Sunday, 17 January 2016

An Exploration of Cuban Cooking

When I plucked out Cuba as my next cultural cooking adventure I didn't expect it get under my skin like it did. Maybe it is the potent zing of white rum in the raw Cuban Rum Balls or maybe it is the liberal use of an ingredient as expensive as saffron that has left me wanting to cook more, eat more and learn more about the little crocodile shaped island in the Caribbean. Whatever it is I am intrigued.

When embarking on a new cultural cooking adventure you must have a guide. Someone who can, just like a docent at a gallery, take your hand a guide you through the intricacies of their beloved cuisine. In my case I chose Joyce LaFray, a Floridian local who has spent years immersing herself in Cuban life both within her home state and on many trips to Cuba. Her cookbook "Cuba Cocina" is a comprehensive guide to the food of Cuba. It covers recipes that would be considered traditional Cuban cooking as well as the more modern Nuevo cuisine that is emerging within the Cuban population in America. Written in 1994 this book doesn't have the visual appeal of a modern day cookbook filled with evocative travel photography but don't let that deter you. If it is strong recipe writing, exotic flavours and personal stories you want then this book will satisfy your curious little soul.

To contrast Joyce's perspective which is one of an outsider looking in, learning and mastering a cuisine out of a love for the food in her local area I would highly recommend having a look at the blog Hungry Sofia. Like so many exiled Cuban families, author Ana Sofia Pelaez's family made their way to America in the 1960's during the Cuban revolution which left the nation struggling on rations and restricted by US sanctions. When asking her grandfather who had taught him to cook Cuban food his bittersweet response was "exile". Being from a wealthy family prior to exile to America he  had relied on staff in his Havana home to do the chore of cooking. It is interesting that a new found love for cooking was bought about as a way to reconnect with a homeland he would never see again. Ana's book "The Cuban Table"  paints a vivid and personal picture of her families homeland which although is now slowly opening up to the world is still heavily subdued by rations under communist rule.

In cooking Cuban food I think you will be delighted in a cuisine that driven for more by flavour than technique. It is an ideal cuisine for those just starting out on their cooking journey as the recipes are as about as intimidating as a poodle in a pink bow tie and the results can be enjoyed by the whole family. I was actually quite taken aback by the amount of flavour packed into the dishes I cooked as Cuban food in the travelling community suffers from a terrible reputation. Jaded backpackers speak of endless beans and rice and bland root vegetables and whilst due to rationing that does seem to be the case in a large number of government run tourist restaurants on the island there are still hidden jems to be found. Ana and her co-author Ellen Silverman speak fondly of the family run private paradores which serve up food from the family kitchen often with ingredients grown on their own farms. I would highly recommend delving into Ellen's photography which gives you a real insight into the lives and kitchens in Cuba.

We started our Cuban cooking week with a classic and a recipe I would recommend to anyone as a starting point for Cuban cooking Arroz Con Pollo. I chose it as it had an long ingredient list which doesn't always hold true but usually means...lots of flavour. In this case I was right. The rice is cooked to absorb all of the delicious ingredients chicken stock, saffron, white wine, oregano, cumin, garlic and the chickeny goodness infuses through the whole dish. My tip for this dish would be to get a good quality chicken stock or make your own as it does add a lot of depth and heartiness to this dish. My recipe was from "Cuba Cocina" but if you want to jump in straight away and get cooking I would recommend trying this recipe from My Big Fat Cuban Family.  Marta writes a great blog all about her Cuban heritage, life in America and a huge wealth of Cuban recipes so it is a great place to get started.

A word of warning with Cuban cooking, the serving sizes are either "small army" or "whole battalion" and nothing in between. The next dish I made Havana Beef Hash, I halved the recipe and it still fed us for lunch and dinner for a number of days. This turned out to be our favourite dish of the week and I think it was because my expectations were low. It looked like it was going to be a variation of "savoury mince" nothing fancy but this dish turned out to be packed full of complexity. It was tart from the vinegar, wine, capers and olives and the onions and bell peppers bought a sweetness. We served ours with white rice which was the right decision as a more complex rice like the yellow or Cuban rice I had recipes for would have competed for flavour and this dish didn't need competition. This makes the best leftovers as it can be rehashed in so many different versions. It is great with rice, great with mash it's the gift that keeps on giving.

We really cooked up a Cuban storm over the course of the week. We also made Cuban rum balls which had a major white rum kick as the balls are raw and not cooked. We baked whole snapper smothered in a rub of garlic, oregano, thyme, cumin, paprika, rosemary, salt and pepper as well as sour orange all served on a bed of roasted capsicums and potatoes. These flavours came up again and again  in our Cuban cooking and were a really unique combination of herbs, spices and vegetables that ties this cuisine together. And finally we couldn't finish up the week without having the much famed beans and rice. This recipe again has those signature ingredients mentioned above and married well with the lime-cilantro (coriander) chicken we served it with.

