Last night I found out about Joe Arroyo's death and was rather saddened. Being raised by Colombian-American parents, I pretty much grew up listening to Joe's hip-swinging salsa music. Songs like Rebelión and La Noche were played at almost every family gathering, much to the delight of my mother, who could dance salsa with envy-provoking flair. My aunt Estrella had a great big American townhouse so family gatherings usually took place there. All the dancers in my family (and there were a lot!) would split into couples to dance to Joe's music.
Unfortunately, I never took after my mother. In fact, I was too Americanized to really enjoy the music and during those parties, I would sometimes escape to my aunt's bedroom to watch television instead. Peeking at the show taking place in the living room every now and then or running to the dining room table to score an empanada.
After hearing about Joe's death, I went to You Tube and listened to some of his songs. It's amazing how music can bring on a flood of memories. I was thrown back 20 years and saw myself as a little girl, staring at my mom dance like only she could. This time though, asking her to teach me to dance just like her.
I may consider myself an American with a French heart and a Dutch nationality, but my Colombian roots are so deeply anchored in me that I literally get goosebumps (the happy kind) every time I hear or see something that has to do with the country where I spent the first two years of my life.
Colombian food can also have that same impact on me. Mention bandeja paisa (an oversized and extremely delicious peasant dish) and my mouth starts watering. I sometimes even have dreams of eating real Colombian food, either made by my family or enjoyed at one of my favorite Colombian restaurants in Union City.
While I have tried my hand at making certain recipes, I'm always left with the feeling that they don't come out exactly the same. It could possibly have to do with the fact that some of the ingredients are hard to source here. Take buñuelos, for example. I've tried making them with mozzarella instead of queso blanco (farmer's cheese), but they're not really what they're meant to be.
After being bit by the Colombian bug last night, I decided this morning that I needed to eat something Colombian. Preferably something simple. I had a good look through Patricia McCausland-Gallo's book, Secrets of Colombian Cooking, and decided to make Ají Antioqueño- a fabulously aromatic, lime-infused salsa consisting of chopped scallions, tomatoes, red habanero peppers, lots of cilantro and various condiments. I chose this recipe because it's a specialty of my region Antioquia, and because with the exception of the habanero peppers, I knew I could easily get all of the ingredients.
The salsa is traditionally eaten with soups, meats, on rice or my favorite, with empanadas. My choice was to serve it over a simple salad of thinly sliced tomatoes and ditto avocado. The taste of the salsa combined with the ripe, creamy avocado did more than satisfy my cravings for a taste of Colombia. If I close my eyes, I can almost feel the cool, spring-like climate of the land I left behind so many years ago.
Here's Patricia's recipe for Ají Antioqueño (with my own little modifications), followed by the simple salad I served it with.
Makes 1 1/2 -2 cups
2 tsps minced, seeded red habanero pepper (or just a normal red chili)
1/3 cup white vinegar
2 tbsps lime juice
1 tablespoon salt
1/3 cup chopped cilantro (I used about 1/2 a large bunch- I love cilantro!)
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes (I used two)
1/2 cup chopped scallions (I used three)
1/2 cup diced white onions (I used 1 small onion)
1 1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp pepper (I used a good grinding of mixed peppercorns)
4 tbsps sunflower oil
1 tbsp tabasco sauce (I omitted this one as I'm not such a fan of extremely hot foods)
"In a blender, puree the habanero pepper with the vinegar, lime juice, salt and 1/3 cup of water for 1 minute. Pour into a nonreactive bowl. Add cilantro, tomatoes, green onions (scallions), onions, sugar, pepper and oil and mix well. Add the tabasco, if using (this will make a very hot sauce even hotter!), and mix well. Refrigerate 8 hours to improve flavor. This is a mixture of ingredients that will blend with each other and become one with special character and aroma if left to set for this time period or overnight. It will keep refrigerated for about a week."
Truth be told, I couldn't wait and had the salsa immediately. It was still delicious!To make the salad, simply thinly slice two tomatoes, arrange on a plate and top with some of the salsa to taste. Do the same with the avocado and serve. Buen provecho!