Cuba and the Art of Simplicity

Market in Cuba

 

Cuba. Forbidden. Mysterious. A place that time has forgotten. All of these images come to mind when one thinks of Cuba. With the recent progression in Cuban and American relations, we decided to make the journey to visit the amazing city of Havana before the mega resorts and American business men move in and destroy it. The landscapes, culture, the food…they were all a preconceived notion to me. We actually booked the trip a year ago, as a fitness retreat with Escape to Shape. Access to Cuba is cumbersome and the only way we could enter the country legally was to come as a cultural exchange. We left the leg work with the experts at Escape to Shape. The owner, Erica Gragg, has led us on multiple adventures into the unknown. We trusted her implicitly to get us in to Cuba smoothly, to organize a fantastic itinerary, to eat amazing food and surprise us with off the beaten track adventures. She did not disappoint.

I could write all day about the kindness of the Cuban people, the fascinating and growing art scene, the intoxicating music, the tropical landscapes, the deep history and the decaying elegance of Havana….but this is a food blog.

So I will stick to the topic of gastronomy and hopefully, succeed in weaving in a bit of interesting commentary for you!

I had been warned, that the food in Cuba is boring. Beans, rice, chicken, fish and mojitos. It would make sense, considering that single biggest challenge to the chefs of Cuba is their access to a wide variety of food. There simply is not a lot of food products available.

And contrary to many other Latin American countries, Cuban food is not spicy. Not at all. All of this being said, my experience with the food in Cuba was surprisingly good.

For our very first meal, we had straightforward, traditional Cuban cuisine in the fishing village of Cojimar. This village was the inspiration for Hemingway’s ‘Old Man and the Sea’.

Cojimar, Cuba
Cojimar, Cuba
Classic Car
Classic Car
Cuban Rhythms
Cuban Rhythms

As we walked down the dusty sidewalk and entered the Ajiaco Cafe. As with most of our Cuban meals, everything was served family style, down the center of a long table.

Ajiaco Cafe
Ajiaco Cafe

As soon as we walked in, we were handed a mojito, their national cocktail. Everyone generally makes a mojito the same way, but not this place! My compliments to the chef who thought of adding honey instead of sugar and a single sweet pepper to these mojitos! It was un unexpected and tasty twist;)

Mojito at Ajiaco Cafe
Mojito at Ajiaco Cafe

Our feast started with a large basket of freshly baked bread, served with whipped pineapple butter. I did not taste the bread, but with the ever growing sounds of approving “yum”s, I tasted a bit of the butter. It was amazing! This is the perfect example of how common food in Cuba was integrated into something different. It had just the slightest hint of sweetness and was whipped into creamy perfection. I will definitely attempt to make it at home:)

Next came some cheese croquettes and the soup. We were told that the soup was a common countryside soup made with root vegetables (taro, yucca, potatoes), guaco and “many other ingredients”. Guaco is a vine-like plant whose leaves are said to have medicinal properties. I’m not sure what all the other flavors were, but it was simple and tasty.

Traditional Croquettes and Empanadas.
Traditional Croquettes and Empanadas.
Cuban Peasant Soup
Cuban Peasant Soup

The main entree was the Ropa Vieja (old rope), a shredded beef dish that is a staple in Cuba. The meat was tender and flavored lightly with onions. This was served with beans, rice and taro root with pickled onions.

Taro Root with Pickled Onions.
Taro Root with Pickled Onions.

For dessert they served rice pudding (another use for rice) with a sugared rim and spoon of lime sorbet, which was a perfect palate cleanser.

Rice Pudding
Rice Pudding

They also served my favorite Cuban Coffee from the entire trip. Not only was the technique fascinating to watch, it had a nice presentation, served in a small, rustic metal cup. The taste was sweet, but potent!

No matter whether it was lunch or dinner, casual or formal, most of our meals were closely matched to this meal, with different combinations of meats including ropa vieja, chicken, pork, swordfish and lobster. Nearly every meal was served with beans and rice and root vegetables or another vegetables. Rarely was there a salad included with our meal, just some shredded cabbage with tomato and some oil and vinegar…. if you were lucky.

Cuban Version of a salad!
Cuban Version of a salad!

The main difference between each meal was in the preparation of the meats (sautéed, versus grilled), the addition of sauces and multiple adaptions of root vegetable preparations (fried, sautéed, pureed and mashed).

