Category Archives: Cuban

Hemingway Champagne & Cuban Rabbit Fricassee Recipe

With the whooping record of 3 million tourists this year and a hope for the end of the US embargo of 50 years, Cubans have something special to celebrate this New Year’s Eve. And while my festive rabbit stew (no need to advertise this light and savory Caribbean dish) is piping in the oven, I decided to drop a line to reflect on our most recent travel to Havana last summer and, particularly, the drink called Hemingway Champagne.


‘I drink to make other people more interesting,’ says the quote attributed to Ernest Hemingway. That’s quite an understatement from the celebrated writer known for his way around the women, best bars and drinks from Paris to Madrid, from Key West to Havana. A well-known fact: drinks, bars and people in them helped Hemingway to create his characters and add the depth and thrill to his prose. In a letter to poet MacLeish he explained that: ‘It’s good for us both to lay off the old liquor too; but by God it’s dull work doing it. I’d like to hunt and fish the rest of my life and be just drunk enough to sleep well every night… But instead I’ve got to write, and boil the liquor out to be able to write my best, and get my sensitivity back to be able to write where (I) have sort of burned it away in war. Hell of a job.’

I’m a big fan of Hemingway’s works, so when we went to Havana last summer my first move was to go in the footsteps of ‘Papa’.  Obviously, I’m talking about the historical bars with character, where Hemingway used to spend his afternoons to kick start his muse during those good 20 years of his Cuban residence. Let’s put some Buena Vista Club on and go for a little Havana Vieja journey.

We hit the streets of Havana on one excruciatingly hot summer day to see what’s up with Hemingway’s Caribbean drinking memorabilia in the old city.  The first stop was at recently re-opened Sloppy Joe’s seafood and cocktail bar featured in the movie Our Man in Havana, which reopened its doors in 2013 after being closed for 48 years. Hemingway used to hang out there with many other celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Nat King Cole, Ted Williams, Errol Flynn and Gary Cooper. Back in the 50s the bar was also a prototype of the not less famous Sloppy Joe’s in the Key West I featured in this post.

We stepped into the freshly painted sleek bar décor and ordered Cuban pork sandwiches with sweet potato fries and ‘Cuba Libre’ cocktail they offered to go with the sandwich (from ‘To Have and Have Not’).  I loved the freshly re-constructed Art Deco Miami-style flair about the area, the cleanness inside out and the fast service. Don’t forget, this place was a complete ruin for 48 years, so one should not under-estimate the effort of the Cuban government and of course the Cuban expats to reconstitute the place. Hopefully, one day it will completely return to its glory – it definitely has now a potential for that.    

Corner of Zulueta (252) e/Animas and Virtudes, Old Havana, Cuba

Armed with the few heavy calories we headed to find the El Floridita, almost two hundred years old fish and cocktail bar at the corner of Obispo and Monserrate streets, where Hemingway used to team up with the famous Cuban bartender Constante Ribailagua to create his Papa Doble Daiquiri and other signature drinks. 

After few minutes walk through the Park Central which felt like a century due to the heat and the crowds of hookers of all ages and persuasion chasing us (surprisingly, not to offer their services, but just to ask for a soap or a tooth brush: sadly, YES, that’s how desperate is current Cuban’s economy nowadays), we managed to find the El Floridita bar. 

The frozen daiquiri tasted good and refreshing indeed, although it was three times more expensive than at any other bar in Cuba (you’ve gotta pay premium for the name and I have no problem with that). The life size bronze statue of Hemingway was leaning over the bar to remind that it used to be his haunt. However, the place didn’t feel like IT and was too crowded with tourists to feel comfortable.
ADDRESS: El Floridita
Corner of Obispo (esq. 557) and Monserrate Streets
Hours: 11 AM till midnight 

Hemingway’s Photo via Wiki

Next: ‘My mojito in La Bodegita, my daiquiri in El Floridita’, and so we followed Hemingway’s tip to try the best Mojito in Havana at La Bodeguita del Medio. When we reached the place, it was packed with locals, tourists, artists and musicians all drenching in sweat (forget the conditioner – it’s too much of a luxury in most places in Havana). We had to literally elbow-fight to get through to the counter to have a speedy Mojito, which didn’t much differ from any other Mojito you pay eight-plus pesos in the rest of Habana Vieja.  The spirit of Papa was nowhere felt.  I must admit though, the place did have character with all the musicians, graffiti and surroundings (playing kids, puddles of urine, etc.) as opposed to two previous bars. Oddly enough though, it was so far my least favorite. 
ADDRESS: La Bodeguita del Medio
206 Calle Empedrado 206 (between Cuba and San Ignacio Streets), Old Havana, Cuba
Hours: Noon till midnight

