Sunday, September 29, 2013


This was exactly what I needed on this rainy Sunday.  My home team won, and my other home team lost, so it was a so-so day in football.  When I was searching for recipes, I came across Cuban sandwiches, which I thought I had before, but the sandwich I was eating wasn’t a true Cuban.  And of course, I made my own Cuban bread to go with it, because, well, duh. I can.

Crusty cubano bread, because crusty isn't always gross. 
I actually had to start with the bread, because part or the starter had to be done the night before and sit in the refrigerator overnight.  Once I made the dough, using yeast, sugar, water, salt, the batch starter and vegetable shortening (which I really hate using because you can barely wash it off), it sat for 45 minutes. Then I punched it down (my favorite part!), and formed the loaves and let them sit for another hour. I was supposed to put a piece of damp twine down the middle of the loaves to create a “ridge” when they baked, but I forgot.  However, this crusty bread was perfect for the sandwiches.

El Cubano, which is Spanish for "best sandwich ever."
 This morning, I put my pork roast (that I found on sale for $4.22 for a 2-lb roast!) in my crock pot and covered it with a 2L bottle of ginger ale.  This came at the recommendation of a friend who insists that it was the best way to do it, and I tend to agree (except that I forgot to put salt and pepper on it, so it probably would’ve been even better than what we actually ate). While there are many varieties of Cuban sandwiches, a true Cuban (from what I’ve gathered) is the Cuban bread (or another crusty bread), ham, pork roast (or pulled pork), Swiss cheese, and yellow mustard.  Then it’s put in a sandwich press, which I don’t have, so I put the sandwich on an oiled griddle and smashed it down with another pot.  It seemed to do the trick more or less.  One thing I read was that this sandwich wasn’t really created in Cuba itself, but rather by Cubans who immigrated to Florida, namely the Miami and Tampa areas.  So, I suppose this sandwich represents the vast Cuban diaspora that took place after the Revolution. 

I love how food from Latin America and the Caribbean is so colorful. 
 To go with this sandwich, I found a recipe for Cuban black beans and rice.  Black beans and rice is pretty much a staple wherever you go anywhere south of Texas, especially in the Latin American countries.  And as many families there are, there are varieties of this recipe. This recipe for Cuban black beans called for minced garlic, bell pepper (my four-year-old picked a half orange/half green bell pepper), onion, and a can of black beans all cooked down in a skillet together. It also called for 6 oz of light beer, but I totally forgot to put that in (that’s probably the mojitos working). But on the plus side, I have a Corona and a couple lime quarters left. And tomorrow’s Monday, so I’ll need it. The rice was fairly easy as well.  I put a cup of rice and two cups of water in a pan, adding salt, onion, a little ground turmeric in lieu of annatto, chili powder in lieu of paprika, and black pepper. Once it started boiling, and I turned the heat down, I let it cook for about 10 minutes. Then I added a cup of frozen peas that I let thaw and let it cook for another 5-6 minutes. I garnished the black beans with chopped fresh cilantro, and I topped the rice with chopped pimentos. 

Hold on, I'll be right back. I need to get another one of these.
And of course, there’s no denying that Cuba has some of the world’s greatest drinks. Mojitos, daiquiris, and Cuba Livres (otherwise known as rum and Coke) – it’s like a three-course meal in and of itself. I went with a mojito, since I’ve had the other two more times than I can count, and as far as I remember, I’ve never had a mojito. This recipe said it was the preferred method of Ernest Hemingway.  I put four mint leaves in the bottom of the glass and topped it with the juice of a half a lime. Then I put a teaspoon of powdered sugar in and muddled it together.  I then added in the crushed ice, two tablespoons of Bacardi rum, and topped with two tablespoons of club soda.  The recipe actually called for Havana Club rum, but I went with Bacardi since it’s easier to find. (Besides, Bacardi used to be a Cuban business until the Revolution and they left. I think their corporate headquarters are officially in Bermuda, but they also have large offices in Miami as well. Havana Club came on the scene as the official government-approved rum, or something like that. I read that Bacardi isn’t even sold in Cuba anymore because they’re still mad they left.)  After garnishing with a sprig of mint, I realized that I really enjoyed this drink. And in fact, I made a mocktail version for the kids – instead of Bacardi, I used cream soda. They loved it as well. I’m not sure if I should be concerned with that or not. Probably not.

A meal that makes you say, "I couldn't eat another bite if Castro himself mandated it." 
After reading about Cuba for the past couple of weeks, I feel like I finally understand a lot of history that was never taught to us in school. Castro’s Revolution, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis are all a little clearer to me now. I think I missed a lot of 20th century history when I was in high school. We pretty much stopped at WWI and barely touched on WWII. It’s such a waste that I missed so much.  And the thing is, is that this is still going on, Cuba’s still making news these days in big ways. Some good, some bad, but that’s the way things are. I really enjoyed researching this country: the food, the music, the art. I just wish that we were able to go there freely. Perhaps my kids will be able to, though.

