Getting beans to the right texture and the liquid to the right thickness is almost an art form.
Food is scarce in Cuba…at least if you’re a Cuban paying in Cuban Pesos. Not so much if you’re paying in CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos), which is what foreigners use. The CUC is pegged to the US Dollar but if you change Dollars for CUCs you pay a 10% penalty as opposed to exchanging another currency, say the Euro, for CUCs.
I visited a butcher shop in Havana which pretty much now only sells chicken; when chicken is available, that is. If you notice the door to the cooler is open. That’s because the cooler isn’t on because there’s no inventory.
The butcher is just waiting around for chicken to arrive.
When that chicken does arrive, it will likely be frozen Tyson chicken from the United States. Even though, when this picture was taken, the US embargo of Cuba was in full force.
The same is true of hot sauce. If one asks for hot sauce at a restaurant in Cuba one is likely to get a bottle of Tabasco shipped in from Avery Island, Louisiana. Clearly there are exceptions to the embargo for some American companies!
If you pay in CUCs, the food available increases dramatically.
The disparity in prices for food purchased with Pesos vs CUCs is so large that average Cubans cannot afford to buy food with CUCs, even if they can get them. It takes 25 Cuban Pesos to buy one CUC. Paying in Pesos limits one to shopping in pretty-much locals’ only stores, with limited inventory where the products, like rice and beans, are sold at subsidized prices.
Rum is widely available regardless of the currency. You’ll pay more if you’re a foreigner, however.
After returning from the trip to Cuba in 2014, I tried but couldn’t get the texture of my “Cuban” black beans right. But then, my mother-in-law got a recipe from Beatriz (Betty) Scannapieco. Betty is from Cuba. She was in the exercise group my in-laws attend. Betty’s recipe, using a pressure cooker as is common in Cuba, works like a dream. It’s really pretty effortless, too. The green pepper, onion, and garlic add tremendous flavor but are removed after cooking leaving just beans and the silky cooking liquid.
I made three changes to Betty’s recipe. She called for 1 teaspoon of white wine. I use 1 tablespoon. Betty didn’t use tomato paste or black pepper but both are common ingredients in many Cuban black bean recipes.
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Cuban Black Beans
This recipe came from Beatriz (Betty) Scannapieco in my in-law’s exercise group. Betty is from Cuba. I added the tomato paste and black pepper to Betty’s recipe. I also increased the wine from 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon. It can be challenging to get the bell pepper, onion, and garlic out of the beans as they very soft after cooking. If you want to make it easier, you could tie them in cheesecloth.
At the age of 12, shortly after the end of World War II my mother-in-law, her brother (our Uncle Ray), and mother came to the States. Her father had been in the US working with the intention of bringing over the family but then the war broke out and the family could not be reunited until it ended.
One set of cousins stayed in Treppo Grande. Another set of cousins moved to France.
In 1990 the “cousins,” as the US contingent called themselves, hatched a plan to organize a group trip to their hometown of Treppo Grande and to Digoin, France where the other set of “courtyard cousins” lived.
Naturally, planning for the trip required many “meetings” among the cousins; meetings that were fueled with copious amounts of food and alcohol interspersed with a little “business!”
The trip happened in August 1991. My husband and I went along with the “cousins” and their spouses.
We first met up in Paris for a day or two and did some sightseeing.
Afterwards, we were picked up in a small bus that had been arranged by Olvino, one of the original “courtyard cousins” who lived in Digoin. As I recall, the driver only spoke French. Among us we spoke English, Italian, Friulan (the language of Friuli), and a smattering of Spanish and German, but no French. Thankfully the driver knew where he was going and, for all other needs, we managed to communicate in some rudimentary, but effective, manner.
Interesting to me was that the vehicle had graph paper that kept a running record of the bus’s speed. Apparently the driver could be asked to produce the graph paper by the police and could be fined if it showed that he had exceeded the speed limit. Can you imagine that happening in the United States???