Our final stop of the day was Hotel Ambos Mundos at the corner of Obispo and Mercaderes, where Hemingway spent seven years of his life in the 30ies. I was excited to see his room on the upper 5th floor, his typewriter and the views of the Old Havana and the harbor sea that inspired him daily. 

It was a bummer to see the sign ‘Hemingway’s room is closed for visitors’ next to the old elevators, of which the guards were very protective of. I was beginning to feel that the ‘lost generation’ term was actually quite literate. Hopeless to find any leftover of the spirit of Hemingway, we went through the hall with the walls covered with fading cheerless images of the writer and his life in Cuba. 

The uniform-dressed woman at the lobby desk had a major presence signifying that if we would like to find some trace of Hemingway, we’d rather go back home and read a book about him. We retreated to the empty bar in the lobby and just sat there with the gloom of disappointed kids waiting for the bartender to come… 

Catching our pointless glare, the bartender asked if we would like to try some Hemingway Champagne. We agreed. In a gesture of encouragement, he procured a bottle of absinthe from under the counter and poured some of it in the flutes. He then topped them with the iced champagne and handed us the milky mix right away. Our disappointment evanesced the minute we took a sip of that drink. ‘OMG, this is where he is,’ I realized suddenly – ‘HE IS the DRINK in this sweaty, ruined, wonderful Havana!’  
ADDRESS: Ambos Mundos Hotel /Bar

153 Calle Obispo, Old Havana, Cuba

And this is how we scored our ‘in the footsteps of Hemingway’s cocktails game’ that day. I must say it was a tough mix of alcohols. ‘You can’t handle it, little mama,’ was the last thought in my head (with the voice of Ron Burgundy (aka Will Ferrel) before I passed out in the hotel room that afternoon. Clearly, the ‘Death in the Afternoon’ (alternative name of this drink) is an acquired-taste type of the cocktail, at least in my case.  Ernest Hemingway created this drink further to his non-fiction ‘Death in the Afternoon’ about Spanish bullfighting and it was later published in the 1935 collection of celebrity cocktail recipes. His instructions were: “Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.” If you feel like trying it, I suggest you go for the legal absinthe alternative for this drink, Pernod, in the same proportion.

Tonight we’re going to drink simple but elegant Crémant d’Alsace. There will be no Hemingway Champagne. So why was I telling you all that? Definitely, not to encourage you drinking. Because it’s the New Year’s Eve, many are going to the most popular Caribbean destination; and it’s time to have fun, reflect on 2014 and celebrate the miraculous.  There will be an upscale Cuban dish on our table though: a wonderful one-pot rabbit fricassee full of Creole flavors and sunshine.  

Lean, healthy, light, highly aromatic: it makes you feel like dancing all night long – no wonder Cubans have the historic affinity for the rabbit dishes (from Batista to Castro). 
Note for Paleo and Gluten Free people: skip dusting the rabbit in flour and proceed with browning without it.

Happy New Year Everyone – Peace on Earth!

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CUBAN STYLE RABBIT FRICASSEE

