Vinnie Hansen is the author of the Carol Sabala Mystery Series, the stand-alone novel Lostart Street, and numerous short stories. Still sane after 27 years of teaching high-school English, Vinnie has retired and lives in Santa Cruz, California, with her husband and the requisite cat. Learn more about her and her books at her website.
For those who want all the creature comforts of home, Cuba may not be the travel destination for you. The long-standing embargo has created many shortages, including a lack of basic staples like salt. The Cuban people compensate for the dearth of supplies with great resourcefulness—nothing goes to waste. But the island is better suited as a destination for those who like locations precisely because they don’t have a Starbuck’s on every corner. People like my husband and me.
While my husband and I enjoy cultures that are different than ours, we don’t necessarily relish the arduous process of getting there. Cuba beckoned us—a non-stop flight to Cancun and then a simple hour hop to Havana. Fairly simple travel to be in one of only two places in the world without Coca-Cola.
We ventured (illegally) to Cuba in 2010, where we traveled for a month, staying in casas particulares, private homes that rent out rooms and provide breakfast. The typical breakfast is white bread, possibly jam and honey, coffee, eggs, juice, and fresh fruit. Because of the embargo, the fruit includes choices from what grows in Cuba—guavas, pineapple, mangos, watermelon, and small, firm bananas. There is a good chance what you eat will be organically grown. But don’t expect variety!
While the menu items may not vary, the quality can vary widely. We were served everything from rotten bananas and instant coffee with powdered milk, to sweet fresh fruit and strong, delicious Cuban coffee.
Danny and I were on our own to scout out other meals. According to a billboard, Cubans eat Cuban pork. As non-meat eaters, we never tried Cuba’s famous pulled pork. A standard meal for us was fish with cristianos and moros—white rice (imported from Vietnam) and black beans.
This is a typical meal for the locals, as well, although Cubans don’t eat in the same restaurants as tourists, unless, by some miracle they can afford it. Cubans have their own eating establishments where tourists are not allowed, and the food is a tenth of the price. We had a connection to a Cuban citizen who snuck us into one of these out-of-sight diners. We rapped on a door behind the tourist restaurant and were admitted to a galley-room with about four tables and no windows. The food, though, was no doubt the same fare that was being eaten in the restaurant in front.
Although Americans have been restricted in their travel to Cuba, that doesn’t mean the country lacks tourists. We met people from all over the world. The Cuban government has started to allow privately owned and operated restaurants to serve these visitors. Some of them are quite good. We even managed to eat pizza one night!
But even in these spots, one has two choices for beer—light or dark. Steak is practically unheard of. Even with chicken, expect only dark meat. White meat is reserved for mucky-mucks, or so we were told.
The colorful culture of Cuba provides the backdrop for Black Beans & Venom, the seventh book in my Carol Sabala Mystery Series.
Because Cuban people lack resources, Cuban black beans can be bland. My friend Huve Rivas supplied the following recipe. He hails from Puerto Rico and this is an adaptation of a recipe from his mother, Carmen Olmeda Rivas. The people of Puerto Rico like their black beans a little soupier than the people of Cuba. These are truly delicious!
2 tsp. olive oil
1 pound of black beans
8 oz. can tomato sauce
sofrito (sautéed onion, cilantro, clove of garlic, 1 bell pepper, lots of cilantro in olive oil)
10-12 olives (pimiento stuffed)
1 T. capers
2 cubed medium-sized potatoes
Enough water to keep an inch or two above beans while cooking
salt to taste
1 tsp. ground cumin (optional)
Rinse beans and let them soak in a pot of water overnight to soften. (Use whatever water is not absorbed for cooking.)
Lightly sauté sofrito.
In a large pot place beans, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Lower flame to bring beans to simmer.
Add salt and sofrito (you can add extra raw cilantro). Let it simmer 20-30 min., then add potatoes, olives, capers, and tomato sauce.
Cook for another 30-40 minutes or until beans are tender. Don’t let the water level go below beans. Gently stir every once in a while. Some people simmer beans uncovered while others cover with a lid.
Black Beans & Venom, Book 7 of the Carol Sabala Mysteries
No one wants P.I. Carol Sabala to take the case. Her boss is apprehensive about an illegal investigation in Cuba. Carol’s boyfriend worries about her physical safety. But the client is rolling in dough, the office has unpaid bills, and Carol chafes under the mundane tasks assigned to her.
In Old Havana, Carol sets off to track down Megan, the client’s missing daughter, who is battling metastasizing cancer and running from a sociopathic boyfriend. Struggling in the exotic world of the island, Carol races to find Megan, before the disease or her ex-boyfriend kills her.