Pros: Easy-to-follow instructions; lovely insights into Colombian cuisine and culture
As a U.S.-born American citizen of Colombian descent, I have been very fortunate to have grown up in a bi-cultural environment which has allowed me to experience the rich culinary heritages of both the United States and Colombia.
To many people in the U.S. who have never traveled abroad or who may live in towns where there are no Colombian restaurants or Latin American markets, there exists a misconception that all Latin food must be like Mexico’s, which is compounded further by the fact that most of what we consider to be “Mexican” food is really a collection of Americanized dishes invented in border states such as Texas, New Mexico and California.
Because most of what is now Latin America was colonized by Spain, there are certain elements of Latin cuisine which are common to many South American and Caribbean countries.
For instance, corn-based tamales can be found in many Latin countries’ treasure troves of recipes, albeit in vastly different forms regarding ingredients, preparation and presentation; a tamal from Mexico is not quite the same as one from Cuba, say, and neither version resembles the tamal bogotano, the version that is stuffed with pork, chicken and longaniza (a kielbasa-like sausage made in Bogota and the Andean mountain region of central Colombia).
When we lived in Colombia from the mid-1960s till the spring of 1972, I was immersed in the delicious culinary world of my parents’ and grandparents’ homeland. Most of my diet between the ages of four and nine was dominated by such dishes as frisoles antioquenos (Antioqueno red beans), empanadas de carne (meat turnovers), arepas de queso (cheese arepas), almojabanas (cheese and corn cakes) and ajiaco bogotano (chicken and potato soup).
Until recently, my mom did most of the cooking in our house, but she became ill and is still recuperating from back surgery so I do most of the cooking now. To my surprise, I have discovered that I actually enjoy cooking (it’s the cleaning up after which I don’t like too much), especially if it involves trying out recipes from both the U.S. and Colombia.
Now, even though I am bilingual and can readily follow any of the recipes in my mom’s extensive library of Spanish-language cookbooks, I am more confident with books which are written in English, partly because it’s my primary language when I read and write, and partly because I find it really tedious to translate recipes from Spanish to English when I want to share a particularly delicious dish with my non-Spanish-speaking friends.
With this in mind, I recently purchased Patricia McCausland-Gallo’s Secrets of Colombian Cooking, one of many volumes in the Hippocrene Cookbook Library which are devoted to recipes from other countries.
This 2004 book (now in its fourth printing) is a 250-page sampler of over 80 recipes that includes such basics as breakfast foods and snacks, meats, side dishes, soups, dips and sauces, breads, fruit juices and drinks, and desserts.
McCausland-Gallo, who is from Barranquilla (a city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast) and attended colleges and cooking schools in both the U.S. and France, breezily gives readers a mixture of recipes and mini-lessons on Colombian geography and culture, focusing primarily on the average Colombian family and its eating habits.
As she writes in her introduction:
We make full use of the bounty our land gives us and thus create very colorful, tasty and aromatic dishes. Our foods are a mixture of the indigenous cultures entwined with the Spanish, African and later Asian and American influences. From the Spanish, we gained sugarcane, which happened to sweeten the spices and mixtures native to our soil and those brought to us by Africans. Mixed with sugar, our cacao beans became one of the most popular drinks in our country, hot chocolate. In newer recipes, we find the use of curry and saffron, as well as cumin seeds and cinnamon, and even dishes prepared with Coca Cola. Deep in the mountains of Narino you find ginger and chanterelles; the possibilities in our local food supply are almost infinite, and each region does its best to use the products grown on its own land. Food markets in Colombia are a joy to shop in; nowadays there is nothing you will not find in them, and all is natural, beautiful, and filled with color and taste.
Who Can Use This Cookbook?
Put simply, Secrets of Colombian Cooking is aimed at anyone who can cook without having to be a Martha Stewart clone. Since the recipes McCausland-Gallo has chosen are not haute cuisine dishes from fancy-shmancy restaurants but reflect the average Colombian family’s eating habits, it’s fair to say that if you can read and follow a recipe – and can find the ingredients or their substitutes – you can cook Colombian food.
Each recipe follows a simple-to-understand format: the dish name in its original Colombian Spanish, its English translation, a “box” of introductory material – often filled with funny anecdotes about McCausland-Gallo, her family and friends, a sidebar with the ingredients list, and a list of preparation steps. (See sample recipe at the end of this review.)
Most – but not all – the recipes have reasonably short “prep” times; some recipes – such as cheese arepas – take as little as 10-15 minutes from start to finish, while others – like the frisoles antioquenos – require at least one step which necessitates washing red beans (in plain water, naturally) and soaking them overnight.
Okay, So It’s Easy to Read and Use, But What About the Ingredients?
Of course, a book such as Secrets of Colombian Cooking would not sell well in the English-speaking world, particularly in the U.S., if all the recipes consisted of ingredients which are not readily available outside of Colombia. If that were the case, I doubt that Patricia McCausland-Gallo would have bothered to have her book published outside the esoteric gourmand-gourmet niche.
Happily for the reader, most of the ingredients listed in Secrets of Colombian Cooking are to be found in most supermarkets in metro areas such as New York, Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago, especially in those cities with large Colombian émigré communities. If not, readers can try looking for them in Latin American grocery stores in Hispanic neighborhoods or even on the Internet at such websites as www.mylatinfood.com which sell authentic Colombian food products.
If neither option works out, the book’s glossary section provides readers with alternative ingredients which may be easier to find in the U.S., such as swapping red pinto beans instead of cargamanto beans for the frisoles antioquenos.
In all the recipes which require special ingredients, readers will see an asterisk (*) next to specific items; these are defined in the glossary, with notes on either possible substitutes or ways to get them in the U.S.
My Take: Secrets of Colombian Cooking is nicely written in a conversational, informative-but-breezy style that is enjoyable and easy to follow. None of the recipes require a degree in culinary arts from a French cooking school, and the variety of the dishes within its pages is far-ranging enough to give non-Colombians some idea of how unique that South American nation’s cuisine is.
Arepas con Huevo
Four to 6 six-inch arepas
From my hometown on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, this is hearty breakfast fare! Eat them on days when you need extra energy. My husband first ate one of these in the streets of Cartagena de Indias, and was so surprised that he had to stand and watch how they got the egg into the arepa.
1 cups precooked white cornmeal*
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cups hot tap water
4 to 6 whole eggs
4 cups oil for frying
1. In a bowl, mix the cornmeal and salt with a fork. Add the water and mix with your hands for about a minute, or until you have a soft yet firm homogenous mixture; this is the arepa dough. Let it rest uncovered at room temperature for 15 minutes.
2. Divide the dough into 12 equal balls, leaving a small piece of dough aside for use later in the recipe. Lay a piece of plastic wrap on the work surface, place a ball of dough in the center, cover with another piece of plastic, and with a heavy pan or pot cover flatten it until it forms an even round about 1/6-inch thick.
3. Place the oil in a heavy, deep pot, and bring to a temperature of 325 F. Add the arepas one by one so that they don’t stick to each other; don’t put too many at the time. Cook for 1 1/2 minutes on each side and remove them very carefully with a slotted spoon so they don’t crack. They should have puffed up in the oil. Drain over paper towels on a rack with the inflated side up.
4. Take scissors or a knife and cut a 1-inch opening in the edge of the arepa; go all the way in to reach the pocket of air formed on one side of it. Crack a whole egg into a small espresso cup and pour it into the arepa. Close the opening with a piece of uncooked dough, and immediately place in the hot oil again. Fry for 2 more minutes on each side. Repeat with the remaining balls of dough.
5. Drain briefly on paper towels. Serve immediately, very hot.