Make it a pasta supper night

Some say beware of pasta while others shy away from bacon. This pasta supper dishes up a little of both.

Mushroom bacon pasta

Mushroom bacon pasta

Modify it to meet your needs and make this pasta tonight.

Lunchbox Okra

Okra adds a tasty texture to lunch.


Okra pieces and pods

Okra pieces and pods

A lunchbox went missing around the house over the summer and nobody seemed to notice. Who inventories these things anyway? They’re usually tucked into the cabinet that spills over with reusable water bottles and storage containers. In our small kitchen where we put every inch of cabinet space to use, it’s often advisable not to open the doors too quickly lest you risk spending a few minutes pushing items back into place.

With September on its way and the back-to-school routine approaching, it was time to search the kitchen. Younger kids may advance a grade with a new lunchbox to match their maturing personalities, but our older sons were definitely set to reuse the lunchboxes we purchased before the start of last school year. Searching the kitchen high and low proved helpful in recovering a box of filters for the water pitcher and a stack of misplaced storage lids, but it was otherwise a waste of energy. No red lunchbox to be found. It had made its way out of my son’s backpack sometime in early June, but managed to find a concealed spot to rest for the entire summer. He finally found the lunchbox stashed under a stack of papers and notebooks under the desk in his bedroom, and when he handed it over, he also passed a warning of what was still zipped inside: a thermos, his food jar that keeps a host of edibles hot or cold. I couldn’t guess what had been packed for lunch a couple of months back, but when I removed the lid from the vacuum-insulated jar, I found the remains of a steamed broccoli and onion medley accompanied by a predictably powerful stench.

The experience hasn’t turned me away from packed lunches, and a thermos makes it easy to vary the menu with rice, beans and even chilled fruit salads. Having moved beyond the lasting odor in the found thermos, it may still be too soon to pack broccoli for the back-to-school lunch break this year, but okra steps up as another mid-day meal that holds its form and flavor in an insulated container.

The vegetable — fabulous in a home-cooked gumbo, brushed with olive oil and grilled or starring in a curried Indian stew — adds a tasty texture and crunch to lunch. Okra tends to fall into the slimy category with all its glutinous properties, and that’s one reason why it thickens soups with a creamy consistency. Cooking okra quickly on high heat near the end of a recipe’s preparation can help minimize the stickiness of many varieties. If slime still poses a challenge, try throwing the okra pods in a water bath diluted with vinegar for 10 minutes (but pat dry before cooking) to keep the okra from becoming stickier in texture once pods are cut into pieces.

Crusty fried okra from Cold Spring's Round Up Texas BBQ

Crusty fried okra from Cold Spring’s Round Up Texas BBQ

If you’ve been to Round Up Texas BBQ in Cold Spring, chances are you’ve sampled their crispy deep fried okra. They sell it as a traditional Texas side dish — breaded and fried to a golden brown and served steamy hot. It’s hardly possible to stop in without trying a serving (or two). Whether dredging okra in cornmeal, spiking it with Creole seasoning or breading pods with buttermilk and flour, the vegetable can stand alone. It also shows off its versatility as an addition to casseroles or pan-seared and used as a salad ingredient. I haven’t tried to replicate Round Up Texas BBQ’s okra and don’t plan to anytime soon. It’s a rare treat to indulge in deep fried foods, and we make it a family outing to drop in and order their crusty okra when our home kitchen closes.

The okra recipe shared here lets the vegetable stand out while the backdrop of eggs makes it a meal. Scrambling the eggs with crumbled crackers produces a hearty base to allow the vegetables to shine. With crackers folded into the mix, there’s not much need for additional salt, so only add salt to your liking.

Lunchbox okra

Lunchbox okra

Try the dish for brunch and if you prefer a version with a little kick, add a splash of salsa picante to the egg and milk mixture before scrambling. There’s truly no need for cheese — call it done as is — but a sprinkling of shredded sharp cheddar finishes the combination perfectly with a rich result. No guarantees, but the lunchbox thermos will probably come home clean.