Yields : 6 servings
Ingredients :
1 (about 3 lbs) rabbit, cleaned and cut into pieces
3-4 tbsp flour
2 tsp dried thyme
1 tbsp curry powder
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tbsp unsalted butter or ghee
2-3 tbsp olive oil
6-8 strips of bacon cut in cubes
1 tbsp paprika
1 onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 green or red bell pepper, chopped
¼ tsp saffron powder (optional)
1 tsp ground cumin
1 bay leaf
2 ½ cups chicken stock or water
1 can (10 oz) diced tomatoes
¼ cup dry white wine
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 pound potatoes, peeled and diced
¼ cup capers, drained
1 cup raisins
¼ cup green pitted olives, whole or chopped
1 can (10 oz) green peas, drained
Salt and black pepper to taste
Instructions:
Preheat the oven to 400F.
Season the rabbit pieces generously with salt and pepper. Mix the flour with thyme and curry powder and cover the rabbit pieces with it (use the Ziploc bag if necessary to evenly distribute the flour mix). Heat the butter and olive oil in the deep skillet to medium high, place the rabbit pieces and brown on all sides for about 6-7 minutes. Transfer the rabbit to the Dutch oven.
Add the bacon to the skillet and brown on medium high for a few minutes. Distribute bacon pieces over the rabbit. Sprinkle with paprika.
Bring the skillet to the high heat. Add onion, garlic, bell pepper, saffron and cumin to the skillet for 2-3 minutes mixing vigorously. Add diced tomatoes and wine, mix well. Add the onion-tomatoes mixture to the rabbit-bacon mix. Drizzle with lemon juice. Add bay leaf.  Pour the hot chicken stock or water over the rabbit and bring to boil.
Cover the casserole with foil and place in the oven for 30 minutes.
Lower the oven temperature to 350F and continue baking for another 30 minutes.
In the meantime, cover the potatoes with cold water and bring to boil. Simmer for 3 minutes and drain the water. Set aside.
Remove the casserole from the oven, check the seasoning. Add parboiled potatoes, capers, raisins and olives. Cover with foil and return the casserole to the oven and cook for another 30 minutes.
Check the rabbit for tenderness: the meat should be starting to fall off the bone when it’s ready.  Stir in frozen green peas and return to the oven for 5-7 minutes uncovered.

Remove from the oven, check the seasoning and serve immediately.

Cuban Ropa Veija: Shredded Veal or Beef Recipe

One of the interesting ways to give your braised veal (beef) leftovers a new life is to turn it into another great dish, Ropa Vieja. It is a traditional Cuban beef stew, which look resembles a pile of old clothes (hence, the name Ropa Vieja). The initial version of ropa vieja contained leftovers of meat and originated from Canary Islands, Spain, like many other Caribbean dishes at the times of colonialization.


The legend goes: there was once an old man who was so poor he could not buy enough food to make a family dinner, so he decided to collect the old clothes (ropa vieja), fill them with his love and cook. When he cooked the clothes, his love has turned them into a wonderful stew.


During one of our trips to Cuba, we decided to try the authentic dish in one of the picturesque colonial houses of the old town of San Juan de losRemedios. It was so tasty, I had to take notes of the recipe from the chef (see the end of this post), however this twist on the leftovers of the braised veal shoulder blade will give you an idea why is it worth trying.
Not only the dish is savory and memorable, it’s a great way to feed a big party on a budget. This traditional Cuban dish will be especially tasty if you allow the seasonings to blend for a day after making. Plus, it is a very economical way to approach your protein consumption: you get just enough of it with the meal without adding any extra to your belly fat (sorry, I have been following the course on Nutrition and Prevention of Diseases lately, so I have a re-current nightmare of visceral fat slapping my face). The following are steps on how to turn your meat leftovers into Ropa Vieja. Shred the cooked meat with two forks; sautee one chopped green pepper, with onions and garlic; add the meat, tomato coulis, wine, dash of cumin and freshly ground pepper. 
Just simmer on the low heat for 30-40 minutes, stirring often and serve with rice and black beans. 
I will definitely return to our adventures in Cuba in some other post, but, for now, here is the recipe from chef Lupe, who served us an unforgettable Ropa Vieja in Remedios.
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CUBAN ROPA VIEJA
Ingredients:
2 ½ lbs flank or swiss steak, cut in strips
5 tablespoons cooking oil (olive or other)
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 onion, diced
1 green pepper, diced
2 cups tomato sauce (or coulis)
1 cup water
1 cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon cumin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Instructions:
Heat 3 tablespoon of oil in the Dutch oven on medium and brown the meat on all sides. Remove the meat and put aside. Add the remaining oil, stir in onion, garlic and green pepper and cook until translucent. Return the meat to the Dutch oven, add tomato sauce, water, wine, cumin, pepper and salt. Bring to boil and simmer on a slow heat until meat is tender and shreds easily, for about 2 1/2 hours. Serve with rice and black beans, or in tortillas. Add some sour cream, cheese and fresh cilantro on the side.