Up next: Cyprus


Cuba has a very strong music tradition, influencing other styles all over the world, from the Americas and the Caribbean to African and Mediterranean music. Cuban music not only influenced many different styles, but in and of itself is a merge of several styles and instrumentation from several different cultures. Initially, its main influences were Spanish (and other Europeans to a degree) for obvious reason, but it also borrowed instruments and styles from the Chinese immigrants who were there and that merged with the Caribbean music of the Taíno peoples who were already there. And as Africans arrived, they added a fourth dimension to Cuban music. There are far more genres and subgenres of Cuban music that I’m not going to go into great detail on; I’m just going to touch on the main ones.

If the guitar is the cornerstone of Cuban music, then percussion is the foundation. The Spanish brought over the guitar with them, as well as musical notation.  Other instruments that were used were the clarinet, the violin, and the vihuela (a guitar-like instrument with six doubled strings found on the Iberian and Italian Peninsulas during the Renaissance period. On the percussive side, bongos, congos, and batá drums (a double-headed hourglass-shaped drum used a lot in santería) were often used. There were times when drums were actually banned, and instead musicians used the claves (basically two blocks/sticks beat against each other). Piano is also a very important instrument in Cuban music.  Many students start out learning piano from an early age, and it’s used in everything from classical music to traditional folk music.

In the early days – the 18th and 19th century centuries –Baroque music was predominantly the style of composition in Cuba with composers such as Esteban Salas y Castroand Ignacio Cervantes studied and worked with. Laureano Fuentes wrote the first opera called La hija de Jefté. The 20th century brought changes in the classical world as well, with composers and musicians such as Amadeo Roldán, Alejandro García Caturla (who was second chair violin with the Symphonic Orchestra of Havana at the age of 16, later to become a lawyer and judge to support his family, was murdered at the age 34 by a gambler he was getting ready to sentence a few hours later), Gonzalo Roig, Ernesto Lecuona, José Ardévol, among many other accomplished musicians and composers. 

There are a lot of different styles of music in Cuba, several of which are stemmed from the theatre.  Zarzuela is a form of a light opera or operetta. It generally has developed into a social commentary about Cuban life and problems.  Bufo is a theatrical style mostly dealing in satire and comedy.  A guaracha is a quick-tempo song that sings about people and events in the new in a comedic sort of way, but using a lot of slang and generally performed in the brothels of Havana.  Trova is a style of guitar music played by troubadours traveling around the island singing and playing music. Many times they performed in groups of twos and threes, but sometimes more. Several styles of music are African in origin, such as the rumba and comparsa (or also called Conga). Cuban music was a source of a lot of jazz musicians, and more or less formed its own genre of Latin jazz. Ray Barretto and Tito Puente were key figures of merging Cuban music with jazz and presenting arrangements to the American and European ear. Chachachá was also invented during the 1950s with musicians such as Perez Prada, who gave us the famous song “Mambo No. 5.” (I'm pretty sure the costumer was inspired by a chicken when they made these jackets.)

Probably the most important genre of music coming from Cuba is the son. Definitely using the guitar and the bongo, son typically also uses claves, the double bass, the trumpet (or cornet), and the piano.  Today, son has many variations and styles of its own, but the most key part of it is the syncopated bass line (also utilizing the anticipated bass as well).  Somehow, a lot of these styles all got lumped under the same category that ended up being called salsa. Cubans themselves don’t necessarily agree with this term, but to many Americans and Europeans, salsa music incorporates a lot of Cuban music styles, especially Cuban dance music. 

Dance is also important to Cubans, and a number of dances have become quite popular, not only in Cuba but throughout the Americas. Some of the more popular ones include son, danzón, danzonete, chacha, salsa, mambo, among others. Every time I hear the word mambo, I think of the great mambo dance scene from West Side Story.  I don’t know how true of a Cuban mambo dance it is (even though the characters were from Puerto Rico, which does share some similarities in culture), but I had the entire libretto memorized when I was in high school.

When I took a look at my Spotify playlist for Cuba, it was a mix of new and old. Among the new stuff, I mostly had some Cuban hip-hip (like Orishas: I found the album El Kilo at the library and really like it) and Cubatón (Cuba’s form of reggaeton, like Osmani Garcia, Eddy K, and Gente de Zona). Of the slightly older music that I equally liked (and probably listened to more), I came across Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, Compay Segundo, NG la Banda, Carlos Varela, and of course one of my favorites, Celia Cruz. Some artists such as Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan (one of the most successful Cuban musicians, much less Latin musicians, ever) who fled Cuba after the Revolution are considered “unpersons” by the Cuban government and their records aren’t even allowed to be sold in the country. 