I was also fascinated when we stopped for lunch. The driver had a glass of wine. I will repeat that. This professional bus driver had a glass of wine with lunch then got behind the wheel. Apparently, he was legally permitted to have one, just one, glass of wine and still drive.
Admittedly, one glass of wine is not going to get anyone’s blood alcohol level close to a level that produces intoxication but it pointed out that 1) the French are highly (overly?) regulated and 2) Europeans have a more relaxed approach to alcohol (probably to life in general, actually!).
I had a similar experience in 1994 when I did several consulting gigs in Europe. I frequently had lunch with physicians from the hospitals where I was consulting. Everyone (yes, everyone) had a glass of wine or beer with lunch and then went back to the hospital to work.
But I digress.
We spent several fun days in Digoin, where the local cousins had rented out a small hall, with a kitchen, because none of them had a house big enough to host all of us, and all of them, for meals.
There must have been six banquet tables shaped into a “U” around which we all sat. The crowd included not only those of us from the States, but the cousins who lived in Digoin along with their significant others, their children, and their children’s significant others.
Conversations frequently included four languages. The “cousins” typically spoke Friulan with each other. From there, the conversation would get translated into Italian, English, and French so that everyone could understand anything of interest to the group.
I don’t remember what we ate for dinner the first night except for the pasta which was sauced with a red sauce made by Ivana, Olvino’s wife.
I was transported by that sauce.
Tomato sauces in Friuli are different from the rest of Italy in that they have noticeable amounts of “warm” spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. My mother-in-law makes a sauce similar to the one that Ivana makes but there are differences. For example, hers includes only beef. Today’s recipe, however, is a tribute to Ivana.
This is my interpretation of Ivana’s recipe. Since the original recipe contained a list of ingredients but no quantities, I had to figure out what worked.
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There should be a little bit of red-tinged oil floating on top of the sauce to improve the mouthfeel of the pasta—just a little. If you cannot find lean ground pork, you may want to grind your own. An actual meat grinder will work better than a food processor but if you’re using a food processor be careful not to grind the meat too finely. For the beef, I suggest using 93% lean. This recipe makes enough sauce for approximately 4 pounds of pasta. Extra sauce freezes well.
As I am writing this, my husband’s Great Aunt Fidalma and cousin Massimo are visiting us from Tuscany. We’ve had quite a week of eating and drinking. Every night, actually, was something like a party. At the lowest head count we were 6, but more often 9, and once 20!
While we were sitting at the table after dinner doing what Italians do (talking about growing food, talking about preparing food, talking about food we’ve eaten, and talking about the next meal) Zia Fidalma started to describe a dish of thinly sliced beef cooked in tomato sauce with capers.
“Carne di Manzo in Umido!” I said. She concurred.
I told her that Carne di Manzo in Umido was, in fact, the long-planned blog post for Wednesday.
It is a dish I had at her home in Tuscany about 20 years ago. I wrote down the recipe in a combination of English and Italian and American and Metric measures sitting at her kitchen table. It took me a while to get it right but I think I’ve nailed it.
Here’s a quick rundown of the food we’ve had over the past week:
August 24th: Tiella (being posted in September), Grilled Hot and Sweet Italian Sausage, Grilled Broccolini drizzled with Olive Oil, and more Cherries in Brandy, Homemade Limoncello, and Homemade Bay Leaf Liqueur.
August 25th: Zia Fidalma’s Rouladen (German, I know, but Zia Fidalma lived in Germany for many years), Mashed Potatoes, Corn on the Cob and, you guessed it, more Cherries in Brandy, Homemade Limoncello, and Homemade Bay Leaf Liqueur.
August 26th (for 20 people): A Massive Antipasto Platter thanks to cousins Paul and Kim Phillips (and a shopping spree at Cheesemongers of Santa Fe), Baked Penne with Ham, Peas, Mushrooms and Roasted Garlic Besciamella, Porchetta, Corn Sautéed in Butter, Sformato di Spinaci, and Italian Almond Torta with Raspberries and Plum Crostata (thanks to Rich DePippo). Then there were those ever-present Cherries in Brandy, Homemade Limoncello, and Homemade Bay Leaf Liqueur.
