Part Two: Lunch at the Colombian Ambassador’s House in London

2014-11-21-09.49.11A very funny thing: I really didn’t know much about Colombia or Colombian food when I was invited to lunch; as I spent time with the chefs and we all cooked together, though, I felt such warmth (always welcome in our British coolness). I loved the way they prepared the food: not just a job, not a statement of style or personality, not just how it tasted either though all the chefs agreed that was paramount, but the way the food was caressed into being: patted, stirred, and at the risk of sounding trite: made with love.

Our visiting Colombian chefs, Juanita Umana and Diane Garcia cooked with such care and carefulness, not simply professionally, as some–many–chefs might. In fact, the taste that impressed me, stayed with me, was the taste of my grandmother’s cooking–even though my grandmother had never been to Colombia, not even a Colombian restaurant! It was the handwork-intensive, home-like taste that even when served up on the Ambassador’s exquisite China table settlings…..tasted of food meant to be eaten, food as a cultural caress, rather than food meant to impress. And I found it hugely comforting.

There was one dish, though, that spoke to me more than any of the others: Ajiaco Santafereno: chicken soup, with two kinds of potatoes for texture, corn because its such a ubiquitous ingredient, the whole flecked with coriander/cilantro, and served with capers, sour cream and diced avocado. The tangy fresh spunkiness of the capers– oh yes!–almost made me smile, while the diced avocado and sour cream added smoothness and richness each in their own way.

When I got home I made my own version of the soup, adapted from Colombia Cocina de Regiones, a regional Colombian cookbook in both Spanish and English, a book which our chefs contributed to. When I left, I requested a picture of myself standing in front of the national flag, with my new book.

Here is the recipe, a streamlined version of the soup we had for lunch. I cheated and used chicken broth as a base; if you like, you can make your own chicken soup as they do in Colombia. Either way, delightful.


Serves about 6-8

  • 3 litres/2-3 quarts chicken broth or stock
  • 2 onions, coarsely chopped or thinly sliced
  • 4-6 cloves garlic, cut up coarsely
  • 1 bunch cilantro/fresh coriander leaves, washed, dried, and coarsely chopped, including the stems
  • About 5 floury potatoes, peeled and sliced
  • 8-10 waxy salad potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
  • 12 ish ounces chicken breast, boned and skinned, and cut into bite sized pieces
  • About 3 ears corn on the cob, cut through the cob so that they look like wheels
  • Salt and black pepper or white pepper
  • 4 tablespoons/ 1/4 cup, aproximately (to taste) capers in brine, plus a few drops brine per bowlful
  • Tablespoons of sour cream as desired, or about 125g/ 1/2 cup
  • 1 avocado, peeled and diced (sprinkle with lemon juice if doing ahead, even by 5 or ten minutes, or it will brown unappealingly

In a large pot place the chicken broth, onion, garlic, half the coriander/cilantro and both of the types of potatoes. Bring to boil, reduce heat and cook at a medium simmer, for about 20 minutes or until the floury potatoes have fallen apart and the waxy ones are film but tender.

Add the chicken and corn on the cob, then cook a further 10 minutes or until the chicken is tender.

When ready to serve, ladle out the soup taking care each person gets a few rounds of corn and some chunks of chicken, then sprinkle avocado into each bowl, then the capers with few drops of the brine, and finally, a spoonful of sour cream.

Pasteles de Yuca

Serves about 8

These stuffed croquettes were wonderful: slightly chewy dough, crisply fried, and filled with meat and egg, a filling almost exactly like the one for piroshki!

I always like to find uses for yuca, which is potato-like but less starchy; fried and fried/roasted, it is fabulous. So eating this stuffed croquette of yucca dough filled with meat, I’m thinking: oh yes, please. yes yes yes. (really, it was delicious.)

The recipe is adapted from Colombia: Cocina De Regiones; I’m still working on testing the recipe, but am posting it here, now, in progress. In case you might like to take up the challenge and work with it. At the moment I don’t have access to either yucca or the cornflour/cornmeal that the recipe needs.

  • The dough:
  • About 1 1/4 kilo/ 3 lbs yuca, peeled and vein removed; i often used frozen peeled and parcooked yuca.
  • About 125- 250 g/ 1/2-1 cup Colombian corn flour, which is finer than polenta but coarser than the Mexican masa harina
  • Salt to taste

Note: Chefs Juanita and Diane emphasized that the dough needs to be put in the freezer for a few hours or at even better, overnight. I suspect they meant the refrigerator because at no point they they mention defrosting.

In a pot of salted boiling water, add the yuca, and cook at a medium boil, or slight lower, a robust simmer, until the yuca is cooked through. If you are using frozen yuca, check directions: it might just need a few minutes. You want it soft with a cottony texture so better overcooked than under.

Mash the yuca and mix it with the corn flour, and salt as desired. Knead the yuca puree dough until it is compact, and no longer sticky. Wrap up in plastic wrap and stash in the refrigerator overnight.

  • The Meat Filling:
  • 3 tablespoons annato oil
  • 1 bunch or about 1 1/2 cups thinly sliced green onions/scallions, or about a bunch or bunch and a half
  • 1 red onion, finely chopped
  • 5 plum tomatoes, plus their juices, chopped (tinned/canned is fine)
  • 1/2 red pepper, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tablespoon–2 teaspoons cumin–preferably toasted and ground from seeds
  • half a kilo/ 1 1/4 lbs beef rump, cut into large chunks
  • 2 hard boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
  • Salt and pepper

Heat the annato oil over medium heat and saute the scallions, red onion, tomatoes and red pepper, sprinkling it with salt and cumin as you cook. When the vegetables are softened, place the meat in the pot and cook for about 30 minutes or until tender, checking every so often that it isn’t burning; if it threatens to, add a little water. Maybe tender-ish (you are going to chop it all together so doesn’t need to be too tender).

Remove the meat from the pot and the sauce, then puree it in a food mill or food processor. Return meat to pot with vegetables and cook together for about 5 minutes or so, or until it dries. Add the hard boiled egg and taste for seasoning.

Set aside until cool.

Assembling the pasteles:

Take the dough and make balls the size of large golfballs or small baseballs; working one at a time, using your finger, make a cylindrical hole, and fill it with the ground meat mixture, closing the dough over the open end to seal the stuffed parcel well. You can make these either oval or cylindrical: the object is to have a nice amount of stuffing inside the yuca dough.

When all balls are stuffed, heat the oil for frying. This calls for deep frying, and at the Ambassador’s house we used a deep fryer, but i deep fry, in several inches of hot oil, in a heavy frying pan or well-anchored wok.

Fry on one side until golden, then turn over and do the second side. You want the croquettes to be crisp and golden just turning the corner on lightly browned.

Hot Sauce for dipping, spooning

The pink tangy hot sauce that we had at the Ambassador’s was based on tiny pink pickled onions, chopped. It had a gentle and perfumed heat, which to me tasted like amarillo chillies though i’m not sure. This is another part of the recipe I am working on: but if you get to it before I do: I would chop pickled onions and add fresh not terribly hot red chille to the mixture, or finely chopped dry amarillo chile, or amarillo paste, sometimes available in the shops imported from South America.

Seasoned Pioneers spice company should have the annatto. They have EVERYTHING. And they are WONDERFUL

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