Up next: the food!

Thursday, September 26, 2013


Because Cuba is a highly diverse country, its art is a direct reflection of that diversity that Cubans endear.  For many Cuban artists, art is not only a means of expressing themselves and their views but also with the underlying purpose of documenting a moment in their history and ways of life as well.  There are different styles throughout the decades and centuries, but for the most part, the most popular form of art is painting – of all kinds.  Many muralists and street artists have gone on to become quite famous, such as Amelia Peláez, José Guadalupe Posada, and Diego Rivera. 

The 1920s were the beginning of changes in the art movements in Cuba, starting with the Vanguardia artists.  These were artists who generally rejected all of the traditional art forms being taught in Cuban art schools at that time to opt for the more modern European (and especially French) styles that were emerging: surrealism, cubism, etc. Some of the prominent Vanguardia artists were Antonio Gattorno and Eduardo Abela.

Eduardo Abela

When Castro took over in 1959, they were pretty much cut off from the American and European artistic movements that drove their own influences. Most serious artists continued their studies and work abroad at this time.  But through the 1970s and 1980s, artists were beginning to teach younger artists about art as a means of expression, and soon that translated into seeing artists push freedom of speech and expression.

There is a whole class of artists who have been deemed as “Naïve Artists.” Since the established artists pride themselves on their education and their studies, to be called a Naïve Artist is somewhat meant in a unbecoming connotation. These styles are characterized by the lack of perspective and bold colors.  Usually depicting scenes of rural life and religious deities, it also shows typical Cuban and Afro-Cuban life, generally portraying people enjoying life amidst hard times.

Example of naïve art

Since the Spanish arrived in Cuba, people have been writing in and about Cuba as well. Poetry has always been a popular genre of literature, mostly in the classic styles dominating Spain at the time. Nature has always been a common theme.

The 19th century brought along new changes in Cuban literature as Cuban writers began to find their own voice. Neoclassicism with references to Greek and Roman mythology was one of the early influences upon Cuban writers. Neoclassicism merged into Romanticism with prominent writers such as José María Heredia, poet Juan Clemente Zenea, and José Martí.  Martí, along with Julián del Casal helped Cuba to bridge the transition after independence into the modern literary movements.

Jose Martí
Literature changed again with a group of writers collectively called the “Generation of the Fifty.” It was mostly comprised of writers who were born between about 1925 and 1945.  Among other things, these writers tended to add a new element to Cuban literature: colloquialism. It seems that literature at this time bluntly mirrored the art movements during these decades as well: new-Romanticism, surrealism, and origenist styles were emerging in poetry as well as prose. Some of the prominent authors from this era are Pablo Armando Fernández, Heberto Padilla, Carilda Oliver Labra. Nancy Morejón, and Raúl Rivero.

Nancy Morejón

 Castro’s Revolution brought along a whole new set of challenges for Cuban literature. First of all, paper and ink were hard to come by, much less materials for printing and binding. On the plus side of all of this, the free education system was established, giving women the opportunity to learn to read and write. A new generation of women writers emerged with these new opportunities. At the same time Afro-Cuban women also excelled at creating a unique niche in the market as a merge of African roots and a Cuban way of life, incorporating musical styles into their writing such as rhythm. Literature on a whole got a little better during the 1970s and 1980s, with novels, short stories, and plays being continuously published throughout these times. However, in the aftermath of Russia’s breakup in 1991, Cuba went through a period of economic instability known as the Special Period. Once again, paper, ink, and binding/publishing materials were scarce, but recovered towards the late 1990s.

Hemingway with his cat. 
Not only did some Cuban writers work from abroad, but the opposite also happened as well. American writer Ernest Hemingway (famous for his novels The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, and For Whom the Bell Tolls) spent much of the 1940s and 1950s living in Cuba where he wrote parts of For Whom the Bell Tolls. I’ve visited the home where he grew up in Oak Park, Illinois years ago. He apparently left 4000-6000 books in a bank vault in Havana when he left Cuba after Castro took over, eventually moving to Idaho.  He killed himself in the early 1960s, despondent partly over money problems and partly over his manuscripts he left in Cuba, among other things.

Up next: music and dance

Monday, September 23, 2013


Triumph of the Revolution/New Years (January 1):  This is the day in commemoration of the establishment of Fidel Castro’s government.  It celebrated the victory of revolution that took place in 1959.  It’s also New Years Day.  Cubans like to bring in the new year with drinks, music, dancing, lots of food, parades, fireworks, friends and family. 

Victory of Armed Forces Day (January 2): It’s basically a celebration of the armed forces that helped Fidel Castro take over the previous government. One tradition is that at 12:00 everyone fires a bullet into the air. Sounds like what the rednecks do on New Years around my house.

