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Boiling Water in Cuba

Posted: Feb 13, 2009 11:26am ET

I made dinner for some friends in Havana the other night. I am in the Cuban capital for a couple of weeks reporting for Wine Spectator's sister publication, Cigar Aficionado. Check out my daily blog from the island at cigaraficionado.com.

The dinner I made was disgusting. Maybe the worst dinner I have ever cooked! I feel like throwing away my kitchen apron! Have you ever had similar kitchen disasters?

I thought I was going to make a simple pasta dish with olive oil, fresh tomatoes, garlic and shrimp. I couldn't find the shrimp, the "fresh" tomatoes were old and the pasta was made in Cuba. Buying fresh ingredients is not easy on the island. As they say, "Hace lo mismo!" - Make it anyway!

The pasta ended up being a weird concoction of tinned tomato sauce, sautéed garlic and ham and cabbage. The pasta fell apart after five minutes of cooking. The package said to cook it for 10 minutes. Maybe I should have served it uncooked? It was really not good.

It didn't help that the water never came to a boil on the hob. My Cuban friends keep teasing me about how I was such a bad cook that I couldn't even boil water! I promised them that I did attend three months of Cordon Bleu in London about 20 years ago. I am not sure they knew what Cordon Bleu was. The credentials don't help you cooking in Cuba anyway!

The bottle of 2005 Torres Cabernet Sauvignon Penedès Mas La Plana Black Label saved the evening, but a couple of my dinner guests don't drink. It was fresh and fruity with currant, raspberry and hints of vanilla. It was full- to medium-bodied, with balanced and fine tannins and a long finish. I thought it was beautiful to drink now but would improve with age. 90 points, non-blind. I am a big fan of this wine for the money.

There is a very good selection of Spanish wines in La Habana in the handful of top restaurants. I have been drinking lots of interesting bottles from Alexandro Fernandez and Emilio Morro. I think Tempranillo goes well with everything from fried pork to grilled fish, as well as the traditional accompaniment of black beans and rice.

I just wish I could find the right ingredients myself, and prove to my friends that I actually am a really good cook! Que pena!

Italy —  February 13, 2009 1:12pm ET
Hey James, perhaps you have to try at the Black Market or talk to Raul , Fidel or Elian!
Blaine Desantis
Greenville, SC —  February 13, 2009 1:48pm ET
James, How did you make it to Havana? Press allowance, or foreign passport? I am sure the cigars will be better than the meal!
James Suckling
 —  February 13, 2009 2:53pm ET
There are private farmers' markets in Havana. I just didn't have time to get to a good one.
James Rego
Redding, Ca., Shasta County —  February 13, 2009 3:08pm ET
Hey James, I too like to cook and most of what I cook, I, and others seem to enjoy ; Every once in awhile something goes wrong and I question my provence as a cook. I relate it to my golf game ; once in awhile you just have to forget that last shot and focus on the next one and it all works out!
Marc Robillard
Montreal,Canada —  February 13, 2009 3:16pm ET
James. Just make toast and keep drinking the Mas La Plana Black Label. The '01 and '03 are both drinking beautifully right now as are the 03 and 04 basic Emilio Moro's.Marc
Tyler Mcafee
Houston, TX —  February 13, 2009 4:23pm ET
I used to live with a Dominican guy in college. Everything he made involved dumping some canned broth, veggies, etc into a pot and braising several cheap pieces of meat until it fell apart tender and delicious...usually dark meat chicken. I had no idea their pasta falls apart too. :) Of course, no meal was complete without black beans and rice. Maybe this is one of those "When in Rome..." lessons.Sorry to hear that Cordon Bleu produced Cordon Bleech. Happens to the best of us. At least the wine wasn't corked.
Giancarlo Ortega
Washington DC —  February 13, 2009 4:26pm ET
2005 Mas La Plana? That was a pretty young bottle and I am surprised it is already available in Cuba. I always drink Mas La Plana but the youngest vintage I have drank is the 2003, which is beautiful to drink now also but will be best in a couple of years. The 2001 and 2003 are rated also 90 pts. How do these compare to the 2005? I agree, Mas La Plana is a great value Cabernet.
Johnny Espinoza Esquivel
February 13, 2009 4:39pm ET
Hey James, don't be so hard on yourself. I love to cook too and I do really love to cook for my friends and have them at my house to share a couple of bottles of wine. I'm sure that was your intention at the end. That things didn't go as you expect, well, that's a different story. Sometimes, I have had some wreck at my kitchen. Real disasters, that's when I tell to myself: Relax! Next time I will be awesome and the food will be top notch. I bet you'll have the chance to re-cap such "wreck of yours" and demonstrate them how good you are cooking. BTW the video Suckling Cooks, it's one of my favorite.
Jonathan Rezabek
Chandler, AZ —  February 13, 2009 10:05pm ET
Lo siento
Lorenzo Erlic
victoria canada —  February 14, 2009 2:48am ET
Buenas Noches James: Here's a recipe that ingredients will be easy for you to find: Take about 1 cup of chopped green (young) coconut meat; 1 tbsp of fresh cilantro; 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil; 1 tbsp finely minced red onion; generous dash of salt; juice of 1 small lime. Mix together let rest for 30 minutes and enjoy. Great with most white wines as a first salad course!
Paulo Pereira
February 14, 2009 9:19am ET
Carissimo, It is frustating to not find the ingredients for one of your favorite dishes abroad. But almost like Natural Selection has done for secies, time and availability of the best native ingredients drive the development of delicious local recipes. Therefore, next time, I suggest you try a local Cuban recipe. I am sure it will work out.
Dennis D Bishop
Shelby Twp., MI, USA —  February 14, 2009 9:32am ET
I love to cook and find that most times my guests are blown away at what I can "throw" together in about 30 min. in my little kitchen. I never start cooking until the guests arrive. We enjoy our pre-meal wine while the food is sauteed, steamed, boiled or grilled. There has been more then one occasion where something just goes wrong or does not come out the way it should. When that happens I have been known to throw the food out and start over again - so what if we have two bottles before diner instead of one - it seems to make the food taste that much better! But then, you were cooking on the road and did not have your pantry as back-up. Good luck next time!! Oh, and thanks for the wine tips!
Eric P Guido
New York, NY —  February 15, 2009 10:49pm ET
Coming from a Chef, it sounds like you had everything working against you and so you shouldn't beat yourself up too much. Sounds like you gave it your all and that's all that counts.
Manuel Funcia
Santo Domingo / Dominican Republic —  February 15, 2009 11:26pm ET
Even though the Dominican Republic is an underdeveloped country, we have many fine dining restaurants as well as a ¿Wine Spectator Award of Excellence¿ winning wine shop, El Catador, amongst several others, and various delis and supermarkets with great local and international offerings, and as I¿ve been told from fellow Dominicans that have traveled to our neighboring island, the availability of imported products, as well as some local products to the general public is not comparable; even if sometimes you have to visit 5 different supermarkets to make one recipe ;)
Jws Ruxin
los angeles, ca —  February 24, 2009 2:07pm ET
Hi James, thanks for the great brunello heads-up. You mentioned that numerous family-owned, smaller wineries did well. Did Lazzeretti, your discovery I think, do well? And is Mocali keeping up their good work? Thanks again for all.

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