If you want to go beyond the journey of cooking Cuban food to learn about  a time when Cuba was the premier American resort holiday destination full of glam casinos and breezy Caribbean charm I would recommend reading "Havana Before Castro: When Cuba was a Tropical Playground" by Peter Moruzzi. Or if you want to go back further in time to Christopher Columbus and hundreds of years of Spanish rule I would suggest you take a look at "Cuba: A History" by Hugh Thomas. These books go a long way to shed light on how Cuba has become the fusion of cultures it is today and the roots of the cuisine that I so enjoyed this week.

Baked Snapper with Garlic and Cumin

Arroz Con Pollo

Cuban Rum Balls

Sweet Potato Chips with Cilantro Garlic Sauce

Cuban Feast

Black Beans and Rice with Cilantro Lime Chicken

Originally posted on Sunday, 17 January 2016 by

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Harnessing Your Creative Self

“But the heart of my story is that the world opened up for me once I decided to embrace who I am—unapologetically. My story demonstrates that there’s no better time in history to have a dream and be able to reach an audience with your art. Or just be as weird as you want to be and not have to be ashamed. That lesson’s just as legit.”
― Felicia Day, You're Never Weird on the Internet

This is a topic I have been thinking on quite a bit lately and cemented even further whilst reading Felicia Day's Autobiography "You're Never Weird On The Internet, almost". Creativity has always come easily to me. I have created stuff as long as I can remember. Not always fancy, as a child I would assemble little projects in the school holidays, paint plaster figurines, make jewellery boxes from paddle-pop sticks and paint them up. I was obsessed with school projects back in the days before computers as it meant getting out the font book & creating a title page with beautifully traced fancy fonts. I went through a drawing stage in my teen years and I got pretty good. I experimented with charcoal and artliner and really loved re-creating faces (No idea why but drawing faces was my thing...until I moved on to Lion King Characters that is). I took up art class in later high school but soon discovered getting work critiqued and not praised was far less exciting than just creating for fun (maybe my parents set me up for a fall there & I am actually like one of those sad cases you see on shows like American Idol who grew up with false expectations of their singing skills).

Obsessively creating has followed me all through my life. Now in my early thirties I am constantly starting and sometimes even finishing projects. I built up my own cake decorating business which I ran for five years. I am a reformed scrapbooker. I decided at one point to learn to crochet and failed, that is way harder than it looks. I wanted to learn to sew and realised it was far more technical than I realised and chucked it in halfway through a dress. My amazing husband follows me on some of these projects and we both succeed and fail together.

Clearly my current projects are cooking and blogging. The internet is an amazing tool for creativity. I have released so many ideas and thoughts into the ether and occasionally I connect with people who are on the same wavelength as me. As most bloggers know there is no money in blogging for the majority of us, it is a hobby just like knitting is a hobby.

Not all creative outlets are without monetary reward. There was money in cakes and I made quite a bit of it over the years but in the end, much like Felicia Day, I again suffered with the weight of judgement. When charging considerable money for what is essentially an artwork open to artistic interpretation the self placed stress of providing a product open to this judgement is weighty.

It seems these days so many people want to turn a profit for their time and work be it blogging, writing, cooking etc, understandably we all need to make a living. In my age and significant wisdom (tongue in cheek) I can now appreciate the value of creating for creativities sake. Making cakes for money for so many years has given me the perspective that when you create with no monetary exchange you are free to follow your whims, create anything your heart desires with no restrictions or expectations.

I can put anything I choose on this blog, like this mostly irrelevant post itself. You know why I can do that...because it is all mine. My space, my concept, my time, my art, my outlet. It's all me! Freedom from the need make money (as I have a real 9-5 job) gives you just that, freedom. Embrace it, create for creativity's sake and love it.

Who knows what my creative future will hold. My friend Nina has inspired me that real people can write and publish a book, something I have always been intrigued by and think I will pursue in the future. Maybe I'll take up dancing, just kidding if you ever saw my lack of rhythm you would laugh too. Maybe I will resurrect my drawing, which may require some work as after nearly twenty years I have lost the skill. The possibilities are like a mountain waiting to be summited and I will keep climbing that mountain and so should you.

I would love to hear from you, where do you release your creative energies? Do you cook, paint, dance, draw or something more unique. Put your ideas in the comments below.

Here I am with my creative cake projects. They are far more photogenic than many of my other endeavours.

Originally posted on Tuesday, 5 January 2016 by