Good Friday/Easter (varies): The Cuban government ended religious holidays when Castro took over in 1959.  However, Pope John Paul II was instrumental in influencing those in control to reinstate Christmas (back in 1998) and Good Friday (in 2012).  People attended a special mass for the first time in nearly half a century, but even at that, not too many people showed up for it. But many people watched an address by the cardinal which was broadcast on TV.  Apparently, it’s still up in the air on whether Good Friday will indeed become a permanent national holiday.  In other Latin countries these celebrations are colorful and full of tradition, but there are almost two whole generations in Cuba who haven’t celebrated these religious holidays before. For the most part, Cubans will go to church on Easter Sunday and eat a special meal with friends and family. 

Labor Day (May 1): For a country that celebrates the distribution of work, Labor Day is an important holiday, complete with a day off and parades and speeches from politicians. It’s also a day to address the state of the union type of issues and plans for the future. According to the CIA World Factbook, Cuba has an “official” 3.8% unemployment, and there are no figures available for the percentage below the poverty level. It’s also common for human rights activists to use this day to address other issues, such as torture and unfair/false imprisonment (especially for political dissidents).

Commemoration of the Assault of the Moncada Garrison (July 25-27): Fidel Castro led about 135 men that he personally trained to attack and overtake the Moncada Barracks which were located in the city of Santiago de Cuba. This is often considered the beginning of the revolution.  The actual day of the attack was July 26, but this holiday celebrates the day before and after as well.  These three days are a very popular time for street fests, parades, and other community activities.

Independence Day (October 10): This day celebrates Cuba’s independence from Spain.  Although they also broke from the US, they don’t normally consider that part of Independence Day (perhaps some do).  Typical Independence Day celebrations take place in Cuba: parades, street fests, music, dancing, lots of food and drinks, flag displays, games (especially the national pastime baseball), and fireworks.  

Christmas (December 25): In the late 1960s, Fidel Castro decided that Christmas was interfering with sugar production, so he outlawed it. When Pope John Paul II came to Cuba in later latter part of the 1990s, he convinced them to bring back Christmas, and in 1998 Cubans were able to celebrate it again for the first time in nearly 30 years. Today, most Cuban Christians celebrate by attending a midnight mass where the bells officially ring in Christmas Day at the stroke of midnight. People decorate their homes and scurry to find gifts as they can afford them and to purchase special food to share with their families.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, September 22, 2013


For my entire life, Cuba has always been a land of various random reoccurrences popping up occasionally. It’s always been the symbol of the forbidden island, its connection to such names as Fidel and Raúl Castro and Che Guevara, and the incident known as the Cuban Missile Crisis (which ended on my birthday, although I wasn’t born yet). When I was in high school, I played the part of Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls, and in the play they went to Havana where she drank a “Cuban milkshake.” When I was pregnant with my daughter, one of my favorite college professors gave me a CD of Afro-Cuban music that I absolutely love and still play today.  And of course, not to mention one of my favorites: the Cuba Libre. And about a month ago, Diana Nyad just swam from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage.  But what is it about Cuba that keeps people interested in this place we are moderately discouraged from going to?

Called El Cocodrilo (“the crocodile” – after the shape of the island), Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, surrounded by the Florida Keys (the US) to the north, the Bahamas to the northeast, Turks and Caicos Islands to the east, Haiti to the southeast, Jamaica and Cayman Islands to the south, and Mexico to the southwest. It’s believed that Cuba got its name from the Taíno word roughly meaning “the land where everything is abundant.” Some historical linguists believe the island may have been named by Christopher Columbus, and believing that if he was truly Portuguese, it may have been named after an ancient city in Portugal.

The first European to land on Cuba was none other than Christopher Columbus, who landed there on my birthday (October 28), in 1492 and claimed the island for Spain.  (Again, my birthday must be some magical day in Cuban history.) Pretty much the Spanish wiped out the indigenous peoples who were there.  If the Taíno people survived the smallpox epidemic that killed scores, then the measles epidemic wiped out the remaining few.

Later sugarcane plantations began to be established which brought in African slaves to work the fields. During the 1860s, Cuban farmers (many of whom freed their slaves to join the fight, along with a couple thousand Cuban Chinese as well) began to rebel against the government to declare their independence. They did gain autonomy, but it didn’t stop conflict fighting between the Cubans and the Spanish, and even the US tried to get involve as well. The US did try several futile times to buy the island. Because of the US involvement, it led to the Spanish-American War. By signing the Treaty of Paris in 1898, the US basically “won” Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam from the Spanish. And four years later, Cuba finally was granted its independence from the US. However, a small portion of the island was kept as American soil: Guantánamo Bay, which is now most famous as a naval base and a controversial prison for those being held on terrorist charges.

