Eating out at restaurants is always great, but what happens when your favorite restaurant is in a different country? This week I learned how to make Colombian dishes so that whenever I’m home in New York, I can still indulge in my favorite Colombian foods!
One of my absolute favorite things about Colombia is the food. Growing up, I was lucky to eat many Colombian delicacies both as a result of having a Colombian grandmother and living in a neighborhood replete with Colombian restaurants. Although I’ve always been a big fan of eating Colombian dishes, I’ve never been brave enough to try to make one. This week I took the big leap!
I wanted to start with something simple and basic, but full of lots of flavor! I decided that for the main dish I would try arroz mixto or mixed rice. Arroz mixto is often served for lunch here and consists of rice cooked with chicken, sausage, and lots of colorful vegetables. As someone who loves everything from sticky, Japanese rice to spicy, Mexican rice, I knew that picking a dish that incorporated the universal grain would be a good choice for both me and my dinner guests. Besides, who doesn’t love rice?
Our version of arroz mixto would include chicken breast and a sausage called morcilla. You may have never heard ofmorcilla before and you might not want to eat it after I tell you that it’s made out of blood! Even though the thought of eating blood might make you feel a little uneasy, I promise morcilla is delicious! Strong in flavor, the tasty black sausage is often eaten here with an arepa, or a corn tortilla. Adding bits of morcilla in our arroz mixto would add a bold and unmistakable flavor!
I began my culinary adventure by inviting a few friends over last Monday. I imagined them as a panel of judges that would rate and critique my dishes. Lucky for me, my friends didn’t like that idea because they were just as eager as I was to cook! On Monday at 6:30, the first person to arrive to the house was Justyn, a fellow American who also teaches English in Medellin.
“The first step,” Justyn said, “is to prepare the chicken.” With all the ingredients laid out on the counter, we reached for the chicken, peppers, and onions, and placed them all in a frying pan. I had organized the tomato paste, garlic, rice, peas, morcilla, cumin, pepper, and salt in a neat line.
“Now what?” I asked inquisitively, eager to move on to the next step.
“We wait until its cooked well.”
Suddenly, I heard a knock at the door. As I opened the door, two Colombian friends, Estefania and Veronica, entered the kitchen. They were speaking so fast that I could hardly understand them.
“We brought chocoramos and arequipe! You have to try it, Steph! Let’s get them ready now!”
As I struggled to figure out what a chocoramo was, Estefa pulled out what looked like a slice of pound cake covered in chocolate. I guessed that was the chocoramo. As for arequipe, I had encountered the delicious caramel substance before. Colombians love to drizzle the cafe-colored syrup on everything from ice cream to crackers. I looked at Estefa and laughed. Dessert before dinner? Well, I guess that’s one of the advantages about living so far from home; my parents can’t tell me not to eat cake before dinner!
After warming up with the caramel-covered chocolate cakes, we were ready to keep eating more. It was time to put the chicken in a giant pot with all the other ingredients, letting them sit until the flavors had mixed and the rice had thoroughly cooked. As the kitchen filled with the scent of home cooking, our appetites grew more and more.
Now, even as much as I love rice, there’s another Colombian specialty that I love even more. What I’m referring to ispan de queso, or Colombian cheese bread. Usually eaten during the late morning or early evening (but delicious at any time of the day), Colombians indulge in all types of tasty breads sold at the bakeries in Medellin. With a bakery on the corner of at least every two blocks, sitting down for cheese bread and coffee is extremely popular and part of the everyday lifestyle here. As a result, the bakers in Medellin have perfected their art and make all types of mouth-watering treats! After experiencing the bliss of eating one of those warm, freshly baked breads over a cup of fresh coffee, I knew I would never be able to live without them! That’s why the second dish I decided to make on Monday was a tray of pan de quesos.
After researching online, I learned that the recipe for pan de queso is very simple. Two types of flour, cheese, egg, and salt are the only ingredients. Estefa and I excitedly got to work, mixing the ingredients and mashing the flour. We wanted to make our pan de quesos distinct, so we began to experiment with all the different shapes we could make.
“Look, this one is a Botero sculpture!”
We all looked at the floury creation and laughed. I had definitely never seen cheese bread in the shape of a famous sculpture before! Having so much fun making flour shapes, we almost didn’t hear Justyn as he called us.
“I said,” he repeated, “I think the food is ready!”
After putting our pan de quesos to bake in the oven and sitting down to eat, I was impressed at how great the arroz mixto looked. As we all took our first bites, we were all happy to learn that it tasted just as good as it looked! We successfully made a Colombian dish! Even better, soon the pan de quesos were ready, and they were so delicious we each ate at least three!
Knowing how to cook my favorite Colombian dishes is one of the best things I’ve learned here. Now I know that no matter where I go in the world, I can always make a batch of arroz mixto or a tray of pan de quesos and feel like I’m right back home in Medellin!
I was not only happy to eat the delicious meal, I was so proud to know that I had made it with my friends! Eating is even better when its your own creation. I felt like a professional!
To make arroz mixto, one needs rice, meat of one’s choice, tomato sauce, peas, peppers, onions, garlic, cumin, pepper, and salt. You can also add beer for additional flavoring! First fry the chicken with the peppers, garlic, and onion in a pan. When cooked, transfer the mix to a big pot, along with the rice and the rest of the ingredients. Cover with water and let cook over medium heat. You’ll know when its ready when the rice has absorbed all the water, has goldened, and smells ready to eat!
To make pan de queso, all that one needs is white corn flour, corn starch, an egg, salt, and fresh cheese. The cheese used here is called cuajada, and is a soft, bland cheese. Mix all the ingredients until the flour is soft and easily moldable. Make traditional ring shapes or get creative like we did and make whatever shape you want! Place in the oven for ten minutes, and just like that, you’ll have delicious Colombian cheese breads to share with all your friends!
Pan de queso is connected intimately to the local environment in that it is eaten regularly by Medellin locals. The bakeries in Medellin are endless! You can’t walk anywhere in the city without smelling the wafting scent of bread baking down the street. With a landscape dotted by thousands of bakeries, Medellin is certainly a city characterized by its delicious cheese breads and pastries.