On the menu for the evening:
~ Yucca Fries with Pique (chunky scallion-cilantro sauce)
~ My Grandmother’s Buñelos (cheese fritters)
~ Patacones (fried green plantains)
~ Papitas de Paseo con Hogao (“Picnic Potatoes” with tomato-scallion sauce)
~ Candied Orange Yam Empanadas (cornmeal pockets filled with my Mom’s candied orange yams)
~ Platanos Maduros con Chocolate (grilled sweet plantains with chocolate drizzle)
~ Bocadillo de Guayaba y Brevas con Queso (guava paste candied green figs with cheese)
I planned the menu around some of my favorite Colombian finger foods & appetizers that could easily be served tapas style. Except for the Thanksgiving inspired empanadas, I enjoyed many of these platillos as snacks or side dishes as a child during my family’s yearly visits to Colombia. Most of these recipes are borrowed from various aunts and my grandmother, lending a warm, cozy feeling to this small family gathering. Mama and Tia were very gracious about letting me run the show and happily chopped away as I worked on the two new empanada recipes, but I made sure to ask for help when it came to things like the right ratio of masa (dough) & guiso (a mixture of meat, spices and sauce) for the empanadas, or how to peel that darned yucca without severely injuring myself. As they challenged each other with who could remember the most about their childhood in Colombia, I snapped pictures of their hands in action. To me all hands are beautiful and tell a story, and I find both my Mom’s and my Auntie’s hands to be just lovely.
Our day of cooking proved to be educational for all of us, as Tia had forgotten what went into some of the recipes and I had no idea what I was doing in some instances. Mama was an excellent coach and teacher, especially when it came to making and shaping the empanadas. Because I was scaling down their size, she made sure to point out that they couldn’t be overfilled. I learned the difference in oil temperatures when preparing buñuelos versus empanadas and patacones, and finally learned the proper ratio of ingredients for making pique. What is pique? The best way I can describe it in English is that it’s a slightly chunky scallion & cilantro sauce which is pickled in cumin spiced vinegar. You can think of it as Colombia’s answer to chimichurri, using the green onions and cilantro as opposed to the Argentine parsley and garlic. Like chimichurri, it can be used in just about everything, from meats to soups, or as a dipping sauce for hors d’oeuvres, as illustrated in this meal. Let’s check out the recipe for the pique and the yucca fries.
Yucca Fries with Pique (serves 4; total cost per serving of fries: ~ $1.00)
2 medium yuccas (fresh, not frozen!)
8 c lightly salted water
4 c light cooking oil (canola, etc.)
Begin by peeling the yucca. To do so easily and safely, cut off each end of the yucca root then cut the yucca in half. Take one of the halves and hold it firmly (as illustrated by Mom in the photo) and cut into the peel down the length of the yucca. With the knife, gently begin to dislodge the peel from the flesh, finishing the peeling process with your fingers and plenty of elbow grease. Once this part is done, the rest is a piece of cake! Cut the yucca into 1/2" thick fries that are about 2-3” in length. Cook them in rapidly boiling, salted water about 10 minutes or until they just become tender. Do not overcook as these will finish cooking in the frying process. Drain them from the water and allow to cool to room temperature.
In a large saucepan heat the cooking oil until very hot (use a small piece of yucca to test the oil; if the yucca begins to fry and rise to the top immediately, the oil is ready). Cook the yucca fries until they’re a light golden brown and drain a plate lined with plenty of paper towels. You can salt them if you like but you won’t really need to, as the yucca’s distinct flavor is delicious on its own. Serve them with pique, a small side of hogao, or your favorite salsa. Enjoy!
Pique (yields 3 cups as written; total cost of entire recipe: $4.50)
2 c finely chopped scallions (greens & tops)
1 c finely chopped cilantro (leaves & stems)
1/8 c white wine vinegar
1/2 c water
1/8 t sea salt
1/4 t ground cumin
Combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl and mix well. Put the prepared pique in a medium jar and refrigerate for about an hour before using. You can put pique on top of steak, chicken, or pork, in soups and stews, over rice dishes, or as a dip. It can be slightly addicting, so enjoy it while it lasts!
