Cómo se dice “go now”?

Almost a year ago, Tom & I were sitting on our back patio sipping wine & discussing traveling to Europe–he’d never been & I’m dying to get to Croatia before everyone else does–when our friend Kristen posted to Facebook & in a matter of minutes, we were going to Cuba instead.

havana ticket - life with the lushers

People have asked us, “Why?” Well, really, why not? Americans haven’t really been able to travel there for decades–in fact, travel to Cuba still has to fall within one of the 12 categories approved by the U.S. government & we’ve never been the type to take a week off & lounge on the beach anyhow. We’d much rather get lost in an unknown city & eat & drink our way out. Oh, did I mention this was a culinary trip? Where do we sign up?

Cultural Contrast, that’s where.

So, the thing you need to know about going to Cuba is that, for lack of better words, it’s consistently inconsistent. Will your hotel room have one bed or three? Will the shower have a trickle of water pressure or enough to rip your skin off? Will the restroom have a toilet seat & paper (Pro tip: Don’t wait to find out. You’ll want to keep a stash of TP in your bag.)? Will the restaurant have butter or margarine (Good-quality dairy products are notoriously hard to find.)? Will the government turn down the gas across the city making finding a good meal kind of difficult? How much rum will be in your drink?

cuban rum pouring

All of the uncertainties aside, Cuba is an amazing place. It’s been untouched–at least by the U.S. or anyone wanting to do business with the U.S.–for decades. There’s vintage cars, incredible architecture, beautiful countryside, great food & rum & an incredible culture with very proud & welcoming people.


On the other hand, there’s crumbling infrastructure, crumbling buildings, state-run television, people still relying on ration books & being paid next to nothing (about $20 a month) with very little access to internet.

& as we sit here watching CNN’s coverage of Obama landing in Havana, do we hope that the U.S.’s opening dialogue means a better life for the Cuban people? Absolutely. Do we want to see the Havana skyline full of cookie cutter chain hotels & the beautiful coral reefs be ruined by pesticides? Absolutely not. Are we glad we went “before the floodgates open”? 100%

vintage cuban cars

While in Cuba, we spent most of our time in Havana, with this as our view.

havana skyline

We also spent quite a bit of time in Old Havana, visited farms & farmers’ markets, art markets, microbreweries, Hemingway’s house, Morro Castle, plenty of paladares (privately-run restaurants), Fusterlandia, cocktail bars & sampled a good bit of Vitamin R (Cuban rum). We drank rum & sang & danced with what seemed like all of Havana along the Malecón on a Saturday night.

la finca

We even traveled to western Cuba to the Viñales valley for the gorgeous views, an amazing meal & walk around the town.

Even though the U.S. government is loosening things up & allowing Americans to travel to Cuba on self-led “people to people” exchanges, we can’t say enough about traveling with a group like Cultural Contrast. The paperwork was a breeze & having our chartered flight, hotel accommodations (which are hard to come by with the influx of tourists), travel within Cuba (& Tommy, the best driver around) & countless other benefits–like tons & tons of bottled water–covered was absolutely priceless. Not to mention, we learned things about Havana & everywhere else we traveled that we wouldn’t have on our own thanks to Jason, our American guide & Rodolfo, our Cuban guide … & we have plenty more of our adventure to share with you, so stay tuned!

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Candied Jalapeños

If your garden looks anything like ours right now, it’s bursting with more hot peppers than you know what to do with.*

Because the squirrels ate almost everything else you planted that isn’t spicy.

candied jalapeno - life with the lushers

It seems like every year we’re faced with what to do with all the chiles that seem to ripen ALL AT ONCE, and somehow, planting fewer plants is never an option. Last year, we made a quadrupled batch of habanero salsa. This year, we’re flush with pounds and pounds of jalapeños, and the best way to deal with all that heat? Add a little sweet.

