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Thriving in the Cuban kitchen is akin to being a basketball coach: you have to master the art of substitutions. When a recipe calls for pancetta, you understand bacon. If (and when) that’s not happening, a bacon-flavored bouillon cube is a workable alternative. Bouillons of all stripes – pork ribs, chicken and tomato, sausage – are kitchen staples here and though no substitute for the inimitable Better than Bouillon, I’ve made a killer pasta all’Amatriciana with the little square suckers. Alas, the B in BLT does not stand for bouillon. If a recipe says ‘fresh tomatoes,’ that’s understood as canned for a good part of the year, which in turn becomes tomato puree when all else fails (see note 1). And it will: I recently resorted to the ubiquitous ‘puray‘ for a chicken Masala recipe that my husband is still going on about.
Recipes calling for cream aren’t cause for panic as in other underdeveloped, sweltering climes since Cuba is almost entirely a powdered milk kind of place. I remember powdered milk from my childhood as thin and watery, a vehicle for wetting our puffed rice into something approaching edible. Powdered milk also had to be ‘made’ which rendered it labor intensive in my mind. In short, the powdered variety was nothing like the whole and creamy milk my friends poured straight from the carton onto their Cap’n Crunch and Froot Loops (see note 2). But since living in Cuba, I’ve discovered that powdered milk is a versatile and powerful tool in the tropical kitchen. By adjusting the powder to water ratio you can approximate heavy cream (or at least half-and-half) and while I won’t be serving up chocolate mousse with a dollop of whipped cream anytime soon, I make a mean Fettuccine Alfredo and fabulous flan thanks to powdered milk.
Things get trickier when a recipe calls for any cut of cow. It feels like India over here beef is so scarce and the thought of steaks fuels, in part, dreams of escape (see note 3). The only reliable source of red meat – aside from the trio of tony supermarkets selling a handful of cuts to the foreigner crowd, plus the best off Cubans – is frozen ground beef sold in tubes. Not an ideal stand in for the cubed sirloin holding together my favorite chili recipe but it works and ‘Conner’s chili’ has become a dinner party favorite.
Another key to my kitchen survival is importing staples that are simply not available ever. Most people come home from vacation with a suitcase full of souvenirs – some handwoven cloth or a carved totem, a pair of hand-tooled sandals and a couple t-shirts. But when I head home, I’m limit up – close to 50 pounds – with foodstuffs. That seems like a lot, I know, but do you realize how much a jar of Better than Bouillon weighs? Not to mention canned hearts of palm (my guilty pleasure) maple syrup and tahini, dried mushrooms, apricots, and sun dried tomatoes, tortillas, bulgur and couscous, popcorn, basmati rice, and nuts of all types. I always come packing a big block of Parmesan cheese and at least once a year with some olive oil (which has been known to explode en route. Not at all pretty). Cereal figures big in my importation scheme and a few nooks and crannies of luggage space are always packed with spicy stuff: Rooster or habanero sauce, cayenne or red pepper flakes. If you’ve ever been here, you know how alarmingly bland Cuban cuisine is. Now if I could only figure out how to smuggle in some tofu…
Choosing the right recipe is nearly as important as being able to punt. I have a dear friend who sends all kinds of goodies to my PO box here in Havana, including recipes. Exciting stuff, except when it’s clippings from Saveur or Gourmet. That is to say, utterly useless with all their esoteric ingredients and fancy equipment. My go-to source is Cook’s Illustrated, a no-nonsense monthly with real recipes for real people using an evidence-based, kitchen science approach. Not surprisingly, it’s published by frugal and hearty New Englanders who preserve and can and maintain root cellars. I’ve wow-ed Cuban crowds with eggplant Parmesan, tilapia Meunière, apple brown Betty, and blondies culled from Cook’s Illustrated which by the way, is one of the few advertising-free publications I know.
Online recipe databases are another indispensable tool. Got several heads of bok choy or an abundance of carrots? Hit the search button and you’re good to go. One serendipitous day not too long ago, cream cheese suddenly and quite magically appeared on store shelves. With the closest bagel over 90 miles away, I typically have little use for queso crema, but it had been a long time since I’d seen it on these shores and it would likely be as long before I saw it again. I bought four packages. The general state of things here induces this type of ‘wartime buying’: it doesn’t matter if you need it, when you see it, buy five. So I stashed my little bricks of creamy goodness for safe keeping and logged onto my favorite recipe database. Moments later I had recipe in hand combining the cream cheese and another treasure buried in the back of my fridge: a tub of top-of-the-line dulce de leche brought in by my Argentinean brother-in-law. People are still talking about my individual dulce de leche cheesecakes. Too bad the stars will probably never again align for a repeat performance.
When my psychological hunger conspires to get the best of me, I remind myself (or my husband assumes the responsibility in that special way of his) that we’re lucky. Far luckier than most here in Havana – ni habla of those in the provinces. We travel so can import parmesan and pine nuts, sesame oil and ginger root (see note 4). We have internet so can scour for recipes when the corn is ripe or there’s a bumper crop of cabbage. What’s more, about 18 months ago we moved from our shitty cinderblock box facing a cigarette factory to a little apartment on a shady block. In the old place, even my cacti died, fatally intoxicated by the nicotine and other pollutants. Now, we’ve got year ’round basil and cilantro in the cooler months growing on our sun-flooded balcony. My herbal success encouraged me to try my hand at bell peppers and tomatoes. It’s touch and go…
Still, in weaker moments, when my “psychological hunger” takes on a New York state of mind, I miss bagels and sushi horribly, and regular slices and puri (see note 5) only a bit less. If you’re headed down our way, feel free to pack a care package – especially if it’s edible!
1. If Cubans are dependent on any one single ingredient, it’s tomato puree (the one item that never goes missing from stores). Known simply as ‘puray’ it’s in everything from eggs and soups to casseroles and cocktails – the Cubanito is a tropical Bloody Mary, technically tomato juice and rum, but can just as easily by watered down puree and rum. On any menu, anywhere in the world, if its shrimp/lobster/octopus ‘a la Cubana’ it means swimming in tomato puree.
2. What up with major cereal brands and bastardized spelling? Seems like kids these days need all the English-language help they can get, starting with breakfast.
3. But it’s not only the emigrants for which the out-of-reach meat holds allure: putting knife and fork to ‘carne roja’ is a mania for traveling Cubans and their beef-based stories are legion. I have more than one friend who returned from Argentina with gout and still get dewy eyed re-living their Southern Cone food moments. I watched as another friend of mine, an artist of note, devoured a 24-ounce steak in a swanky New York bistro, only to vomit it up soon thereafter. My own body has grown unaccustomed to the richness of red meat, so that these days I can only handle a few ounces at a time. And oh the ensuing flatulence! I’m my own biological weapon.
4. If customs confiscates any of my food upon my next arrival, I will be coming for you readers!
5. I’m fairly certain Cuba is the only in the country in the world without a single Indian restaurant. Can anyone name another?