Lunchbox Okra

Servings: 4

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 cups saltine crackers, crumbled

5 eggs

¼ cup milk

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon chili powder

pinch of kosher salt (optional)

5 cups fresh okra pods, cut in ¼-inch to ½-inch pieces

½ cup shredded cheddar cheese (optional)

Mix dry ingredients. Set aside. Lightly beat eggs and milk in shallow dish. In a frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon canola oil over medium heat. Add egg mixture to pan and scramble 2 to 3 minutes. Add dry ingredients, mixing thoroughly, and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from pan and keep warm. Add 1 tablespoon oil to pan and cook okra pieces on high heat 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat. Return egg mixture to hot pan and mix with okra. Serve immediately or spoon into a lunchbox thermos and enjoy later.

First published at Paper

Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

By Mary Ann Ebner


Break out this tomato pie a la vodka

If red-ripe tomatoes and a humble pie recipe succeed in their temptation, be prepared to reach for bottles of the good stuff, a fine bottle of extra virgin olive oil and a reputable bottle of vodka.

A few key ingredients ...

A few key ingredients …

You’ll want both of a decent quality to make tomato pie a la vodka.

A Southern-ish tomato pie sampled on an evening cruise up and down the Hudson and a not-so-light (but dripping with flavor) penne a la vodka side dish shared at a summer reunion inspired this hybrid conception. The pie served on the boat ride was made by a Southern gentleman who knows his way around the kitchen. When he shared the origins of his tomato pie discovery, he gave a good deal of credit to his father-in-law who had introduced him to the dish. What he discovered along the way when doing a little Google research of his own was that the family recipe looked remarkably similar to a variation by the celebrity Southerner Paula Deen. With his kitchen and relationship wisdom, he elected not to take the findings back to the family — his wife’s or Deen’s.

To preserve the traditional tomato pie for the Southern cooks who know how to put the right amount of flake in a recipe, an adaptation of my own credits all who’ve created a variation of some sort, whether with mayonnaise, a mild Gouda or creamed butter. Anyone can layer tomatoes and smother them with an assortment of cheeses and herbs, which makes a hybrid pie a good choice for putting the best of summer’s tomatoes to use.

A serving of creamy vodka sauce adds an extra-heavy layer of calories to anything it sits on, and that’s probably why it tastes great over everything from piecrust to pasta. To experiment with my own vodka sauce, I couldn’t find a drop of basic vodka on hand, as in a bargain brand. The limited release Ultra Luxury Stoli vodka (not readily available for sale in the U.S.) — elegantly bottled and recently hand carried by a friend returning from Latvia — was off limits. The pie prep called for a shopping trip. Without help from Russia or even Poland, the recipe needed something all-American. But before I could even make it in the house with a full bottle of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, produced in Austin, Texas, one tap of the Tito’s bottle resulted in a shattering crash of glass and spirits all over the stairway. For the record, no sampling of the distilled product had yet occurred. It’s certain that the scene actually looked pretty funny, then it didn’t — when my hand (still gripping the neck of a broken glass bottle) started bleeding … in three places. My lack of coordination often presents itself at inopportune times.

With a replacement bottle of vodka firmly in hand (while cautiously keeping my balance), I eventually set out to experiment with the sauce. I did end up substituting the splashed-away Tito’s Vodka with an even choicer option (Grey Goose) and didn’t risk touching the Stoli reserve bottle. My first batch needed to be cooled down for the mix of preferences in the family, so I eliminated hot red pepper flakes and dipped in to a supply of roasted Spanish paprika, which added the ideal blend of mildly smooth and smoky flavor to the sauce.

Jet Stars on the vine

Jet Stars on the vine

From my modest garden, Jet Star tomatoes produced the best-tasting crop at home this year. They matured earlier than expected but were able to vine-ripen before the squirrels and woodchucks moved in covertly to harvest them. The meaty fruit of the Jet Stars holds up firmly when sliced for a pie. If you’re buying tomatoes to slice for a similar pie, search for a large plump variety. A selection of enormous juicy tomatoes that I picked up in the Catskills worked well for firm slices and one hefty tomato filled a pie dish.

Without the expense of an entire bottle of distilled beverage, tomato pie a la vodka makes an affordable and simple meal. The pie combines ripened garden treasures with a sweet and tangy cream sauce that brings on even more tomato flavor. Served sliced on a plate, layered on a pizza or tucked into a flaky pie crust, there’s no better time to appreciate tomatoes.