August 27th brought some sanity as we had leftovers from the 26th. (We could still feed a small army with the remains of Paul and Kim’s Antipasto Shopping Spree.)
August 28th: As described above, meatballs, risotto, and green beans.
I neglected to mention that we went through cases of wine and then there was a dark chocolate cake from Chocolate Maven Bakery in Santa Fe that kept making its appearance most nights right before we broke out those cherries.
Eating will slow down a bit now that the relatives have left. As I finish writing this the house is perfumed from a large pot of chicken broth that will get portioned and frozen ready to be pulled out of the freezer in the coming weeks for wave after wave of risotto made with the freshest vegetables the market has to offer.
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Carne di Manzo in Umido
Thinly sliced beef is browned and then simmered in the barest amount of tomato sauce with an array of herbs. A bit of capers round out the flavors.
Herbs, clockwise from top right: nepita, bay leaf, sage, rosemary, oregano.
Combine the flour and 1 ½ teaspoons of salt. Mix well.
Pound the steak lightly with a mallet.
Season the steak with salt and pepper. Cut the pieces in half if they are too large after pounding.
Dredge the steak in the seasoned flour and reserve. It is best to do this about an hour in advance as the flour will adhere to the meat better.
Bruise the garlic with the side of a large chef’s knife.
Put a thin film of olive oil on the bottom of a very large sauté pan. Heat over medium high heat.
When hot, add as much of the beef as will fit without crowding in a single layer. Add half the garlic.
Sauté the meat and garlic until the meat is browned on both sides.
Remove the browned meat to a platter. Repeat with the remaining meat and garlic, in however many batches are needed.
If the garlic starts to turn dark brown, remove it or it will become bitter.
When all the meat is browned return it to the pan with any accumulated juices. Leave the cooking oil in the pan.
Try to arrange the meat so that the pieces overlap rather than putting one piece of meat directly on top of another.
Add all the other ingredients except the capers.
Cover and simmer gently until meat is tender flipping the meat every 20 minutes or so. It will take at about one and one-half to two hours to get the meat tender depending on the cut and your elevation.
Add water from time to time if the sauce boils away.
Rinse the salt off the capers and add them during last five minutes of cooking. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.
There should be a very small amount of sauce along with oil that is red from the tomato. Do not remove the oil, it adds significantly to the mouthfeel of the sauce.
I first tasted this dish in Tuscany in the little hill town of Benabbio, in September 1996. My husband’s great Great Aunt Fidalma, Zia Fidalma, made it with little birds, sparrows actually, that her husband, Faliero, had shot.
That was one of my most memorable meals in Italy. My husband and I had traveled to Italy with his parents. We stayed in a little hotel in the town of Fornoli where my father-in-law grew up. We alternated meals at the homes of numerous relatives throughout the area.
It was wonderful sitting in Zia Fidalma’s kitchen watching her put together components of the meal in that seemingly effortless way that happens in homes throughout Italy. We had sautéed mushroom caps. Zia Fidalma foraged the mushrooms. I remember them sitting in a shallow box on the kitchen counter. She plucked a few out of the box, cleaned them. They were quickly sautéed and seasoned with salt, pepper, and nepita.
I can’t get a consensus on the spelling of nepita. I’ve seen it as gnebita, gnepita, and nepeta, among others. It is a variety of catmint. Zia Fidalma uses it to season mushrooms. It is a magical combination.
We smuggled nepita seeds back from Tuscany on that visit, along with heirloom tomato seeds, both from Zio Faliero’s garden. We’ve grown both ever since. For 20-plus years we’ve had nepita; first in our garden in Chicago (at the Rohkam House, where we lived starting in January 1996) and then subsequently at Villa Sentieri, in Santa Fe.