My Grandmother’s buñelos proved to be more challenging than I thought. Colombian buñelos are round cheese fritters that are commonly eaten during the Christmas and New Year holidays with things like brevas (candied green figs) and manjar blanco (similar to dulce de leche but a lot sturdier). Made correctly and from scratch, they are wonderful little spheres of cheesy goodness, and even if they’re fried, you’ll find they’re not greasy at all. When my Mom started to scold me about not working the dough correctly, saying I’d seen her make them dozens of times, I reminded her I was just used to eating them, not making them. She rolled her eyes at me but walked me through each step anyway, with my Aunt helping to explain the quick fixes that one can use in case the cheesy dough turns out too moist or too dry. Because the method for this recipe is a bit lengthy, I’ll save that for its very own recipe post next month. For my first try I think I did pretty well! I only had to sacrifice about 5 of the 45 that the recipe yielded, and the rest turned out perfectly. My only problem was trying to keep all our hands away from them while we finished the rest of the spread because it's impossible to eat just one. In order to conserve buñuelos, we worked on the patacones and platanos maduros next.
A tropical country that straddles both sides of the equator, Colombia very proudly boasts about their wide variety of fruits and vegetables that seem to be perpetually in season. One fruit that is commonly used in Colombian cuisine is the plantain. Whether green or ripe, it is used for appetizers, soups and desserts. Patacones are made from green plantains that are cut into thick slices and flash fried. They’re then removed from the oil and allowed to drain a bit before flattening them into a thinner round, then flash fried again. Salted immediately after cooking, patacones make for a wonderful snack or side, especially when topped with pique. You can think of them as a larger, softer plantain chip. Platanos maduros are used in many dessert dishes in Colombia, and I chose to prepare them the way my Tia Gladis did: they’re simply sliced into thick rounds and flash fried until golden brown. She would then melt some dark chocolate and dip each slice into the chocolate, making for an absolutely sinful little snack or dessert. Both of these recipes are easy to make and only cost about $2 for 2 servings.
Bocadillos (which literally translates into "little mouthfuls") are simple little treats made with either guava paste or candied green figs with cheese. Other variations will also pair the figs and guava paste with manjar blanco. My Mom checked in with one of my cousins in Colombia to see what the latest cheese pairing was these days and a medium cheddar was the winner. Again the creamy saltiness of the cheese enhances the sweetness of the guava and figs, and these can be eaten on their own or paired with crackers or even a buñelo or two. For a different, savory treat, try the papitas de paseo, which my great-grandmother used to make for my mom and her siblings whenever they went to visit one of the family’s many coffee or sugar plantations. These are ridiculously simple to make and go well with salsa, hogao, pique, you name it! Simply boil baby red potatoes in chicken stock until tender, remove from heat and salt immediately. Place them on a plate to dry for about 5 minutes so that the salt has the chance to adhere to the skin of the potato and they’re ready to eat!
My last tapas were the two Thanksgiving inspired empanadas. Because they were my own little creation, I wanted to work on them myself. The only problem was that I’d never actually made empanadas before, so at first I was lacking the coordination to properly shape & form these little pockets. Traditionally, Colombian empanadas are filled with a cumin-spiced ground beef & onion filling and are about the size of a French roll. I decided to make two different types, one savory and one sweet, incorporating some of the leftovers from Thanksgiving. My first set was made with a mixture of minced turkey meat (both dark and white meat) and hogao. After my Aunt had helped me with all the chopping, I worked on cooking the hogao. Mom declared it to be “beautiful” which was nice to hear since this is the first time she’s tried mine. The sweet set of empanadas was to be filled with my Mom’s candied orange yams and extra spices. Both my Mom and my Aunt looked at me like I was crazy for trying this recipe but they went along with it anyway. In my mind I could almost taste the juxtaposition of slightly salty cornmeal with the sweetly spiced yams and knew the combination would be quite tasty. As luck would have it, this was declared the best dish of the evening. And now for the recipes!