By Mary Ann Ebner

First published: Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

The Paper/

Wedge of tomato pie a la vodka

Wedge of tomato pie a la vodka








Tomato Pie a La Vodka

Yield: 8 servings

For a single layer crust

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup lard or shortening

3 tablespoons icy cold water

Mix dry ingredients and gradually cut in lard with two table knives. Add water by the tablespoon to mold together, handling as little as possible. Work dough into a ball and roll thinly on lightly floured surface with rolling pin. Carefully roll your dough back onto rolling pin and lay dough over pie pan or deep dish. Bake crust for 15 minutes at 350 degrees. Remove from oven and set aside.

For the vodka sauce and filling

1 large or 2 medium tomatoes, sliced

2 medium tomatoes, diced

2 cloves garlic, diced

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

¼ teaspoon sea salt

¼ teaspoon smoked paprika

¼ cup vodka

½ cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons flat parsley, chopped

2 cups shredded Parmesan cheese

  1. In heavy pan, sauté garlic in extra virgin olive oil over medium heat. Add diced tomatoes, sea salt and smoked paprika. Mix in vodka and allow mixture to cook for 5 to 10 minutes while continuing to stir. Stir in heavy cream, lower heat and cook while stirring an additional 5 minutes.
  2. Layer tomato slices into half-baked piecrust. Pour sauce over tomatoes. Add layer of chopped parsley and top with shredded Parmesan cheese.
  3. Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool and serve.

Fresh and Floral

With a hint of its natural aroma, lavender brings a fragrant goodness to foods and drinks. The dreamy ingredient in many varieties shows off a purplish flower with greenish-gray foliage and, in even the smallest quantities, stretches a long way in the kitchen. The versatile plant adds a unique flavor to everything from hot herbal teas to salad vinaigrettes and waffles.

Culinary lavender

Culinary lavender

Though baked goods flavored with lavender have long accompanied my morning cup of coffee, I hadn’t seriously considered the herb’s refreshing qualities as a cold beverage enhancer. But basic lemonade makes the case. While I was away in Colorado this summer, I sampled a splashy lunch-time variation with friends. The serving of lemonade dressed up with lavender, lavandula angustifolia, quenched a table full of tired hikers with its soothing properties. The herb’s distinction gave the drink a little edge without overwhelming the lemony base.

Discovering a source close to home means there’s more lavender to be shared in the warm weeks ahead. Ellen Duffy-Taylor, owner of North Winds Lavender Farm in Pawling, New York, carries the scent of lavender with her from farm to market. During the outdoor market season, she offers her lavender products — craft and culinary — every other weekend at the Cold Spring Farmers’ Market (her upcoming market participation dates include Aug. 8 and Aug 22). Local consumers are turning to her culinary lavender not only for cooking and baking but to mix up flowery cocktails from martinis to cosmos.

“People are actually using my lavender to make lavender lemonade and a lot of bartenders are using the syrup for cocktails,” Duffy-Taylor said. “Culinary lavender is very popular. We have one whole culinary field producing lavender that is edible and it’s naturally grown. We’re not certified organic, but we don’t use pesticides or herbicides.”

In addition to a selection of craft lavender and aromatherapy products, North Winds Lavender Farm sells its lavender syrup, lavender shortbread cookies, culinary lavender buds and jellies at the Cold Spring Farmers’ Market. The rich jellies pair well with cheese and transform toast into a breakfast feast while the syrup complements pan-seared meats, fish and steamed vegetables. The culinary buds include a mix of English and French lavender.

“We sell (culinary lavender) by the cup, half cup or quarter cup,” Duffy-Taylor said. “Selling by the pound at the market is just crazy. For people who are cooking, a cup is usually adequate.”

