four decades, so let’s waste no more time.

Cilantro Corn Ceviche

Fresh local fish gets a Latin makeover. This refreshing summer appetizer is eye-catching when served on individual chips or spoons, ready for pickup.

1 pound fresh, skinless snapper, grouper or other Gulf fish fillets, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 1/2 cups fresh lime juice (about 12 limes)
1 medium white onion, diced
1 cup cooked corn kernels
1 small tomato, seeded and diced
1 jalapeño, seeded and finely diced
1/2 cup chopped cilantro, plus more leaves for garnish
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
blue corn tortilla chips (for serving)

1. In a medium-sized glass bowl, combine the fish, lime juice and onion. Use enough juice to cover the fish completely with room to spare. Cover and refrigerate for about 4 hours, stirring occasionally, until fish looks “cooked” all the way through when cut open with a knife. Drain in a colander.
2. In a large bowl, mix together the corn, tomato, jalapeño, cilantro, olive oil and orange juice. Stir in the fish and season with salt to taste.
3. Cover and refrigerate if not serving immediately.
4. Garnish with additional cilantro leaves before serving. Serve with blue corn chips, crackers or tostadas. Serves 6.

FROM THE CHEF: Ceviche is finely chopped seafood that has been marinated in citrus juice until it appears to be cooked, although it is not. Take care to use the freshest fish you can find. Any firm, white gulf or ocean fish (or shrimp!) can be used here.

Cuban Black Beans

The easiest way to feed a crowd is with a big pot of beans. They can be cooked ahead of time and kept warm on the stove until you are ready to serve. Add extra jalapeño if you like more of a kick.

1/4 cup olive oil
2 slices thick bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 1/2 green bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and diced
1 yellow onion, diced
10 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 jalapeño, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
2 pounds cooked black beans, drained and rinsed
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 cups hot water
cooked white rice for serving (optional)

1. To make a sofrito, heat the olive oil in a pot over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until it starts to brown, about 5 minutes. Add green pepper and onion and cook, stirring, until softened, another 5 minutes. Add garlic, jalapeño, oregano, cumin, black pepper and salt and stir for another minute. Pour in vinegar and scrape any browned bits from bottom of pan with a wooden spoon.
2. Place 1 cup of beans in a small bowl and mash with the back of a fork. Add these and the remaining beans to the sofrito pot. Add bay leaves, brown sugar and water, and stir well.
3. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then lower to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally and add more water if needed.
4. Remove bay leaves. Add additional salt to taste and serve over white rice. Serves 8.

FUN FACT: Sofrito is a mix of onions, peppers, garlic, herbs and spices that are the foundation of many cuban and latin recipes. Sofrito comes from the Spanish word “sofreír” meaning “to lightly fry.”

Plantain Chips

These crispy chips make for a colorful accompaniment to Cuban black beans and can be used to scoop fresh ceviche, too. Make sure to buy very green bananas, as ripe ones don’t
slice easily.

6 cups vegetable oil
2 green plantains, or 1 1/2 pounds
3/4 teaspoon salt
pinch of cayenne pepper (if desired)

1. Preheat oil in a large cast-iron pot or deep-fryer over moderate heat to 375 degrees.
2. Cut each end off the plantains and then cut in half crossways. Remove the peel and discard. Cut plantains lengthwise with a mandolin or U-shaped peeler into strips about 1/16 inch thick.
3. Fry strips a few at a time, turning frequently, until golden. Transfer with tongs to a plate lined with paper towels and sprinkle immediately with salt and cayenne.
4. Serve or store at room temperature in an airtight container. Serves 4.


Hemingway Daiquiri

This icy concoction has little relation to what we know as a daiquiri in these parts. This drink is tart and refreshing after a long day in the tropical sun.

1 1/2 ounces white rum
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1/4 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
1/4 ounce maraschino liqueur
1 lime wheel, for garnish

1. Combine ingredients in a heavy-duty blender and blend until ice is smooth. Pour into a champagne coupe or wine glass, and garnish with a lime wheel. Serve immediately. Serves 1.

FUN FACT: Ernest Hemingway was known to have a signature drink at a number of different haunts around Havana, but the invention of the daiquiri at La Floridita is his most celebrated concoction. He was known to throw back more than a dozen “Papa Dobles, ” or doubles, of this cocktail during his day.

Spiced Tuna Empanadas

Cuban cuisine developed from a convergence of peoples and their distinct food cultures, all blending into one. West African, Spanish and Caribbean flavors combine to make delicious dishes like these spiced tuna empanadas.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup finely diced red onion
1/4 cup finely diced white onion
3/4 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 cup seeded, diced tomatoes
2 large garlic cloves, finely minced
1/4 teaspoon coriander
1 tablespoon kosher salt
12-ounce can chunk white albacore tuna in water
2 refrigerated pastry crusts
1 egg, lightly beaten with 1 teaspoon water

1. Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add onions and sauté for 5 minutes until soft and beginning to brown, stirring frequently.
2. Add curry powder and cook 1 – 2 minutes, until fragrant. Stir in tomatoes, garlic, coriander and salt and cook another 2 – 3 minutes. Gently fold in tuna until well combined. Allow tuna mixture to cool to room temperature and then refrigerate until completely cool.
3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
4. Unroll pastry dough onto floured surface. Cut into circles using a 3-inch biscuit cutter. Place 1 tablespoon of tuna filling on each circle. Fold in half and pinch edges closed. Place on baking sheet.
5. Using a pastry brush, brush egg wash over the tops of the empanadas. Bake for 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve warm with basil dipping sauce. Makes 24.

Basil Dipping Sauce

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1 large garlic clove, finely minced
juice of 1 lime
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup Duke’s mayonnaise

1. Place all ingredients in a small food processor and combine until basil is fully broken down and sauce becomes light green, stopping once to scrape sides of bowl. Refrigerate until ready to use.

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