Friday, January 04, 2019

cuba libre

I am in a Cuba frame of mind.

This week Amazon plopped another Instant Pot cookbook in my hands -- another recommendation from my blogger pal Jennifer Rose. She had earlier recommended Urvashi Pitre's Indian Instant Pot cookbook.

Pitre's Indian cookbook was a great buy. Not only did she provide a new palette for my palate, she taught me some clever techniques for my Instant Pot. She also gets points for honesty, candidly admitting that, unlike what some candle-bearing cowled acolytes chant, the Instant Pot is not a universal cooking tool.

When Jennifer suggested Pitre's The Keto Instant Pot Cookbook, I ordered it without hesitation. I am not a Keto fanatic. But the Keto diet does have some parallels with my low carbohydrate-high fat lifestyle.

As I have told you before, I do not use recipes to cook. I buy cookbooks to glean cooking ideas -- usually, mining fusion concepts out of unrelated recipes.

Pitre's recipe for ropa vieja -- caught my eye. It is a natural for the Instant Pot's pressure cooking mode. The Cuban dish is one of my favorites. When I am in Miami, I head directly to Versailles to get my stewed beef fix.

The recipe there is traditionally Cuban. Mine is not, though I do start with the usual combination of onions, bell peppers, garlic, tomatoes, and beef.

Pitre has a similar unorthodox approach to cooking. I suspect part of it comes from her ability as an Indian cook to juggle herbs and spices for their greatest impact.

Her ropa vieja uses ancho chili powder. Ancho are dried poblano peppers, and are quite popular in Mexican cuisine. Not so much in Cuban. That is what makes Pitre's recipe a bit eccentric.

But I take my fusion eccentricity to a different level. Instead, I added two serranos and an habanero to the sauce -- along with a cube of achiote paste (the spice traditionally associated with puerco pibil).

You may recall that one of my first dishes in the Instant Pot was ropa vieja -- back in November (ratting on steve). The two versions were quite different. The only major variance is the type of chilis I used. But both were successful.

I suspect I broke my culinary rule of never reprising dishes I cook because I had other things on my mind. And ropa vieja is the symbol of a decision I need to make.

My favorite local tour group, Mex-ECO Tours, has put together a trip to Cuba at the end of this month. I am tempted to go.

I last visited Cuba in April 2001 with my law school alumni association. I would not call it a fun trip, but it was certainly an eye-opener.

The infrastructure of Cuba was under great stress. The week we were there, an apartment building collapsed in Havana. It simply fell down from lack of care. Walking around Havana was disheartening.

I had agreed to slip some items into Cuba that were either restricted or forbidden. I had talked with Salvation Army officers there who had difficulty importing uniforms for their congregants. And a friend's cousin, who was an official in the Cuban Communist Party, needed a muffler for his car.

So, my sole suitcase was filled with uniforms and a car part. I carried one change of clothes in a backpack. Surprisingly, Cuban Customs showed no interest in the odd combination in my suitcase.

My friend's cousin returned my generosity by showing me around Havana Old Town. He was holding forth on the evils of capitalism and how Cuba, unlike Mexico, did not have beggars, when as if on cue, an elderly woman sidled up to the two of us and asked for alms.

Without missing a beat, he dismissed her and claimed she was a parasite who had no need to beg. I had no interest in stating the obvious because we both knew the truth.

My gifts to the Salvation Army were received with a bit more grace and without the patina of Party dogma. I spent most of Sunday with them while the Party neighborhood cadre logged my comings and goings from the church building.

If I do return to Cuba, I look forward to seeing the officers again. I still have a dream of working with the Salvation Army in Cuba.

And I would also like to meet with one or two of the brave souls who are attempting to bring liberty to Cuba. That may be foolhardy on my part. Not because I am worried about my own safety; I would be concerned about their future. Police states do not take kindly to such contacts.

When I was in Havana over 18 years ago, we had dinner at one of the home restaurants (paladares). Because of my love for Cuban food, I had been looking forward to the dinner. Of course, ropa vieja topped the list.

It was a disappointment. The owner talked with us and apologized for the quality of the meal. The government was his sole supplier. Because some members of the Party were displeased at the success of the small home businesses, supplies had been cut to a trickle, literally starving revenues.

If I decide to take this trip, I will be incommunicado for the duration. Even though Cuba has internet, it is greatly restricted. And mobile telephone service is problematic. Even the Chinese Communist Party allows more access than that.

But, I did not have the internet or a cell phone in Havana in 2000. I can survive that.

The bigger question is whether I want to make another visit. After all, I almost didn't make another version of ropa vieja because I had made it before. If I am reluctant to reprise food, maybe I should be as reluctant to feather the nests of those who enslave their own people.

There are certainly better places -- freer places -- to spend my hard-earned capitalist dollars.

We shall see.

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