Lavender lemon cookies

Lavender lemon cookies

My favorite lavender lemon cookie recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of crushed buds and the measurement adds plenty of presence — introducing a subtle fragrance before the first bite. The lemon and lavender work together and the end result is a rich but-not-too-sweet confection. High-grade culinary lavender is traditionally strong, and too much in any recipe, whether in sauces or baked goods, may overpower food with an overly perfumed accent. Using the fragrant flowers sparingly saves a cook from having to start over and will, in the end, reduce costs. Considering that little is needed in any creation, the harvested lavender flowers are affordable. One cup is priced by North Winds Lavender Farm at $12 and is sold in several increments. For any savory or sweet dish, use lavender moderately to experiment with the herb.

Duffy-Taylor has been farming for 18 years and 2015 marks her 10th year in the lavender business. She’s been making the same lavender shortbread cookie recipe with all natural ingredients for years, and the fragrant baked goods will soon be available beyond the farmers’ market.

“I’m opening a store in September,” she said, “on Charles Colman Boulevard (in Pawling) right on the main drag. It will include everything we sell at the farmers’ market.”

To make something softly scented — out of your ordinary repertoire — pick up a little lavender. The lavender lemon cookie recipe shared here produces a delicate floral flavor. If you haven’t used lavender, incorporate a pinch in a familiar recipe. If you like the result, move on to a slightly more generous amount to adjust the taste for your preference. For further adventure, try lavender syrup (North Winds offers syrup in 8-ounce bottles for $7) mixed up with your favorite gin or infuse vinegar with lavender stalks and flower heads.

By Mary Ann Ebner, Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

First published by The Paper/Philipstown dot info

Lavender Lemon Cookies

Makes 3 dozen cookies

1 stick softened butter, unsalted

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 large egg

1 tablespoon crushed lavender buds

1 ½ cups flour

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ cup course or decorative sugar

  1. Grind lavender buds with a mortar and pestle. Set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl, cream together butter, sugar, lemon zest and vanilla extract. Mix in egg. Add ground lavender and mix until smooth.
  3. Combine flour, baking soda and salt. Fold into butter mixture. Refrigerate dough for 30 minutes.
  4. Drop dough by the spoonful onto ungreased baking sheet. Flatten dough balls lightly with the bottom of a small glass. Sprinkle with course or decorative sugar.
  5. Bake 8 to 10 minutes at 350 degrees until cookie edges are slightly golden.

Summer’s top cucumber dish: cold soup

From a medley of berries to creamy cucumber, chilled soups can be made with just about any of summer’s fruits and vegetables.

And when temperatures rise, warm weather conditions call for a kitchen break and cool options. Seasonal cooking — with minimal time spent at the stove or grill — should reflect that break from the routine. Colorful food selections that refresh with a nutritious but light result can be easily mixed and matched to create the ideal spread without even reaching for a heat source.

Though grilling outdoors may be slightly more bearable than cooking in a steamy kitchen, hot and humid conditions often rouse us to step away from the flame. A picnic of peaches, bread, cheese, wine or chilled green tea will prompt most of us to welcome the opportunity to eat lightly.

Cucumber avocado soup

Cucumber avocado soup

A simple cold lunch at a riverside picnic spot turned out to be what may possibly be summer’s most relaxing family meal. The preparations were minimal — hearty sandwiches and sliced apples — and we enjoyed the retreat from a labor-intensive meal with little left to wash aside from a cutting board and knife. Temperatures dipped for the day, the Hudson lapped peacefully along the banks and nobody did any dishes.

In an effort to extend easy living for a few more weeks, it’s all about family-style salads, heaps of vegetables and fruit desserts — all fresh and uncooked. And it’s more reason to shop the farmers’ market. In looking beyond my own meager garden of herbs, peppers and tomatoes, the inspiration for July and August menus rests with whatever the farmers are picking and selling. And when you can’t grow your own cucumbers (easy for most but I’ve given up), find your favorite farmer. I’ve failed repeatedly in trying to produce cucumbers since moving back from scorching Central Texas to the Hudson Valley and didn’t even try to grow them this year. But cucumbers beat the heat when dining indoors or out, and they can round out a meal or fill in as the foundation. An unattended farm stand peddling cucumbers motivated me to blend up a batch of summer soup. This particular Hudson Valley producer runs a small-scale retail operation — a roadside table stocked with a variety of fruits and vegetables alongside a donation jar. Customers take their pick and drop a cash payment through the jar’s lid.