During the late 1950s, Fidel Castro and other rebels overtook the government, eventually leading to a communist government, one of the last remaining established socialist-leaning-toward-communism countries (the others being Laos, Vietnam, and China).  The US gave direction to train refugees to go back to overthrow the Castro regime, and this invasion became known as the Bay of Pigs, which failed. Fidel Castro was known for his friendship with Che Guevara, an Argentine revolutionary to arrived to help and lead. As a means of retaliation for this invasion and that the US also put missiles in Turkey aimed at Moscow, Cuba and the Soviet Union joined together. The Russians had proposed to keep long-range missiles in Cuba aimed at the US to deter any more invasions. This became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, which resolved itself in two weeks time. Several years ago, Fidel Castro stepped down and handed over the presidency to his brother Raúl.

The capital city is Havana, or known in Spanish as La Habana. On the northwest shore of the island, Havana has roughly 2.1 million people – a little larger than Houston, Texas (US). It’s known for its wide variety of classic European architecture, from neoclassicism, baroque, and colonial to the modern styles of art deco and eclectic styles. Havana is also home to some of Cuba’s oldest cigar factories which produce some of the most-coveted cigars around the world.

Cuba’s economy is based mostly on a state-controlled planned economy.  Cuban families have what’s called a libreta, or a rations booklet. It basically tells them what kinds of food and how much they are allowed to get, and you can only purchase the food items at specific bodegas.  There are minor adjustments for young children, elderly, and pregnant women. Some items may not be available and often items were delayed. It’s been estimated that these rations only cover about 1/3 to 1/2 of the average family’s food need. (Minus the adjustments for elderly people, it reminds me of how the WIC program is set up in Chicago.) Of course, there are black market food marts: unlicensed vendors selling and bartering food directly to people. This, of course, is illegal and harshly dealt with. Cuba imports roughly 80% of the food that is used in these rations programs. Their major exports include sugar, nickel (number two in the world, after Russia), cobalt (number five in the world), tobacco, fish, medical products, citrus, and coffee. 

The vast majority of Cubans speak Spanish, and the country boasts a 99.8% literacy rate. Because of the large number of African immigrants living in Cuba, the Lucuni language (a dialect of the west African language Yoruba) is used most often in Santería practices. Because of its proximity to Haiti, Haitian Creole is also spoken in Cuba as well in some communities. Introduced by the Spanish, Roman Catholicism remains the most practiced religion, although there is a sizable number of people who practice other folk religions, such as Santería (an indigenous religion brought over from African – namely Nigeria – and merged with the Catholicism that was forced upon them).

Healthcare in Cuba has often been discussed in this controversial topic. Even as a socialist-communist state, Cuba’s healthcare competes well above other countries in the Americas. The government pushed that universal healthcare be a priority, and after years of building up this system, Cuba now has the highest doctor-to-population ratio in the world, so much so that they send doctors elsewhere to work as well. Life expectancy is up, and infant mortality is down.  They produce all of their own pharmaceutical drugs in their country, so there’s no need to import them. Even though it’s free or inexpensive for the citizens to go see a doctor or go to the hospital, there are plenty of challenges: facilities and equipment not quite up to par, low pay of doctors, and often delays on getting essential medications (even though they make it themselves).

The food is a fusion of African, Spanish, and Caribbean influences. And of course, I’m probably going to probably be playing bartender as well: mojitos, daiquiris, and Cuba Libres galore. I’m very excited to research Cuba while listening to Cuban music for the next week. 

Up next: holidays and celebrations

Sunday, September 15, 2013


Yesterday, the city of Indianapolis held its annual Sister Cities Festival downtown. And it was such a beautiful day to do so: it was sunny with a slight breeze, and the temperatures were in the low 70s.  We have eight sister cities, all mostly with ties to racing or agriculture.  I visited the booth to one of our sister cities: Piran, Slovenia. Piran is lies on the Adriatic Sea not too far from the Croatian border. I started talking to the lady there (who was part Croatian) and showed her my recipes. We talked about how amazing Swiss chard is and how we much we would love to retire to the Balkans. She showed me a bread stamp from the 1800s, a piece of metal with a raised design that bakers would put into the bottom of the bread pan and indent the bread with their stamp. That way people would know which bakery their bread came from.  I know a new project for my husband now: make me a bread stamp.
Povitica as it came out of the oven.