Fish over a root vegetable puree at La Moneda, Havana.
Fish over a root vegetable puree.
Shrimp with mashed taro root and a balsamic reduction at El Sarao.
Shrimp with .mashed taro root and a balsamic reduction

It really was inspiring to see the many combinations that were made out of the same ingredients. Some of my favorite meals, in this traditional style were dinner at Le Chansonnier and Atelier and lunch at Ajiaco Cafe, our outdoor lunch La Moneda and Casa del Campesino near the Sierra del Rosario area (all complete with live music).

IMG_4496
An elegant dinner, surrounded by art at Le Chansonnier.

Of course there were a few restaurants that were more creative with their cuisine. El Cocinero offers an inventive menu, in a lively setting, with a large outdoor terrace.

I loved their adaptation of rice pudding, shaped into sushi rolls, with raisins in the the center, a condensed milk dipping sauce and chop sticks for eating.

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La Guarida (www.laguarida.com) was my absolute favorite meal in Havana, not only because of the wonderful food, but because of the gorgeous 20th Century building it resides in and the manner in which the restoration was accomplished. It is considered a paladar, a privately owned, in home and family operated restaurant (as opposed to a government run restaurant).

Interestingly, part of it remains a multifamily dwelling. Much of the lower half of the building is left in elegant decay, with colorful tiled floors and an beautiful marble staircase, surrounded by thick, intricate wrought iron. Up, up, up the stairs you go, four flights up.

Every angle of your journey showcases a unique view, through a window, a door, a hallway, until you finally reach the restaurant, which has been lovingly restored, and is thick with modern art, crystal chandeliers, large wood paned windows, and multiple outdoor terraces that offer panoramic views of Havana.

Surrounded by art at La Guardia.
Surrounded by art at La Guarida.

The place is hopping, even as we finally finish our meal, well past midnight.

The dinner was our most decadent. It started with an appetizer of eggplant caviar, a shot of pumpkin puree and a small salad of candied pecans, pineapple, dried apricots and cheese.

Appetizers
Appetizers

Every bit was delicious and a complete departure from all of our meals in Havana. Next came a spinach crepe, filled with chicken and drizzled with a red pepper sauce. The main course was Lobster Beurre Blanc, served with beans and rice, fried plantains and (my favorite) yucca root, doused in copious amounts of butter. For dessert, we had a deconstructed lemon meringue pie with a chocolate tart. Unfortunately, the food was too dark to photograph. It was amazing. A night dreams are made of….

Cheers!
Cheers!

One more thing. The street food. It is best not to tempt fate and end up sick while visiting Cuba. Just don’t do it, unless it’s coconut ice cream served in it’s own shell. The heat is really intense and this little piece of heaven can literally, save you:)

 

Coconut Ice cream!
Coconut Ice cream!

So there you have it! I can’t wait to see how the food culture in Havana explodes once there is better access to more ingredients. The chefs of Havana have already created an impressive array of culinary choices, under the harshest of circumstances. It will only get better from here! For more information on the food culture in Havana, check out this article printed in Saveur in October, 2015 http://www.saveur.com/best-paladares-restaurants-in-havana-cuba 

 

A Weekend in Palm Springs

Palm Springs is Calling!
Palm Springs is Calling!
Palms Springs is Calling!

The weather in the Pacific Northwest tends to drag you down towards Mid-Winter. The holidays are far behind you, the snow is melting on the mountain range and the weather forecast is rain, rain, rain. I am thankful for the abundant precipitation, but it is time to get away to the sun for a bit! Thankfully, Jason has a car auction he’s working in Palm Springs, so I decide to tag along:) The flight is as easy, as can be from Portland, so a quick weekend trip is a breeze!

We always include breakfast at the Portland Airport in our travel plans. In case you didn’t know, the Portland Airport is one of the best airports the country. And because Portland is a foodie mecca,  there are tons of great food options to choose from for breakfast, lunch and dinner. My favorite stop for my preflight breakfast is The Country Cat. They have a brick and mortar establishment in the SE part of Portland as well, if you want to check it out! The menu at the airport is limited, but still amazing. I ended up with the Eggs Benedict with salmon, minus the biscuit.

Eggs Benedict
Eggs Benedict

At lunch I go for the kale salad with smoked chicken (which is not offered on their regular menu). It’s perfect for a light lunch or dinner….and tastes a heck of a lot better than a Big Mac! They also have a grab and go counter that has some great snacks and drinks to carry onto your flight, if you are pressed for time! My favorite, is the chia pudding.

Country Cat Chia Pudding and Kombucha
Country Cat Chia Pudding and Kombucha

It looks weird, but tastes divine! Yogurt and chia seeds, topped with nuts, dried fruit and apple sauce. (Thanks to my friend Elizabeth for this find!) It’s a tasty treat that’s great anytime of day and it’s good for you!