The few cucumbers I selected could have ended up in a salad, spring rolls or served alone dressed with a vinaigrette, but the vegetable crop made the perfect base for cucumber avocado soup. The recipe takes minutes to put together and can be eaten immediately or chilled for a day and packed for a picnic or even placed in a sealable bottle for a Hudson Highlands hike.

Farm stand cucumbers

Farm stand cucumbers

My latest variations turn out silky smooth and mild, but my early efforts to prepare cucumber soup suffered from a few garlic cloves too many. The initial batch ended up not so much as a simple supper but as simply a good lesson.

It doesn’t take much to ruin a dish by smothering the mild cucumber and avocado with too much garlic. That was my big mistake. At the time I lived in California, not too far from Gilroy, which according to the City of Gilroy, is best known as the “Garlic Capital of the World.” The community is easy to find once you’re in the vicinity of this locale. The scent of garlic travels for a good distance. (Those who appreciate the Hudson Valley’s garlic festival in Saugerties would undoubtedly go for the garlic ice cream in Gilroy.) The garlicky aroma in and around the city cannot be mistaken, and Gilroy influences everything from old-fashioned garlic toast to garlic-themed weddings. Given my location at the time, the excess garlic can be understood.

Cutting back on the garlic brought the cucumber back to center, and allowed the mint — added last — to finish the blend with a refreshing satisfaction expected from a cold soup.

To make this chilled soup, toss all the ingredients into a standard blender or use an immersion blender. (Reserve a few cucumber slices for crunchy dipping, but otherwise, blend until smooth and creamy.) Transfer blended soup into a pitcher to replenish bowls at the table or pour this cool cucumber mixture directly into serving bowls from the blender. The recipe shared here produces a soup with a fairly thick consistency, but for cold soup lovers who prefer a lighter chilled serving, thin with more broth, water or even a splash of white wine.

Cool Cucumber Avocado Soup

4 servings

1 large or 2 medium cucumbers, peeled and diced

½ of 1 medium avocado, sliced

1 clove garlic, diced

2 tablespoons fresh chives, minced

1 ½ cups vegetable broth

1 cup plain yogurt

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon sea salt

twist of fresh ground pepper

2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, finely chopped

small ice cubes (optional)

  1. Combine cucumber, avocado, garlic and chives in mixing bowl. Set aside.
  1. Mix broth, yogurt, and sesame oil in blender or food processor. Gradually add cucumber mixture to liquid and blend until smooth. Add salt and pepper.
  1. Chill soup 1 hour or blend in 2 ice cubes and serve immediately topped with fresh mint.

Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

By Mary Ann Ebner

First published by The Paper/

Keep Calm and Add Coconut

Occasionally we all have an unpleasant experience with a meal. Not full-on food poisoning, serious and often triggered by eating contaminated items, but mild cases of digestive distress and just enough of a nuisance to carve out a place in our memories for a painful recall each time the substance presents itself.

Coconut citrus flan

Coconut citrus flan

For a time, it seems as if my family avoided coconut in any of its forms. The continuing ingredient aversion was all linked to a childhood fascination with a big brown coconut. During a visit to Florida to see their grandparents and numerous other extended family members, our sons managed to find a backyard coconut that they claimed with curiosity. It looked harmless enough but we had no idea when the fiber-filled fruit may have fallen from its palm tree. It wasn’t stamped with an expiration date, but didn’t seem to have an odor, so we let the kids hang on to it. Soon enough, after tossing it around for the day, they wanted to crack it open for a tropical taste of their newly acquired exotic food. With help from Poppy, their grandfather, who gave it two good whacks with his ax, the coconut cracked open and the boys were the first with their hands in the air to try the white flesh and the sweet clear liquid found inside. A couple of aunts and uncles joined them in the sampling, making the experience a true family affair. Later that evening, those who fell for the fruit of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) weren’t feeling too well, some necessitating emergency stops on the Florida Turnpike. Thankfully, the reaction was mild, but we took a break, even if unintentional, from coconut. No cream pies, no coconut-coated shrimp, not even a creamy tropical summer cocktail.

