Cooking Colombian (without calling in the fire department)

My husband (Paleo Boy) is from Colombia. One of his favorite foods is, doubtless, empanadas. Empanadas come in various forms throughout the Latin world. The Colombian version is traditionally a crispy layer of fried cornmeal dough encasing a pillow of fragrantly spiced meat and potato mixture. One of my proudest moments this winter was finally working up the nerve to try a recipe for empanadas, and more or less succeeding. I love to cook, but am wary of recipes that involve a lot of architecture and engineering, like folding pastry dough around ingredients, and the deep frying is also a tricky prospect. I made the empanadas somewhat spontaneously on a weekend night in and they worked out rather well. It was great fun to plop the assembled empanadas into the piping hot frying oil and see them turn a golden color as they cooked and then land on the plate looking like they could be fresh off a street cart in Bogota.

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You eat the empanadas with a squeeze of lime and a spoonful of aji, a slightly spicy condiment made of green onions, tomato, cilantro, and a dash of habanero. I learned when I made the aji that the sauce tasted great on everything and is used on all kinds of food. And it’s a heck of a lot healthier than its partner in crime, the empanadas. We used some of the leftover sauce in other dishes (more on that later).

Proud of my new empanada-making skills, even though some of them came out a bit lopsided, I decided to make them for my family and a friend one evening in January. We were just back from a trip to Colombia to visit my husband’s family. I had the telltale tan and suitcase of souvenirs and fresh memories of Caribbean sunlight and delicious food. It seemed only right to share these riches.

Unfortunately, the empanadas proved difficult that night. I had medium-size bowls of various fillings (broccoli and cheese, vegan mixed vegetable, and the traditional meat) and one big bowl of empanada dough ready on the kitchen counter and had only to fry the little suckers. It was destined to go wrong: I get frazzled at the idea of guests coming over and felt a little rushed and nervous. First the oil wasn’t hot enough so the empanadas weren’t frying properly, just getting soggy. Then some oil from the excessively full pot I used for deep frying spattered onto the burner and set off the fire alarm. And set off the fire alarm again. And again and again and again. My sister arrived a few minutes into this chaos, followed by my friend. By the time my parents arrived every window and door in the apartment was open, we had fans going at strategic angles, and the fire alarm was still shrieking. There were flames at one point. A lot of them, under the burner and spreading across the stove top. We threw flour onto the stove. Isn’t that what you do for grease fires? Or wait, is it sugar? Definitely not water. So went the conversation (more like panicked yelling). I flapped around with a dish rag, fanning it limply at the fire alarm, useless while my more able companions got the fire out with rags and pot lids and called 911 just in case things took a turn toward devastation. By the time two firefighters arrived in full gear (they get called automatically if a fire alarm blares for a certain amount of time without stopping, by the way) the fire had burned off of its own accord. We were left with a house smelling of burned oil, a slightly charred stove top, adrenalin pumping and me starting to tremble with relief and mortification. I treated everyone to Cheesecake Factory. My family stopped on the way to the restaurant and bought me a fire extinguisher as a gag gift with a purpose. The next day, biting back panic, I pan-fried the empanadas, partially submerged in oil and flipped oh-so-carefully with a spatula. I delivered the empanadas to my family at their various abodes in tupperware, and they just adored them, or at least told me so given that the experience of making them gave me (and possibly my cats, who fled to the bedroom at the first blare of the fire alarm) post-traumatic stress disorder. That is the saga of the empanadas.

But what I realized amidst all that drama is that the deliciousness of the empanadas is a marriage between the crispy corn outer and juicy filling of the empanada itself and the aji. The aji’s flavor is an integral feature of the experience. Paleo Boy and I will always cook and eat empanadas as a special treat, but we’re focused on healthy foods for the day to day right now, and also focused on not ticking off the local fire department too often. For that reason, I recently made the aji by itself to use as a condiment. Follow the recipe from My Colombian Recipes, a fantastic website with a lot of simple and often healthy Colombian dishes. My only note is that I double the recipe while still using only one habanero, or use half an habanero instead of a whole one for the recipe as written. There’s still plenty of kick that way (a fantastic, multilayered flavor) but it’s not a full on, flaming hot sauce that way and a little more versatile.

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I used the aji with two six oz. halibut fillets, cooking the halibut in a pan with the aji generously ladled over so it could soak up the flavor as it cooked. Halibut has a mild, sweet flavor and accepts sauce beautifully like any white fish. We have also used the aji as a salad dressing and as a sauce for with stirfry beef. It keeps well in the fridge in an airtight container for days and days.

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We ate the halibut with roasted sugar snap peas and mango for dessert. Sugar snap peas are so yummy – a crunchy snack to eat raw. Oven roasting them gives them an earthy grilled taste and was an interesting change. I eat the mango drenched in fresh lemon juice and sprinkled with sea salt. This is the way that very green mango, called mango biche, is sold in plastic baggies on street corners in Colombia. Hawkers carry a long stick hanging with bags of various things, crunchy corn snacks and the mango. They will run up shouting to your car as you drive by a toll booth or traffic light and the quick exchange of coins for the bag of sliced mango through the car window is a bit of an art. The cold fruit and salty tartness slide down your throat gloriously refreshing on a hot day. It’s hard to find good quality green mango here in the U.S., but regular mango prepped in the same way is still delicious.  Consider this a safe way to enjoy a Colombian-ish meal: No grease fires, and no heart-attack-inducing deep frying. So no need to call 911.

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Halibut with Aji

2 6 oz. thawed or fresh halibut fillets
1 cup aji, prepared with half the recommended habanero
Lemon, sliced, for garnish

Lightly grease a frying pan. Place the halibut fillets in the pan on medium heat. Pour the aji over the fillets. Cook on medium heat until done, or about fifteen minutes, turning the fish over at least once. Serve with a simple green salad or vegetables of choice.

Oven roasted sugar snap peas

Sugar snap peas, washed and prepped
Olive oil
Salt to taste

Place the sugar snap peas on a baking tray. Brush or spray with olive oil, rotate, and brush or spray on the other side. The sugar snap peas should be lightly coated but not drenched. Sprinkle with salt. Bake for 10-12 min. or until cooked through (appearing slightly wrinkled) at 350 F.

Street Food Mango
One large, ripe or slightly under-ripe mango, peeled and sliced
Juice of one lemon
Salt to taste

Squeeze the lemon over the sliced mango in a bowl, sprinkle with salt, serve cold

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Half the dining room table commandeered by Paleo Boy’s work, the other half a civilized meal, including flowers!

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