My mom gets all snarky with me whenever I tell her I can’t cook Colombian food. I tell her it just tastes better if she makes it, and she just blames that reasoning on pure laziness. She just doesn’t get it: there are certain foods in this world that can only be properly prepared by one’s mother, grandmother, or other older female in the family. Anything that’s traditionally Colombian falls into that category for me – until now. Last time Mom was here, she made it seem so simple to make a certain dish that I thought I’d go all out and make it – AFTER she was gone, so that I’d have no extra help or secret Mom seasoning.
I decided to start with something fairly simple & foolproof: carne con hogao, which is basically steak with a savory tomato-onion sauce. Like most Colombian food, this is to be served with white rice and arepas (a type of Colombian bread or thick “tortilla” made from corn) but being without the proper arepa making ingredients, I just served mine with rice. Though it seems like there might be a lot of work involved in this dish what with the steak and the sauce and the rice, the whole thing is quite simple and definitely tasty. Most Colombian cooking uses very basic, locally grown produce and ingredients, but also makes certain herbs and spices the key to creating amazing aromatic creations that one usually gets only in South America.
The star of this particular show is the hogao (pronounced oh-GAH-oh). This is a traditional sauce used for many Colombian dishes, particularly in the bandeja paisa, a wonderful platter of about 57 things (rice, beans, pork, fried eggs, fried plantains, arepas, hogao, etc., etc.) that leaves you in one of the best food comas you could possibly imagine. Hogao is also a common topping for many savory dishes and you could try thinking of it as a sort of Colombian “salsa”. What makes this particular sauce much different from a Mexican salsa is the use of scallions or green onions, cumin, and saffron. These three ingredients give a distinct flavor and aroma to the sauce that is quite a departure from a Mexican salsa. As with most traditional recipes from people’s respective motherlands, there are as many variations of ingredient quantities as there are Colombian grandmothers who make hogao. This is the way I have been taught to make it, thugh I modify mine a bit by making it chunkier than usual. The basics remain the same, though: fresh tomatoes, green onions, cilantro, cumin, salt and saffron are all you need to create a wonderful accompaniment to any dish.
This is a great way to make use of any excess in produce, taking some of the guesswork out of the whole What To Do With All Those Tomatoes Uncle Larry Gave Me or How Do I Get Rid Of All This Cilantro situations. Once it’s cooked, hogao will keep for roughly a week when stored in an airtight container in the fridge. Because of the intense aroma and the color given by the tomatoes and the saffron, I highly recommend storing this in a glass container (unless you don’t mind having orange-tinted plastic containers). Use this on top of chicken, pork, beef, you name it! Vegetarians can also partake of this delicious little sauce to give a new twist to meatless dishes. Lastly, please note that you must NOT, under any circumstances, use olive oil to make this! It will completely ruin the flavor of the entire sauce, so be sure to use a light cooking oil like canola or sunflower. Now let’s see how all of this is put together.
Carne con Hogao (serves 4; total cost per serving: ~ $3)
Cumin, salt & pepper to taste
2 c cooked white rice
2 c chopped fresh tomatoes
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1 c chopped scallions (tops and greens)
1/4 c chopped cilantro (leaves and stems)
1 t minced garlic
3 T canola oil
1/2 t salt
1/2 t ground cumin
1/4 t ground black pepper
1/8 t saffron
Lightly season the steak with salt, pepper, and ground cumin and cook to your preferred doneness either on the grill or in the broiler. Cut into four equal portions and set aside.
Heat the canola oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the garlic, yellow and green onions and sautee for about 1 minute. Next, add the chopped tomatoes, salt, cumin, pepper and saffron. Cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes until the tomatoes soften and start to create their own sauce. I like my hogao to be a little chunky, so I try not to cook it any longer than this. Add the chopped cilantro and reduce to a very low simmer for another minute or two.
To serve, spoon a generous amount of rice onto a plate, top with sliced steak and plenty of hogao, garnish with extra cilantro if you like, and enjoy!