But that’s all changed and coconut is back on the menu, though we’re no longer collecting random coconuts that are just lying around going rancid. In the form of liquid to sweetened shreds, coconut continues to surface in restaurants and in recipes from friends. My friend and grad school mentor Jane introduced a tofu-coconut milk soup to our family last month and its sweet-smelling base makes a great starter for a number of summer vegetable soups. Out and about, the key lime truffles with coconut sauce at Blu Pointe in Newburgh (the newish restaurant in the space formerly operated by Torches on the Hudson) should help to sway diners into dessert after every meal. And I’ve recently adapted a flan recipe from a friend from Puerto Rico who carries on a tradition of doubling her recipe whenever making flan. The second flan finds its way to a friend’s table. It’s unthinkable to turn away one of Rosie’s beautiful caramel-coated baked custards that are made for sharing. She creates a rich and silky-soft flan coated, but not smothered, with golden caramel sauce.

Coconut layer

Coconut layer

This flan variation takes on a hint of summer with the addition of lime or orange zest as well as shredded coconut and coconut milk. For those who want to keep their ingredients the freshest with this precious egg dish, crack your own coconut and consider shredding chunks of the fresh mature flesh or extracting liquid by grating the small pieces of the fruit. The process of cutting the white fleshy meat away from the shell and blending it with a little warm water doesn’t take too much time, but you’ll also need to strain the liquid to remove any remaining pieces of fiber from the pressed coconut. Canned unsweetened coconut milk works well and minimizes prep time to create this delicate dish that can be served any time of day. If home cooks can make time to whack or drill a coconut, it’s probably wisest not to select those that may be found under a palm tree in someone’s back yard.

Coconut Citrus Flan

Serves 8

¼ cup freshly squeezed orange juice

1 ¾ cup sugar

¾ cup unsweetened coconut milk

1 ¼ cups whole milk

1 teaspoon orange zest

¾ cup sweetened shredded coconut

3 medium egg yolks

3 medium eggs

pinch of salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. Dissolve 1 cup sugar and orange juice in heavy sauce pan over medium heat without boiling. Raise heat to medium-high and stir until sugar mixture turns amber in color. Heat 9-inch glass pie dish with hot water and dry completely before coating dish with syrup. Remove sauce from heat and pour syrup into dish, covering bottom completely. Set aside.
  2. Heat coconut milk, milk and salt. Bring to a boil and remove from heat immediately.
  3. Sprinkle shredded coconut and orange zest over caramel sauce layer.
  4. In mixing bowl (electric mixer for best results), beat remaining sugar, egg yolks, eggs and vanilla. Stir milk mixture gradually into egg mixture.
  5. Pour over coconut layer in pie dish. Set pie dish in shallow pan filled with water to cover bottom half of pie dish.
  6. Bake on center rack in preheated 350-degree oven approximately 50 minutes until flan is set. Remove pan from oven and carefully lift pie dish from water.
  7. Run a thin knife around the edge of the dish to loosen the flan while still warm. After flan cools for at least 1 hour, invert onto a larger platter or rimmed plate to keep sauce contained. Serve at room temperature, chill for 2 hours or refrigerate overnight and serve next day.

Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

By Mary Ann Ebner

First published: The Paper, July 10, 2015




The Classic Cuban Chip

A new day may be arriving for Cuban cuisine, and the unassuming plantain carries enough prestige as a simple snack and sweet side dish to emerge as a cultural symbol of edible sorts. Without wading into the Cuban government, its legacy or the U.S. embargo, one doesn’t have to look far to see the effects of easing travel restrictions to the neighboring nation. As passage to the island continues to open, with efforts prevailing to thaw icy U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, the home kitchen offers inspiration to explore Cuba’s cultural heritage and cooking customs.

Plantain chips

Plantain chips

The Castro family may still have a hand in ruling the country, but generous helpings of tropical flavors, rich spices, love and hospitality rule the Cuban kitchen.

A work assignment as a press attaché for the U.S. Olympic Committee landed me in Cuba years ago when Fidel Castro was still tossing out ceremonial first pitches at baseball games. Many Cuban people working as staffers made immeasurable sacrifices to orchestrate a Pan American Games from Havana to Santiago de Cuba as the country hosted thousands of visitors, some of us for up to a month.