Cross-section of the povitica so you can see the marbled goodness and be jealous. 
So, stepping out of my dreams of retiring to Zagreb, I started my afternoon off today by making Chocolate Walnut Povitica (it’s sometimes referred to as a nut roll in the US).  The first thing to do is to proof the yeast. Then I had to scald my milk before putting it into my mixing bowl, adding in sugar, salt, the yeast mixture, egg, vanilla extract, and melted butter, and then the flour. Once it’s been kneaded until smooth, it had to rest for an hour and a half so that I could play some Candy Crush. (Just kidding on that part. Sort of.) Next came the filling.  I mixed cocoa powder, walnuts, and sugar together, and since I don’t have a food processor, I put it in my blender to crush everything so that it was the consistency of wet sand.  After I poured almost-boiling mixture of milk and butter on top of this cocoa-walnut mixture, I added an egg yolk and some vanilla and stirred until it was consistent and set it aside.  I rolled out the dough until it was more or less a 12-inch “square” and spread the filling over it, leaving about an inch or so from the edge.  Then I just rolled it up, which was easier said than done.  And somehow I managed to get it into my cake pan, although the seam side wasn’t necessarily down. And it was time to rest again. Trust me, I needed to. Just prior to putting it in the oven, I brushed the top with an egg white and sprinkled with sugar.  This is baked at 350F for 15 minutes, then at 300F for another 20-25 minutes (or until golden on top). What came out of the oven is a crispy, golden crust with a marbled chocolate inside and the occasional walnut piece lying in the corners like a forgotten Christmas present.  It practically melted in my mouth – the dichotomy of crispy dough and smooth filing makes for a decadent pastry. I absolutely loved this. It was definitely worth waiting for.  Because I used cocoa powder, it had a different flavor than if I had used milk chocolate chips or something.  If I were to do this again (who am I kidding? WHEN I do this again…), I think I’ll keep more walnut pieces in the chocolate mix in chunks instead of pulverizing all of them.
You had me at "bacon shoved into beef." 
The main meal today is called pasticada, or a Dalmatian stewed beef.  It starts with beef rounds, that I pierced the sides and shoved bacon inside of it.  It already sounds amazing. Then I browned it in oil, and once it was browned, I removed it. I added soup vegetables (I used a frozen mix of mirepoix vegetables) and browned those, adding in marjoram (in lieu of rosemary since my husband hates rosemary), a bay leaf, and ground pepper (it actually called for peppercorns, but I forgot to get them). Then I placed the meat back on top of the vegetables and added just a little water, letting it simmer on medium heat for about an hour and a half.  After this time, I took the meat out and set it aside.  Straining the vegetables, I put the liquid back in the pot and added some flour and a cup each of beef broth and white wine (I actually used a cheap moscato).  I didn’t want the vegetables to go to waste, so I put them in a blender with a little bit of the beef broth and pureed them, adding them back to the pot to help thicken the sauce.  I added a small can of sliced black olives and the juice from one lemon.  At first I thought the meat wasn’t done all the way through because it was a little pink on the inside in places. What confused me was that it was so tender to cut, but then I remembered I shoved it full of bacon.  And once I poured the sauce on top, the wine, the bacon, and the few olives gave it a very complex merging of flavors.  It was moderately smooth with a pleasant bitter bite in the aftertaste.  I really liked it.  Everyone else seemed to like it as well, except my little finicky one.
Whoever says vegetables are yucky obvious hasn't tried this.
And last but certainly not least, probably the most underrated part of the meal: blitva. I boiled five diced red potatoes in salted water. Then I added one bunch of Swiss chard. It always seems like a lot when I first put it in there, but it does draw up a little once it gets wet.  I like chard a little more than spinach because, like kale, it holds it shape a little more than spinach does.  I think the reason a lot of people don’t like spinach is because it gets soggy when it cooks down.  Perhaps if they would just try chard, we’ll finally get world peace. I’m certain that soggy spinach is the cause of all the fighting in the world. I threw in some minced garlic and a little sea salt and pepper.  It was amazing. I’m going to have to bring this recipe back out because it’s so easy and everyone loves it. And that’s a win-win in my book.
Definitely a cold-weather comfort meal. 
And while my weekend winds down, and I’m full from this absolutely wonderful Croatian meal, and I’m sipping on some of this cheap moscato I bought for the pasticada, I realized that I learned a lot about a country that I didn’t know much about.  And I was taken away from it all, so much so that I thought of retiring there. The thing that I appreciated is that this region is such a melting pot of Europe, and you can see that in their art, their music, their literature, and their cuisine. And I think that’s great. But another thing that I’ve learned to appreciate about where I am now, is that we’re such a global society. Even in my city of Indianapolis, we have representatives from most of the countries in the world here in my city somewhere. And we have the opportunities through these ethnic fests to eat the food, listen to their music, and talk to the locals who are from these countries or know a lot about these countries to learn firsthand what life is like there.  I highly encourage everyone to visit these festivals wherever you are. You’d have to pretty much be a grade A jerk to not enjoy yourself and learn something.
Up next: Cuba

Saturday, September 14, 2013


The earliest form of music stemming from the Medieval period were mostly Gregorian chants.  These chants are tied to the church as a means of liturgical traditions and are sung in Latin, the main language of the church at that time.  Madrigals – secular vocal music – came after this and were actually started in nearby Italy. 