Candied Jalapeños - life with the lushers

This recipe is about as simple as it gets–simmering jalapeño slices in a flavored syrup–but the flavor is unforgettable. Make it once, and you’ll be hooked, which is totally fine because  these little spicy-sweet slices are delicious on just about anything. Our default is pairing them with goat cheese and crackers, but really anything goes. Sandwiches, scrambled eggs, pizza … Can them & put them up for the year, or just bag them up for storage in the freezer. They’ll last about a year that way, but good luck keeping them around that long.

candied jalapeños


3lbs. jalapeños
2 cups apple cider vinegar
6 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon celery salt
4 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Wash the jalapeños & pat them dry. Slice them into 1/8″ thick rings. You’ll want to break out your mandolin, if you have one & gloves, if your skin is sensitive. Don’t touch your eyes. Once all the jalapeños are sliced, set aside.

Add the apple cider vinegar, sugar, turmeric, celery salt, garlic powder & cayenne to a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and let bubble away for 5 minutes.

Add the jalapeño slices and bring back to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer once more for 4 minutes, stirring frequently to make sure all the peppers are cooking evenly. After 4 minutes, transfer the jalapeños to a large bowl using a slotted spoon.

Turn the heat back up to medium-high and let the remaining liquid boil hard for 12 minutes. Let cool, then add to the bowl with the jalapeño slices.

At this point, we divide the jalapeños and liquid evenly among quart-size freezer bags and keep them in the freezer for up to a year. You could also can them if you’d rather they be shelf-stable.

recipe adapted from Tasty Kitchen

*If you’re garden’s already done for the year, go ahead & bookmark this–you’ll want to have it handy next year. 🙂

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Green Chile Cheese Dip

Each summer, sometime in August, text messages and tweets light up our phones announcing which grocery stores in the area have Hatch chiles, and which ones our friends have just wiped out. See, Hatch chiles come but once a year, and once they hit stores, you only have a small window of time to scoop up as many as humanly possible.

Hatch chiles are only grown in the area around Hatch, New Mexico, and something about that climate and soil make for a seriously great-tasting pepper–not too hot, just bright and flavorful–and we’ve heard, if you’re lucky enough to live in the Southwest, grocery stores and markets set up giant roasters outside when the chile harvest comes in. If you’re in North Carolina, like us, you’ll have to settle for looking like a lunatic at your local Harris Teeter and make a day of the roasting process. But once it’s all done, you’ll have canned or frozen enough of the goodness to get you through until next Hatch chile season … hopefully 🙂

Green Chile Cheese Dip

We love to use the chiles in all kinds of dishes, like soups, stews, chilis, queso, but one of our (and our friends’ and coworkers’) favorites has been this dip.

It tastes a bit like a giant jalapeño popper, but with more bright chile flavor and less in-your-face heat. In fact, bacon wouldn’t be completely out of place. Go for it!

Green Chile Cheese Dip


2 8 oz. packages cream cheese, softened
1 cup mayonnaise
12 oz. Hatch green chiles, undrained & diced (Canned can also be used. Look for Hatch chiles–their flavor is the boldest–but regular green chiles will work, if Hatch aren’t available.)
1 1/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese. divided
1 1/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese, divided
salt, to taste
tortilla chips, for serving

Preheat oven to 375°F, and have a baking dish handy. An 8×8 or pie plate works perfectly.

In a large bowl combine cream cheese, mayonnaise, chiles, 3/4 cup cheddar, 3/4 Monterey Jack, and salt. Stir until well combined, and spread evenly in the baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining cheddar and Monterey Jack on top and bake for 25-30, until the mixture is bubbly and cheese golden brown. Serve while still warm, with tortilla chips, and watch it disappear!

Green Chile Cheese Dip

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Chocolate Cupcakes with Peanut Butter “Cookie” Frosting

Time out. Let’s break for cupcakes.

Tom has always had a sweet tooth, but me? Not so much. Although, I have found myself indulging a bit more lately … super rich dark, dark chocolate brownies a friend made, a heavenly strawberry macaron ice cream sandwich … you get the idea.

chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter cookie frosting

This chocolate/peanut butter combination is so well-loved, and these cupcakes are no exception. It’s hard to go wrong with dark chocolate cake spiked with coffee, rich ganache, and dense peanut butter frosting shaped like the cookies that everyone’s mom made growing up.

chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter cookie icing

I mean, how can you even resist?

makes about 30 cupcakes

1 1/2 cups hot, brewed coffee
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

6 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream

9 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups creamy peanut butter
2 1/2 – 3 cups confectioners’ sugar

For the cupcakes, preheat oven to 350°. Line cupcake pans with paper liners and set aside.