I found this amazing little hotel for our last minute getaway, called Sparrows Lodge. Originally built as Castle’s Red Barn in 1952 by MGM actor Don Castle and his wife Zetta, it was one of the original resort getaways for Hollywood elite. It was completely and lovingly restored in 2013. It has a completely different vibe than the other hotels in the area. We loved the laid-back vibe, kilim rugs, tasty food, relaxing pool scene. There was great care to make sure we were content and comfy throughout our stay! So many special touches!

We arrived right before lunch and made our way through a small, lodge like room. It was comfortably decorated with a small couch, leather butterfly chairs and a stone fireplace. The back end opened up to a beautiful pool area, surrounded with cushioned pool loungers and hotel rooms along each side. The air was scented with jasmine and seemed to cool off immediately with the misters. We walked past a few sunbathers to the beautiful red barn, which functioned as the lobby, bar and communal sitting area. Our room wasn’t quite ready. No worries. We were offered lunch and a complimentary sangria while we waited.

The menu was short and simple. Everything sounded good. Jason ordered the Chicken Salad Sando (sandwich) and I opted for a light snack of veggies and green goddess dressing for dipping. We were not disappointed, everything was tasty and fresh. By the time we finished our meal, we could check in;) The best news was that we got upgraded to a garden room, which was larger and more quiet than the pool room.

Our room was a mixture of rustic and modern, with its own private patio, open air shower and deep horse trough bath tub. Simple and comfortable. I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in the shade, reading by the pool. Mid-afternoon, we were all offered popsicles.

Mid Afternoon Popsicle
Mid Afternoon Popsicle

It was the perfect treat to beat the heat;)

By the time I came back to the room, Jason was ready for a mid-afternoon snack. So, in continuing my food research, I ordered the hummus plate and the fruit salad with burrata. it did not disappoint!

Fruit Salad with Burrata
Fruit Salad with Burrata

Nap time….

There are a ton of restaurants to choose from for dinner. Luckily, I was able to do a bit of research ahead of time! We decided Workshop Kitchen + Bar* for dinner. It can best be described a chic farm-to-table restaurant. Book early, or you will end up at the long (but gorgeous) communal table inside. We lucked out and had an amazing alfresco meal, surrounded by gaslit heaters (even though it was 77 degrees) in their courtyard dining room. The menu was filled with seasonal, fresh and inventive food and cocktail preparations. Best of all, it offered tons of gluten free and vegetarian options, as well as a lot of meat and fish. It was difficult to make a decision! We both selected a salad to start, followed by a main entree and then, shared a dessert.

Champagne Cocktail
Champagne Cocktail

I wish that I had better pictures to post, but the lighting was very dim! You are just going to have to trust me. By the time we were leaving, the place was hopping! I look forward to coming back again, soon.

In the morning we were greeted to a simple (and complimentary) continental breakfast in the barn. Coffee, fruit, granola, toast and hardboiled eggs.

Simple Breakfast
Simple Breakfast

It’s all we needed. That desert heat has a way of depleting one’s appetite and I knew we should leave some room for brunch.

And I DID enjoy brunch, in the oasis of the outdoor courtyard at The Tropicale. A great Bloody Mary. A fresh Chinese Salad with ‘big ass’ shrimp (seriously, it said that on the menu). Nothing complicated. Simple and good.

Palm Springs Brunch
Palm Springs Brunch

Need I say more?
Time to head back to the hotel and relax by the pool.

Dinner that night was kind of a hit or miss. Great food, beautiful dining areas and design, but a really noisy and chaotic atmosphere.

Gorgeous Food
Gorgeous Food

You’d never guess it from this picture. I recommend going there for a party, not for a romantic dinner. Eight4Nine It might be for you…

Eating My Way Through Chile

Patagonian feast
Gorgeous view of Santiago
Gorgeous view of Santiago

After our 15 hour journey into Santiago, I leave Jason at the hotel to nap and head out into the streets of Santiago! We are staying in the fantastic, historical area known as Barrio Lastarria. I love our hotel.

It’s got tons of charm, character, great service and a yummy breakfast is included. It’s called The Lastarria Hotel. It’s also in a great location. Just a 5 minute walk, the streets are loaded with cafes and restaurants, the area is filled with the buzz of people.

It is lunchtime! I walk up and down the tiny streets and stumble on a sweet courtyard with 8 options for lunch. I choose the quaint looking restaurant Casa Lastarria.

It’s modern looking, with a rustic edge and the menu is filled with Chilean specialties. I quickly decide to start with a glass of Spumante (sparkling wine) and some ceviche.

A glass of Spumante and ceviche.
A glass of Spumante and ceviche.