Empanadas con Guiso de Pavo y Hogao (yields about 12-15 mini empanadas; total cost of recipe: ~$4.75)
1 c Goya Masarepa (yellow corn meal that can be found in the Hispanic foods aisle of your grocery store or at Hispanic markets; be sure to use yellow, not white!)
1/2 t salt
1½ c warm water
1 T vegetable oil
1/2 c minced cooked turkey (white & dark meat)
1/3 c hogao (see recipe here)
About 4 c cooking oil for frying
1 sandwich size plastic bag, sides cut open
Wooden cutting board
Smooth bottomed juice or water glass
Combine the first 4 ingredients in a large bowl and mixing well until you have a firm but malleable dough. Roll small pieces of dough into small spheres that are about 1½“ in diameter and set aside. In a separate bowl mix the minced turkey with the hogao and set aside.
Lay the plastic bag flat on the board and place one of the dough balls in the center of board. Fold the outer half of the bag over the dough ball and using the glass, press the dough into a flat circle that’s about 1/16” thick. Be sure that it is not too thick or too thin as this will seriously affect the finished product. Peel back the top layer of the plastic bag and spoon about ½ teaspoon of the turkey & hogao mixture in the center. Using the top layer of the plastic bag to help you, fold the empanada together and press the edges together to seal in the filling. Carefully peel back the plastic and remove the empanada. Continue this process until they’re all formed.
Fry the empanadas in very hot oil for about 5 minutes or until they turn a light golden brown. Remove from the oil and drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Serve with plenty of pique and enjoy!
Candied Orange Yam Empanadas (yields 12-15 mini empanadas and about 1 cup extra yams & syrup; total cost of recipe: $7)
2 medium yams
1/2 jar of orange marmalade (with rinds)
1 c firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 c orange juice
¼ t ground nutmeg
½ t ground cinnamon
1 sandwich size plastic bag, sides cut open
Wooden cutting board
Smooth bottomed juice or water glass
Peel and cut the yams into 2” cubes. Toss lightly with oil and roast in a preheated 400° oven for about 20 minutes or until the yams become slightly tender. Remove from oven and set aside. In a large saucepan combine the orange juice, orange marmalade and brown sugar and bring to a low simmer, making sure the sugar has completely dissolved. Add the roasted yams to the syrup and simmer over low heat for about 15 minutes.
To prepare the empanadas, spoon about 1/3 of the yams into a bowl along with plenty of syrup. Mash with a fork until almost smooth, adding more syrup if the yams are too dry. Follow the above procedure for shaping the empanadas, this time using the candied orange yam filling. Fry as instructed above and drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Serve with a side of extra syrup, garnish with orange zest and enjoy!
As I mentioned earlier, the Candied Orange Yam Empanadas were definitely the stars of the evening, although Mama and Tia said everything turned out delicious and beautifully presented. This was no small feat and definitely took a lot of time to put together but we all felt the end result was well worth our combined efforts. We had so much fun doing this that I want to do it again, but perhaps on a slightly less elaborate scale; my kitchen just isn’t big enough for all of my big ideas!
Seriously though, between the good food, the interesting stories of a completely different time and place, and the quality time I got to spend with my mother and my aunt, this was a fabulous experience that I will never forget. I was finally able to learn how to prepare food that is part of my heritage, and I was happy to note that I am far more creative in the kitchen that I’d originally thought. But most importantly, I was able to spend this holiday with two of my favorite women in the world, bonding with them more than I ever imagined. Thanks for the opportunity, Foodbuzz! It was a blast!