Throughout the centuries, Croatia generally kept up with the musical trends throughout Europe. Organ music grew in popularity during the Baroque period, as well as the use of public balls and events where live music was performed.  Croatia excelled in classical music and upon entering the 20th century, also produced some fine jazz musicians as well.
Several Croatian folk traditions follow some of the major musical styles found in the Balkans. Ganga is a style of vocal singing in which a leader sings a line, and the others join afterwards in a quasi wail.  It’s generally more of a small-town thing these days. Another form of vocal singing is an a cappella form called klapa. It’s built mostly around harmony and melody, not so much on rhythm. Originating from the Dalmatian area, klapa groups are pretty much male-only since it’s comprised of two tenors, a baritone, and a bass, and each part can be doubled if need be. Even though traditionally, it’s sung a cappella, a guitar or mandolin accompaniment isn’t out of the question. It’s actually far more popular, even still sung in taverns and bars at times. And actually nowadays, there are female groups and mixed klapa groups as well.  What a great culture that still sings in multi-part harmony.  It reminds me a lot of when I was a music major in college when we would have parties and get drunk and randomly break into multipart harmony.  See, I definitely know where I'm retiring now. This video is a little long, but a great example of klapa music and offers a lot more detail on the ins and outs of klapa. 

A style known as tamburica – named after one of the main instruments, the tambura – is still fairly popular. The tambura is a string instrument similar to a mandolin, and tamburica not only uses tamburas but other various string instruments as well. Traditional ensembles are still performing together, but many of these have merged tamburica music with rock or folk-rock.
Modern music, with its influences from other areas of Europe and the Americas, is certainly represented by Croatian musicians. Rock, pop, hip-hop, and dance are widely popular in Croatia, and the music from Croatian musicians is listened to outside of Croatia as well. I found two albums that I couldn’t live without and had to buy them, and I had another album that I may buy later.
I discovered the hip-hop group Elemental and bought their album Vertigo. The vocal lines are divided between a female lead and a male lead, and while they do rap, the vocal line is also far more melodic. I’m really a fan of hip-hop that uses elements of jazz, blues, rock, and soul as the background track. While every single track on the album was listed as explicit (I Googled the lyrics and then ran them through Google translate – it was mostly an F bomb dropped every now and then coupled with a few other colorful words. The subject matter was sometimes some pretty deep stuff. No different than what I sometimes listen to anyway. But if it’s in Croatian, does it really matter? I have no idea anyway. Ignorance is bliss in this case.) I really like this album. The vocals are strong, and the music is catchy. So happy with this! Love them!

My husband and I (and subsequently the kids as well) are huge dance/trance/techno/house music fans, so when I came across the group Colonia, I HAD to buy it. I thought it was catchy, and the change-ups were good – not too fast, not too slow. There were a couple of songs that left me waiting in anticipation that it might go down the terrible road of dub-step, but it danced dangerously on the edge of that audible mistake and then brought it back to something that doesn’t trigger a musical seizure in my ear. In fact, it makes me want to turn it up and sit. (Yes, while I love dance music, I’m not a fan of physically dancing. Only on the inside, and if I were drunk enough, maybe. I do appreciate when others do it well.) Even though when I watching this, I think the lead singer has the same hairstyle as the lead female from Elemental. Maybe it's a pretty popular hairstyle in Croatia. Or something. I like how the dance moves look like they might've borrowed a little from traditional dancing. 

Since I’m already discussing dance, the most popular dance from Croatia is the kolo, or circle dance. Every region certainly has its own variations and other dances they perform, but the kolo is pretty much the key dance. Performed at weddings, ethnic fests, and other events, it might even be considered a national dance, I suppose. Variations include the complexity of the steps (although it’s generally difficult to dance), style of music (generally danced to quick music), and instrumentation (some are danced with an ensemble playing the music, some with a few instruments, and some older traditions are danced silently with just the sound of the dancer’s feet). Costumes vary from region to region as well as who is dancing. Other dances from neighboring countries like Bosnia, Serbia, Hungary, and Romania also have made their way into Croatia as well.  Many of these dances and variations were gypsy dances and a part of their culture. This video is on the silent circle dance, something of an anomaly to me, since in most cultures, dance is so closely tied to the music, it would make it hard to "feel" the beat. It shows the incredible difficulty for the dancers to be aligned rhythmically and the trust it takes to be in sync with each other.

The other album that I didn’t buy but may in the future is the surf rock band called Bambi Molesters. The name is almost as good as my favorite Canadian band The New Pornographers. However, weird as it is, I like their music. I found that I really like listening to them while I write. Even though it’s rock, much of it is instrumental, and the style makes it easy to get in the zone. I love their sound! I'll just listen to them on Spotify. Like right now. 

