Monday, March 19, 2012

Week Eleven: A Journey to Colombia

Without a doubt, this week’s Colombian journey proved to be the most personal of my project to date.  Instead of researching online and reading recipes in my cookbooks to better understand Colombian cuisine’s unique qualities, I simply turned to friends and co-workers with family roots in Colombia.  Sure, I looked around online, but for the most part, distinguishing Colombian food from that of other Latin American countries is difficult from the perspective of someone reviewing recipes and reading about key ingredients.  Rice, beans, plantains, yucca, chicken, fish, pork, tomato, onion, and garlic are the key ingredients for the cuisines of most Latin American countries, so I knew this week’s journey would only be complete if I understood which dishes connect emotionally with my Colombian friends. 

A few weeks ago, I turned to my friend Bonnie whose dad lives in Colombia, and I asked her to think of some dishes that I should make for my upcoming week of Colombian cuisine.  Without hesitation, she responded that I had to make Bandeja Paisa.  A week later I asked the same question of my friend John who lived in Colombia as a child, and he responded with the same dish…Bandeja Paisa.  He found a picture of it online for me and described its components with excitement.  A few days later, I told my friend Scott who is also Colombian that I was planning to make Bandeja Paisa over the weekend, and he explained the dish with such fervor that our conversation ended with him saying he was going out for Bandeja Paisa that night. 

Bandeja Paisa includes many components, so I knew this would be a dish I needed to save for a weekend when I had extra time.  I wanted to include another dish, so I read about several different soups and stews that I could make as a weeknight dinner.  I decided to make Ajiaco, which is a traditional Andean stew of chicken, corn, and pappas criollas (Andean potatoes).  A Colombian herb called guascas provides Ajiaco’s distinct flavor profile.  Upon making my decision, I mentioned to John and Bonnie that I needed to find guascas and pappas criollas at a local market so I could make ajiaco.  Neither seemed excited about me making this dish (which should have been clue #1 that I needed to make something else), but they agreed that I should be able to find the special herb and potatoes at a local market in Little Havana.  So, I set out on a mission after work on Monday night, and after visiting four different markets in Little Havana, I only found the pappas criollas.  No guascas in sight.  I made plans to try a market near my office during lunch the next day.  Tuesday morning, John and Bonnie asked how the ajiaco turned out, and I reported to both that I couldn’t find the guascas and hoped to find it on my lunch break.  Then, John said, “Why don’t you just make sancocho?”  My response was simply that I didn’t know what it was, but I immediately understood that when your Colombian friends aren’t excited about a dish you plan to make but ask you why you aren’t making something else, change course!  John explained the dish to me, and Bonnie talked about the tradition of building a big fire on the beach to make a huge pot of sancocho in Colombia.  I knew that I had to make the sancocho.  Thankfully, it does not have guascas in it, so I ended that scavenger hunt immediately.

With my menus for the week set, I set out to make Colombian dishes with heart.  I found a website My Colombian Recipes, which provided me with great background information about the dishes as well as traditional presentations and recipes.

Tuesday Night Dinner / Wednesday Lunch:  Sancocho de Gallina
With inspiration from my friends, I set out to make traditional sancocho that would enlighten me and provide warm memories for my friends.  I knew that the stew would be more than I could eat alone on Tuesday night, so I told them to plan for sancocho lunch on Wednesday at work.

I made the Sancocho de Gallina recipe posted on My Colombian Recipes.  The stew includes chicken, fresh corn, green plantains, potatoes, yucca, and cilantro with chicken bouillon, salt, and pepper used as seasonings.  I was surprised to find that it only took an hour to cook the stew, and I was astonished at how much flavor was imparted after only one hour of stewing.  I served it with white rice and avocado on the side as is traditional. 

When I presented the dish to John, Bonnie, and Scott, I asked them not to tell if it was good, but to tell me if it tasted like what they know as sancocho.  They all agreed that my sancocho hit the mark.  John even told me that no one’s sancocho could ever be as good as his mom’s, but mine came close.  That is the highest compliment you can receive, so I graciously accepted it.  What a great way to spend a Wednesday lunch hour!

Sunday Night Dinner:  Bandeja Paisa
The basic translation of Bandeja Paisa is Tray of the Countrymen.  To my Colombian friends, this is the piece de resistance, a raison d'être, the Holy Grail.  For a week, I’ve called it The Heart Attack Platter, because it includes a list of items that a heart surgeon would warn against eating alone, much less all lined up together on the same plate.  I forged ahead with my plans to make the dish that my makes my friends swoon.

I turned to My Colombian Recipes for her presentation of Bandeja Paisa as my guideline.  I even showed it to my friends to make sure it was the authentic presentation that they envisioned when recommending the dish.  Interestingly, they agreed that it bared authenticity, except for one thing...none of them had heard of the Carne en Polvo (powdered beef).  They noted that a small piece of grilled flank steak was more typical of their experiences with this dish.  Since I have made flank steak many times, I decided to try the Carne en Polvo, so I could report back to my friends about it and experience something new.

The platter includes the following components:  Paisa Pinto Beans, White Rice, Carne en Polvo (Powdered Beef), Chicharron (Pork Belly), Chorizo, Plantains, Arepa, Hogao (tomato and onion relish), Fried Egg, Avocado, and Lime.

I began the process of making this meal on Saturday. 
  • I made the Hogao, which is a relish of scallions, tomatoes, garlic, cumin, and fresh cilantro. 
  • I began soaking the pinto beans.
  • I made the “guiso” which is mixture of tomato, onion, scallions, garlic, cilantro, and cumin that is added to the pinto beans after they cook for two hours.  Oddly enough, it was almost the exact same recipe as the hogao, which is served as a condiment for the pinto beans.
  • I marinated and cooked the flank steak.  Then, I pulverized it in the food processor to turn it into the elusive Carne en Polvo.
On Sunday, I began working on dinner mid-afternoon:
  • I cooked the Paisa Pinto Beans…an almost four-hour process.
  • I made the Chicharron Colombiano using the directions from Nikas Culinaria.
  • I grilled the chorizo.
  • I steamed the rice.
  • I took the Hogao out of the refrigerator so it could warm to room temperature.
  • I made the arepas according to the recipe on the back of the Goya bag.
  • I reheated the Carne en Polvo that I made on Thursday.
  • I fried the plantains. 
  • When I finished frying the plantains, I fried the egg in the same skillet.
  • I sliced the avocado and lime wedges.

Finally, I plated this crazy big platter, and we sat down to enjoy our Colombian buffet at 9:00 PM.  My favorite “bite” on the platter was the Carne en Polvo and Hogao added to the Paisa Pinto Beans.  I enjoyed the fresh-made arepas and plantains, too.  I think I overcooked the chicharron, because it was dry and tough unlike I’ve had it prepared by others.

All in all, my journey into Colombian cuisine proved successful as I tried new dishes and connected with friends in new ways.  I wish my week had allowed more time, because I wanted to make pandebono (Colombian Cheese Bread), a favorite of mine and my Colombian friends.  Another day, another week…

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