Late evenings we found ourselves sampling home-cooked street food at neighborhood parties buzzing with Latin rhythms and a contagious energy from live music and dance stoked by local non-labeled beer and rum-flavored pastries. Breakfast wasn’t quite as festive, but the morning menu was hearty, and drinking Cuba’s bold sweetened coffee became our daily ritual before strolling along residential sidewalks to reach event venues. The host nation extended daily meals to the delegations from the participating Pan American countries, and athletes, coaches and support staff dined together in a breezy cafeteria. This wasn’t a Cuban sandwich-type-of-place, dishing up gourmet pork loin on light and crusty Cuban bread dripping with butter and cheese, but a modest effort to feed the masses. Little meat was served and a couple of times each week, the special of the day was hígado, a beef liver dish served with onions. Rice, black beans, potatoes, fish and juicy mango slices made repeat appearances in the serving line, but it was the crispy salted plantain chips, chicharritas, that became a favorite food in the Pan Am village.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, though it boasts vegetable-like qualities, the plantain belongs in the banana family, and it’s often available at local markets where it usually ripens naturally. The fruit looks like a banana but it’s much starchier and is sold in varying degrees of ripeness. When making variations of the Cuban chips chicharritas (or mariquitas when sliced Nicaraguan style), as well as the twice-fried tostones (plantain chips served with sauce), look for plantains that are green to yellow in color. If you come across any with blackened skin in the produce section, however, make a timely purchase and if blackened plantains are ripening on your own kitchen counter, prepare to peel. This degree of ripeness is perfect for preparing fried sweet plantains, platanos maduros, the dish made from the ripest fruit.

Green plantains

Green plantains

Whether in search of the perfect plantain dish or a chilled mojito, open travel to Cuba for tourist activities is still prohibited and U.S. citizens are not authorized to hit the beaches. The U.S. Department of Treasury (Office of Foreign Assets Control) outlines 12 categories for authorized travel with general licenses ranging from family visits to educational activities and humanitarian projects. James Caroll, co-owner of Cold Spring’s Old Souls outdoor equipment store, recently made his first visit to Cuba on a research fly fishing trip. Caroll said he obtained a research visa that allowed his party to collect scale samples and fin clips of the fish that they caught and released.

Caroll’s photographs from his May 2015 trip illustrate the beauty of the turquoise-blue waters, people, architecture, and even fruit carts spilling over with fresh produce. His fishing experience exceeded his expectations.

“It was incredible,” Caroll said. “We drove 12 hours across the island — and that was only half way across — before boarding a large live-aboard boat. Smaller skiffs picked us up from that boat every day, and we made runs out to our fishing grounds with the guides. Bonefish, tarpon, permit, jacks, and barracuda were all daily targets for our fly rods.”

Caroll found the fishing research rewarding and the food of Cuba amazing as well, from simple grilled meats and rice to spiny lobster. His collection of photographs from Cuba may be viewed on Flickr (search user name OldSoulsNY on Flickr), and are also on exhibit at the Old Souls store at 63 Main St.

Discover Cuba’s cuisine in your own kitchen and explore a complex country rich in culture and influenced by Spanish, African and Caribbean food traditions.

Plantain chips — Chicharritas

6 to 8 servings

Fried version

2 cups canola oil

6 large green plantains


Cut off the ends of plantains and slit the skin. Pull skin away from the plantains and slice thinly into rounds. For best results, use a slicer on its thinnest setting. Heat oil to medium-high heat in deep fryer or Dutch oven. Fry plantain chips in small batches, removing them from oil with stainless steel frying skimmer or steel slotted spoon. After removing from oil, drain on paper towels. Add salt to your liking and serve. For best results, keep warm and share them at the table immediately. Chips keep a crunch if tightly sealed.

Oven-baked version

Peel and slice the plantain as noted above. Coat a baking sheet with non-stick cooking spray. Spread plantain chips in a single layer. Bake 10 minutes at 400 degrees. Remove baking sheet from oven and turn plantain chips with spatula. Bake an additional 10 minutes. Remove from oven and add salt. This version is chewier than the fried plantain chips and is best served immediately.

First published July 10, 2015: Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm — The Paper — By Mary Ann Ebner