Up next: the food

Thursday, September 12, 2013


Croatian art is some of the oldest art in Europe. Certainly close enough for Greek and Roman influence, much of the earliest pieces didn’t survive.  The surviving pieces of early works include mostly pottery and various sculptures of human and animal likenesses.
Croatian artists did well with the Bronze Age.  The Illyrian peoples were extraordinary when it came to bronze work.  They were especially known for bronze helmets and fibulas – no, not leg bones. That’s creepy. Fibulas were an ancient form of a brooch, and its design is actually the predecessor of the modern safety pin.  They also used bronze in burial ceremonies and in cremation. After bronze gave way to iron as the modus operandi, bronze was then relegated to just jewelry and artistic sculptures.

During the Middle Ages, Roman Christian art and architecture was the predominant influence.  Buildings, especially churches and cathedrals, were equipped with the standard buttresses and belltowers that were all the rage of the day.  It certainly gave the building the appearance of being strong and formidable. One of the most iconic motifs to come out of this age is the pleter, or what is called Croatian interlace. It’s complex strings (or etchings of multiple lines) that twist upon itself or interweaves itself, sometimes resembling a braid.  It can be used as either an edging or as a circular centerpiece. Most of the time, this interlace, or wattle as it’s sometimes called, was found on and in Medieval churches and monasteries. (Certainly would make some cool tattoos. I, myself, may develop some of this in pin-striping our 1964 Chevy Bel Air.) The Roman style architecture eventually waned its way into Gothic style – one of my favorite styles.

Baroque art flourished and took off like a wildfire. Paintings and baroque-influenced art was found everywhere: churches, public buildings, government buildings, and palaces. And this time was important for another reason: urban planning was beginning to really take place, with the systematic design of creating larger, straighter streets and the idea of planning town squares as the center. 
During the 1800s, the art of painting grew more prevalent, following the trending styles of Artistic Europe. Art Nouveau, Realism, Naturalism, and Impressionism were a few of the styles where Croatian artists excelled. Even into the 20th century and modern times, Croatian painters, as well as sculptures and artists of other mediums, utilized and were influenced by post-Impressionism, abstract art, and other avant-garde forms of expressionism.  A few names to know would be Miroslav Kraljević, Oton Iveković, Vjekoslav Karas, and Andrija Medulić (who was the teacher of the famed El Greco), among others.
by Miroslav Kraljevic
Most of the earliest pieces of Croatian literature started popping up around the 8th or 9th centuries.  Because only a few skilled scholars were able to take on this moderately painstaking feat, most of the written works at this time was delegated to historical accounts, liturgical writings, and scientific works.  And keep in mind as well, that written language was still being developed.  Well, and even spoken language and grammar was also being formed into more of a standard form to an extent. It was also a common practice to use a different language depending on the subject matter.  Some literature at this time was written in Latin, but later medieval prose was mostly written in either Croatian or what’s called Church Slavonic (a variation of early Slavic that was used mostly in the church). And they also utilized three different alphabets to write in: Glagolitic (a type of early Slavic writing system created by Saints Cyrus and Methodius – you know, the saints from Bulgaria who gave the Cyrillic alphabet), Latinic (the alphabet you’re reading in right now, based off of Latin), and Croatian Cyrillic (also called Bosnian Cyrillic in Bosnia and Herzegovina, because apparently it was too hard to share, it’s an extinct writing system now. I wonder why.).
Glagolitic script, like a cross between Cyrillic and alchemy symbols
One of the biggest finds from this early period was the Baška tablet. The reason why it’s important is that it’s the first documentation of the written Croatian language, dating back to 1100.  It was discovered in 1851 in the paving of a church near the town of Baška on the island of Krk.  I suppose it’s Croatia’s form of the Rosetta Stone in a way.
The Renaissance period is when poetry and prose first started resembling styles that we are more familiar with. And the 18th and 19th centuries brought about a change in literature towards a more social conscience and humanity.  It was also the beginning of Slavic literature as a whole.  Lyric poetry, travel literature, prose, and drama began to emerge as part of the Slavic literary canon.

One notable work was written by Marko Marulić called “Judita.” This was written as an epic poem, retelling the Biblical story of Judith, but it also was an analogy to the Ottoman invasion of Croatia. When it comes to novels, one book is often ranked as one of the best: The Return of Phillip Latinowicz by Miroslav Krežla.  Also known for his novel On the Edge of Reason, he’s considered one of the greatest modern writers from Croatia, not only widely read in Croatia but around the world as well. Some literary critics have been compared him as the Croatian version of Joyce, Proust, or Balzac. This is one of my favorite eras and styles of literature. I think I’m definitely going to have to try to find this book and add it to my collection. 
Up next: music and dance