Arepas de Heuvo 02.28.2011

I would be remiss in not telling you about Gledis.  She is a cook in Cartagena and over the course of our time there, we tried a lot of her cooking.  She made the cilantro sauce on our first day, and I spent one morning with her so she could teach me to make arepas.

Arepas are eaten for breakfast in Colombia and Venezuela, and made out of ground corn.  Arepas also can include an egg -- arepas de heuvo -- or other ingredients.  I wanted to learn how to make arepas de heuvo because, well, they are divine.

Arepas are fried -- twice.  There is nothing healthy about this dish, except that you have a deep sense of satisfaction after you eat it.  When I eat arepas de heuvo, I splash a little hot sauce on top.

Okay, so here are arepas de heuvo, step-by-step.  While you are whipping up the dough and making other preparations, also have a medium-sized pot of oil on the stove.  The arepas are going to be fired and will need room to float and fluff up.  The oil should be at a boil, but not furious.

Take about two cups corn flour and combine with a little water until doughy.

Chop a small red onion and a tomato and combine with salt and pepper.  This mixture will be spooned into each arepa.

 Let the dough sit for a few minutes and check to see if it the texture is still doughy, not sticky. 

Fry up the onions and tomatoes in a little bit of oil and stir.

Work the dough again with your hands.

Pull some of the dough and roll into a ball.  The ball should be little over an inch in diameter.

Put out a plastic bag -- saran wrap will not work -- and put a little oil on it, and spread it around with your hands.

Place the ball of dough on to the plastic surface.

Cover half the plastic sheet over the ball.

Flatten with a cutting board.


Once you have a few of these corn flour discs on hand, begin frying them.  Each arepa should fluff up a bit, creating a dome and some room in between the top and bottom layers.  It doesn't have to be a lot of room -- just enough for you to cut in there later and insert an egg and the onion and tomato mixture. 

Once the arepas have fluffed up, let them sit in a steel colander to drain and cool.

You will fill each arepa individually before frying, so stack up a few before beginning this next step.  Crack each egg into a small measuring cup with a spout.

Then cut a one-to-two-inch slit into the arepa.

Put a teaspoon of the onion and tomato mixture through the cut.

 Pour in the egg.

And back it goes into the bubbling oil.  Some of the egg does pour out.  For the arepas where a significant amount of egg had come out, Gledis put them aside; they did not make the final cut.

 Let the egg-filled arepas drain in the colander, and then they're ready. 

I love arepas with hot sauce, but Gledis made concoction:  a few tablespoons of yogurt or sour cream, and a few teaspoons of zippy salsa.

This is the salsa Gledis used.

This is our breakfast table.  I put the yogurt mixture on top of the arepa, and when I cut into it, the yolk poured out.  Fabulous.  Gledis also made a few arepas with nothing in them, and a few with cheese.

Club de Pesca: I Did It for the Universe 02.26.2011

The day most of the birthday party guests left Cartagena, I went through party withdrawal.  So many conversations yet to finish, so many people I hadn't even had conversations with -- where did the time go??  But, I rallied.  I decided it was in the best interest of the universe that I continue to have fun.

Monday night, Eric and I went on a date night to Club de Pesca, which is located outside the Old City and right on the water.  Our taxi driver took us on a twist-and-turn route through iffy neighborhoods that I wished I could walk through; I was sure there was more exceptional food to be found there. 

When we arrived at the restaurant, there were hardly any diners.  Such is the case when Americans arrive at the too-early dinner hour of 7:30 p.m.  We were seated outside with a fantastic view of the new part of Cartagena: tall buildings lit up, and in front, boats passing back and forth.

After we ordered our meal, more people appeared and by the time we were at our main course, the place was packed and there were all decibels of chatter.  

I started with Scallops con Pimienta Verde y Mermelada de Setas (scallops with green pepper and mushroom jam).  What was so striking about this dish was cut-in-half green peppercorns in the sauce.  I was wickedly happy every time I bit into one.  The scallops were fine, but the sauce really stole the show.  There was enough to scoop on to torn bread -- fantastic!

Next came the Cazuela de Mariscos Boquilla (traditional fish soup with coconut and cilantro).  After I removed the large pieces of sea creatures that still had their heads intact, I consumed all of the soup -- it was so delicious.  Flavors of lobster, squid, and other fish were mixed so well with the coconut milk and cilantro.  I also used the bread to dip into the soup. 

I had not paid attention to Eric's appetizer, but I noticed halfway through our main course that he was not saying anything about the food.  Not a good sign, and with good reason.  He had gotten the crab risotto for his main course and it was terrible.  There was no flavor -- none.  The disparity was odd.

We drank white wine throughout the meal and kept going back to the basket of fresh bread with basil butter on the side.  I added to my list of culinary goals:  learn to make basil butter.

I have not mentioned in any of my Cartagena posts how out-of-the world the customer service is here.  Incredible.  Everyone has been intent on our happiness.  What a concept. 