The ceviche is simply made with white fish, citrus, red onion and cilantro. Tasty and uncomplicated. It is the perfect start to lunch on the warm Spring day! They do not serve ceviche with bread, crackers or chips, but the quantity is huge and I quickly grow full. I decide to take a break for a bit and people watch for awhile. I still have a main entree coming😳

Pastel de Choclo
Pastel de Choclo

Next is the Pastel de Chocolo (Corn Pie). It is a pastel food based on sweetcorn or choclo, meaning “tender corn”. First documented as a dish in Peru, it is now a typical Chilean dish. It is also similar to pastel de elote, found in Mexican cuisine, and to the English corn pudding. Pastel de choclo is traditionally served in an earthenware bowl in an individual portion. The filling usually contains ground beef, chicken, raisins, black olives, onions or slices of hard boiled egg. It is soft the whole way through, with no crust and a lightly sugared and crisped top, the perfect mix of savory and sweet. Mine is served with a side of rustic salsa. Not spicy or overly seasoned, it’s simple and good. I’ll try to recreate this perfect comfort food when I get home!

After lunch, I swing by the hotel to get Jason. It’s actually a warm Spring day in Santiago, so it’s perfect for checking out the sights! We decide to go up to San Cristobal Hill, overlooking Santiago. The view is amazing. By the time we get back to the hotel, we are ready for helado (ice cream). It seems to be very popular here. At least 4 heladarias in our neighborhood. One place, in particular, stands out.

They sell ice cream on a stick, in many different flavors. They are actually, much lighter than ice cream, icy, more like a popcycle. So good! Jason gets the dolce de leche and I get the salted caramel. I completely recommend this place. It’s located in an upscale hotdog joint (strange, I know) called Hogs.

When we arrive back to our hotel, we find out that the hotel staff has accidentally booked us at the best restaurant in Chile called Borago.

Borago
Borago

I had tried earlier in the week to get us in, but it was full. On some miracle, they were able to get us in! We arrive for our 9pm reservation, having no clue to the meal that we have in store for us…18 courses of regionally inspired and foraged food, artistically presented and painstakingly prepared. It was amazing. I’ll post some of the prettiest pictures here, but I honestly cannot begin to accurately describe what we were consuming.

All I know, is that it was amazing! Each dish is brought out by the chef who prepared it, was intricately described. It was the best meal I’ve ever had! Thank you Borago!

The next day, we decided to go to the Mercado Central. Built in 1872, it is considered to be one of the best fish markets in the country. It’s a very popular destination for lunch.

I cruised around the entire market, taking pictures and chatting with the fish mongers. It is huge, with lots of restaurants surrounding it. Unfortunately, Jason got grossed out with the smell of fish (even though the restaurant area was fine), so we decided to eat elsewhere.

We walked back to the Lastarria neighborhood where I had made a backup plan for lunch at Tambo. This is a Peruvian restaurant that’s very popular with the locals, so reservations are a must! The decor is pretty simple and modern, not as inviting as some of the other cafes on that street, but don’t let it fool you. This place has the best ceviche I’ve ever tasted.

I savored EVERY. LAST. DROP. And then finished my lunch with a Pisco Sour. I’d go back here in a heartbeat!

After two relaxing days in Santiago, we begin our journey to Patagonia. It’s a 4 hour plane ride further south and 4.5 hour drive to our hotel, Explora. The food at Explora was good, but simple. We were on a fitness retreat and they are appealing to the adventurers and healthy crowd.

At dinner, we ate tons of seafood such as grouper, salmon, conger and crab. We also had a fair amount of lamb and beef. For lunch we had simple soups and a variety of quinoa salads, which I extremely enjoyed while we were on the trail!

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One of the best highlights was the Patagonian feast that awaited us after a particularly grueling, freezing cold, wet hike! The meal was served in a cabin that was solely heated by the large BBQ/ fireplace in the middle. It was warm, dry and smelled of the bbq’d meat that had been cooking.

Unfortunately, being gluten free meant that I couldn’t eat the empanadas. They served two types, corn with black olives and spicy ground beef. Everyone raved. They also served a sausage similar to chorizo, but not as spicy, bbq’d chicken, beef and a whole lamb. To balance out the meal, they offered us a wide variety of salads too. It was my favorite meal in Patagonia!

Lastly, our trip would not be complete if I didn’t mention drinking caffeine rich Mate with the Gauchos, after an afternoon of horseback riding. 

And nibbling on indigenous berries (juicy and tart) and fungus (very similar to a mushroom….earthy and sweet) while hiking the trails.

Yes, we are brave!