In a glass measuring cup, whisk together hot coffee and cocoa powder until all lumps are dissolved. Set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

Next, add butter and sugars to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium-high until light, fluffy, and fully combined. Turn the speed down to low and add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Slowly add the vanilla and mix until combined. Continuing on low speed, add the dry ingredients in three additions, adding half the coffee/cocoa mixture in between. Start and finish with the dry ingredients, mixing each addition until just combined. Divide the batter among the prepared pans and bake for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean from the center of the cupcakes. Let cool for a bit in the pans, then transfer to a cooling rack until they come to room temperature.

While the cupcakes cool, make the ganache. Add the chopped chocolate to a medium heatproof bowl. In a small pot over medium heat, bring the cream to a simmer. Pour over chopped chocolate and let stand for 2 minutes. Whisk together gently, until a smooth, shiny ganache forms. Set aside.

For the frosting, add the peanut butter and butter to the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, and beat on medium-high for 1 minute. Turn the speed down to low and slowly add in the confectioners’ sugar until fully incorporated and the consistency of a cookie dough. Bump the speed up to medium to fully incorporate the sugar.

Line the counter with wax paper and scoop out the icing, one heaping tablespoon at a time, rolling into a ball, and flattening into a patty. Using the tines of a fork, make a crosshatch pattern on each patty. Repeat until there are enough for each cupcake.

Once the cupcakes are cool, spread the ganache over each cupcake, smoothing out with an offset spatula, or the back of a spoon. Top each cupcake with a peanut butter “cookie” and dig in!

from Savory Sweet Life via Annie’s Eats

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Capellini al Forno

Pasta is such a beautiful thing.

capellini al forno

It can be as simple as spaghetti & jarred marinara for a speedy dinner at home, and as extravagant as handmade lobster ravioli at the most upscale restaurant in town. Almost no ingredient and flavor profile is off limits.

The possibilities are basically endless.

capellini al forn place setting - life with the lushers

Simply translated, capellini al forno is angel hair baked in the oven, but the outcome–especially when baked in a springform pan and sliced into wedges–is as delicious and impressive-looking as a layer cake. A savory pasta layer cake filled with cheese and prosciutto, topped with marinara.

Assembly and baking are a little bit of a time investment, but you’ll be handsomely rewarded with leftovers for days, or a roomful of happily-stuffed friends. 🙂

serves 8

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced & at room temperature, plus more for greasing pan
1 pound angel hair pasta
1 1/2 cups grated Parmigiano Reggiano
3 eggs, beaten
3/4 cup chopped, fresh, flat-leaf parsley
kosher salt & freshly ground pepper
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/2 pound prosciutto, coarsely chopped
8 ounces smoked mozzarella cheese, grated
olive oil, for drizzling
1 25 ounce jar marinara sauce, warmed

Preheat oven to 350°, with a rack in the center of the oven. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9 inch springform pan and set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt well. Add the pasta and cook until tender, but still firm–don’t overdo it. Drain, then add to a large bowl. Add 4 tablespoons of butter, 1 cup Parmigiano, eggs, parsley, and salt & pepper. Toss well until combined.

Gather the pasta and all remaining ingredients around the prepped springform pan. Sprinkle 1/4 cup of breadcrumbs evenly over the bottom of the pan. Arrange 1/3 of the pasta on top of the breadcrumbs in an even layer, then sprinkle half the prosciutto, followed by half the smoked mozzarella. Repeat the layering once more with the breadcrumbs, pasta, prosciutto, and mozzarella.

In a small, separate bowl, combine the remaining breadcrumbs and Parmigiano. Sprinkle this mixture on top of the layers and dot remaining butter over top. Drizzle with olive oil and bake for 45-50 minutes, until lightly golden. Let cool for 10 minutes.

While the pasta cools, add marinara to a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat until warm. Once the sauce is warm, remove the ring around the springform pan and slice layered pasta into 8 equal pieces. Add to individual plates & top with marinara.

adapted from Giada de Laurentiis

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