Half of My Heart is in Havana

I’m often inspired by the books I’m reading or the shows I’m currently binging. It’s almost like I don’t want to simply read, watch, or listen to the story… I want to absorb it into every fiber of my being. I’ve always been that way. Since I was a little girl, I have enjoyed being swept away, completely immersed in the current of a good tale. I may not have exactly cared for traditional schooling, but I love learning. I firmly believe we should never stop learning. I may have branched out into non-fiction to balance out, but I’m still a sucker for female-driven fiction.

I recently got sucked into the scenery of a few of Reese’s Book Club picks on audiobook during my commute each day. After Where the Crawdads Sing, I just had to make the oft-referenced Caramel Cake (specifically Southern Living), which ended up being a huge hit at a recent family gathering. It turned my die hard red velvet fan of a BIL into a man with eyes only for one of the South’s most classic confections. Seriously, it was so worth each careful step. A recipe worth saving. And I did! Something of which is a rarity in my house. One of my nieces now asks for it by name at every family function now. The book itself wasn’t my (biscuits and) jam, but the backdrop and landscape influenced my cooking and baking for the week after I finished it. No regrets were had.

The next gripping tale was Chanel Cleeton’s Next Year in Havana. Despite its tumultuous political history, Cuba (specifically Havana) has been on my “guilty pleasure” dream trip list for many years now. As a young person, it was the bright, animated colors and the almost too-good-to-be-true classic cars everywhere intrigued me. While I didn’t emotionally connect with this one (the next one in the series is actually more captivating in my humble opinion), it changed me. I not only saw the beauty of Cuba through Cuban and Cuban-American eyes, but I also saw the raw, internal struggle I didn’t understand before. Through much of its recent history, this dazzling island in the northern Caribbean has been dominated and controlled by mere men seeking conquest and iron-fisted rule. And yet it’s the recent history that molded Cuba into the nation it is today. First, by colonizing Spaniards and African slaves; later, by political revolutionists.

I was driven to seeking more info about Cuba’s history, one subject in which I don’t recall ever crossing my mind until now. We all know surface-level facts about the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, The Cuban Missile Crisis, The Bay of Pigs Fiasco, to name a few. But, I admit I didn’t know much more than that. What I learned in the process was that we are so spoiled here in America to have media freedom. We whine each day about suppression when the truly suppressed spend their lives with little or no access to even basic internet or the outside world a mere 90 miles away. This pales in comparison to the true privations endured by everyday Cuban citizens.

Should one desire to visit Cuba, there are daily charter flights/day trips one can take from Key West, Florida to get a guided history tour around Old Havana with lunch at a paladar included. The tour company takes you back to Key West safely at the end of the day (before nightfall). It sounds like a dream to me! After this blog post, however, I doubt I’d be welcome or safe on Cuban soil, sadly as anyone critical of the Cuban government is seldom welcome in today’s Cuba. Perhaps I shall pray for a free Cuba for a while…

One of the best things about these books Cleeton has penned is both the glam and the grit she’s woven into this historical fiction. As if this ween’t enough, Cleeton provides a few thoughtfully crafted book club kits for her most recent works. Upon finishing NYIH, I was pleased to be able to immerse myself more with the Next Year In Havana Book Club Kit from her website. The kits are resplendent in Cleeton’s personal anecdotes, music recommendations, questions about the material, and my favorite, recipes! I am fully aware that one is supposed to utilize this kit with a group after all reading said book, but I was perfectly ok nerding out with this on my own. I did share some of the Picadillo and Merenguitos with a friend who is also reading the books, if that helps.

It is evident that the spirit of the Cuban people is one of energy, conviction, and heat. The influences of Spanish and African cuisine is evident in their still profoundly Caribbean and Latin American dishes. It lends a whole new meaning to fusion cuisine. Until this book came across my hands, I wasn’t aware of many typical Cuban dishes. The extent of my knowledge rested at the Cubano Sandwich and Ropa Vieja. Both are great meals and I was privileged to enjoy an amazing Cubano during a couple trips passing through Miami, but there is so much more to Cuban food than two dishes, no matter how magical they both are. Incidentally, if you’re ever in Arlington, I highly recommend a trip to Havana Bar & Grill (located at 3701 S Cooper St) for a great meal.

The Picadillo recipe given in the book club kit was pungent, aromatic, and reminded us of Moroccan food interestingly. I was pleasantly surprised by the vibrant flavors of the dish. The initial appearance strongly resembled the great American classic, Sloppy Joes. I was at once disappointed and horrified. The Mr was quick to convince me to dismiss my first impressions, to dig in and… I was no longer disappointed. No longer horrified. Quite the opposite really. The dish was hearty and simple, but any heaviness was balanced by the sweetness from the occasional strike of raisins and the brightness from the white wine. The pimiento-stuffed olives brought an earthy, luxurious quality. If this is was the Cuban answer to American Sloppy Joes, the unexpected additions of raisins, olives, and cinnamon elevated this to a more sophisticated meal.

I used more ground beef and less tomato paste and sauce than Cleeton’s recipe called for, but I figured this was probably acceptable since this is how recipes become your own. Come to find out, tomato paste and sauce were common ingredients for Picadillo. This surprised me as Caribbean food always struck me as leaning more toward the fresher, less processed side of things. I would have figured big, garden-fresh tomatoes would have been hand-crushed to form the sauce. This is the path I personally would have taken since I don’t often buy tomato paste or sauce. No judgment here if you do, but I think I would like to try this route one day. Just waiting for my Roma tomato plant to start producing any day now…

This dish is typically served with rice, and we sure did serve up some fluffy rice to go with it, but I imagine you could also serve this with steaming hot cooked potatoes or fresh hunks of crusty French bread. Plenty of dishes online displayed sides of spicy, saucy black beans and crispy, fried plantains. I could go for servings of both to be honest. And don’t forget to wash it all down with some refreshing sparkling mineral water too!

The accompanying recipe was one that didn’t strike me as particularly Cuban. Merenguitos at their core are just the simple meringue cookies we all know. Meringues actually originated in Meiringen, Switzerland (there’s that European influence again) and are meant to augment or adorn a dessert rather than be the main event. This recipe however has the Merenguitos standing alone and quite naked and unafraid. Cleeton has fond memories of her grandmother making these for her. They’re delicious, but they’re quite simple on their own. Since we recently brought home seven pounds of blackberries from a recent picking expedition at a local U-Pick farm, I made a quick dessert of macerated berries topped with perfect swirls of crispy meringue. It was a fairly perfect light, summer dessert.

I will give Cleeton’s grandmother virtual bonus points for making the Merenguitos simple enough for me to master on my first rodeo. Instead of a piping bag, these Merenguitos are formed by swirling the stiff meringue with a table spoon making this one easy recipe top-to-tail for any home chef. Famously temperamental, this was an almost effortless task and they actually came out brilliantly! This is a basic recipe with a beautiful and delicate result I would use to support other summery recipes. I loved how I could scoop up swirls if meringue crumbles with the remaining berry juice at the bottom of my bowl after I’d already eaten all the berries.

My next goal is to master the Cuban coffee (aka the Cafecito). I recently bought a Bialetti Moka pot for which to try my skills, but so far, while the coffee it makes is good, I have not yet mastered the skill of getting the faux crema. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the coffee I do manage. While I doubt I’ll ever make it to Cuba in my lifetime, I guess I’ll settle for another (perhaps) longer trip to Miami to eat my way through Calle Ocho and soak up the rays on Miami Beach.

Question: What are some dishes you just can’t shake from your childhood?

Currently Reading: When We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton

Scripture of the Day: “The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” -Psalm 9:9

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