There are only three components of that meal that I remember clearly, the mushrooms, the little birds, and the wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano brought out at the end of the meal for us to eat with fruit. I know there was a pasta but I can’t remember what it was. The same is true for the side dishes (contorni, in Italian).
My mother-in-law was in heaven with the little birds. She was sitting across the table from me. The meal had become languorous by then and it wasn’t, somehow, inappropriate for me to pull out my video camera. Remember those? I’m talking about dedicated video cameras with cassettes for recording, not phones or cameras with video capability.
As she was reveling in her little birds (uccelleti, in Italian) I used my video camera to focus in on her. First on her face, but then ultimately on just her lips. Her lips filled the screen like the lips in the opening moments of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. There were those lips, sucking in little bird parts then extruding cleaned bones. Every now and then there was the occasional bit of bird shot that needed to be eliminated.
To this day, that video footage is a kind of kompromat in our family. Thanks to President Trump for making that term common knowledge. My mother-in-law hates that video footage. I occasionally mention its existence and (vaguely) threaten to allow it to surface…as I did for this post but, in the end, in the interest of domestic harmony, did not.
Pollo all'Uccelleto (Chicken Little Bird Style)
I first had this dish in Tuscany. It was made, literally, with little birds (blackbirds) bagged by my husband’s Great Uncle Faliero. Since little birds are not easily available in the US, I rendered the dish using chicken after returning from the 1996 trip to Italy. I called it “Chicken Little Bird Style” or “Pollo all’Uccelleto.”
Much to my surprise, years later, I discovered that Italians do, in fact, refer to this preparation as “all’Uccelleto,” and use it on things other than little birds (chicken, for example). What simply started out as Uccelleti, “Little Birds,” became for me "Pollo all’Uccelleto," or “Chicken Little Bird Style.”
From Great Aunt Fidalma’s kitchen to you is Chicken Little Bird Style. If you actually have little birds, by all means, give them a try. If not, chicken thighs are a great, if less gamey, substitute.
Use good quality olives for this dish. If you don’t have access to an Italian market, I suggest using olives from the olive and antipasto bar that is common in many supermarkets these days. I usually use half oil-cured black olives and half green olives, such as castelvetrano. I prefer using olives with pits.
3/4cupoliveshalf oil cured black olives and half green olives
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Remove the leaves from the rosemary and oregano.
Mince the sage, rosemary, and oregano leaves. Reserve.
Remove the skin from the chicken thighs and any large pieces of fat.
Using the broad side of a chef’s knife, bruise (smash, really) the garlic cloves.
In a heavy skillet large enough to hold the chicken thighs in a single layer, heat the olive oil.
When the oil is hot, add the chicken thighs and garlic. Season the chicken with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Brown the chicken, turning several times. As the garlic cloves get dark brown, remove and discard them before they burn.
When the chicken is brown, and all garlic has been removed, add the tomato sauce, bay leaves, minced herbs (rosemary, sage, and oregano) and crushed red pepper.
Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally and turning chicken over every 30 minutes or so, for approximately 1 hour.
If the sauce gets too dry add a little white wine (or water) from time to time.
After an hour, add the olives, cover, and continue cooking over low heat, stirring occasionally and turning chicken over every 30 minutes or so, for approximately 1 more hour.
Taste and adjust salt and black pepper during the last half hour of cooking. The olives will be salty, so it's best to wait till they've cooked a while before adding more salt.
When finished, the chicken should truly be “fall-apart” tender and the sauce should be mostly a red colored olive oil with just a tiny bit of tomato sauce.
I don’t usually use canned tomato sauce. I prefer to use tomato paste and water. For this dish I use tomato sauce because so little is needed and it’s consistent with what Great Aunt Fidalma did. If you want to use tomato paste, mix 1½ tablespoons of tomato paste with 6 tablespoons of water and use in place of the tomato sauce.