My Brain in Coconut Flan 02.25.2011

Seven years ago when Eric and I visited Cartagena, we ate at La Vitrola.  I recall it being a good experience, and this time I took notes.  The dinner at La Vitrola was the last official birthday weekend event and it could not have been more fabulous.  Good food and drink plus conversation with people with whom you've celebrated for more than 48 hours is a good combination.
La Vitrola is not a big space and there was a live band playing Cuban music.  The restaurant has a colonial look.  Our party was tucked away in a room with four large, round tables seating eight each    
For the appetizer, I had Ceviche de Corvina -- limey sharp and yummy bits of cilantro and mint.  Corvina is a grey-colored fish -- also called "croaker fish" due to the sound it makes when it pops its head out of water -- found off the waters of California and Mexico.  
For the main course, I ordered Filete de Corvina Jalepeno.  Yes, more corvina.  I could not get enough.  And jalepeno sauce?  My regular dining companions know that when my mouth is on fire, I am happy.  The jalepeno sauce was not fire-inducing but it was so good I had to close my eyes for a moment.  
One of the reasons I stay away from fish filets is because of the skin.  I don't understand:  It's slimy, it's gross -- take it off.  The wonderful chef at La Vitrola not only took the skin off, but layered the plate with thin slices of marinated cucumber -- it looked like the skin, but wasn't, and tasted so much better.
And finally, the dessert.  Yes, I had flan -- coconut flan.  I was so full after the corvina entre, and yet I found the resources within myself to finish the flan.  The coconut flakes were all over, and the rich flavors combined together were perfection.  There were a number of options for dessert and I saw other diners had ordered a chocolate dessert.  I don't know what to say about other people's bad dessert decisions.  
Every now and again, the taste or smell of something will consume my mind:  there is no part of my brain that isn't experiencing that taste or smell.  The coconut flan at La Vitrola was just such an experience.
Every night after dinner, we have walked, sated, back to our room through the hotel courtyard, with the end-of-day chirps and croaks of hidden bugs, and a slight breeze running through each entryway.  We are one of the few people heading back to our rooms as most are just sitting down for after-dinner drinks, or meeting up just before heading out for late dinner and dancing. 
Next trip:  more coffee and/or Red Bull. 

There is No Way Gabriel Garcia Marquez is Getting Any Work Done in Cartagena 02.21.2011

I have no idea how Gabriel Garcia Marquez gets any work done in Cartagena. Getting away for 20 minutes to write a blog post has been impossible, I can’t imagine trying to put out an entire book here.  Granted we are with a large group of friends in celebration mode, but I’m assuming Mr. Marquez also has a busy social life. 

I’ve been going from one experience to the next and I keep thinking:  I have to write this down.  But then the next experience shows up.  There’s been a lot of touring, talking, and moving from one meal to the next.  And each meal involves a lot of lingering.  You know how I love to linger.

The second night we were here – Saturday – was the night of the big birthday dinner for my sister-in-law.  We headed over to Restaurant Vera, which is at the Tcherassi Hotel, a boutique hotel founded by a Colombian fashion designer, Silvia Tcherassi

Vera’s chef is Daniel Castana, a protégé of Silvio Batali.  The Italian flavors in the food are so present, yet delicate. 

I want to tell you, though, about the space, which does help a meal along – there’s no way around it.  What is so good and comforting for you at home is so because your mother – or whoever – made it for you at home.  And so it was that the space at Vera is all white; open skylight; trees covered in white lights; clean lines everywhere you look – it is spectacularly bare and spectacularly sensuous. 

There were about 45 of us seated at several long tables.  As has been the case for the weekend’s previous meals, the conversation and company were happy-making.  The meal was served family style; I’m only going to focus on what stood out for me.  Also, the wine selection was perfect, but I was too engrossed in conversation to document what we were drinking.

We first started with foccacia that was fluffy and mildly salty – just the way I like it.  We were then served carpaccio and “asparagi – esparragos, queso de cabra” wrapped in procuitto. The asparagus was out of this world. 

The next item that I loved was the ravioli amatrice.  Each piece of the pasta had so clearly been made with the utmost care and love.  When I took the first bite, I could taste the pecorino in my head.  Intense, to say the least.

Next came chicken with a salad.  I think I could have done without this, but not because it was bad.  Each course was symmetrical to the previous, but the chicken did not seem to fit into that symmetry.  The dark, dark green spinach salad, however, is another story.  Wow.  If you had placed a vat of that in front of me, I would have been perfectly happy.

We spent the rest of the evening noshing on dessert, coffee, wine, and talking.  As fabulous parties often evolve, people get up and mill about the room starting conversations elsewhere. 

A couple at Cafe Havana.
After dinner, horse carriage rides had been arranged for everyone from the restaurant to the Café Havana in the old party of the new city.  Eric and I did not stay long because I’m finding that by 11 p.m., I want to collapse into bed.  But, if you are in Cartagena, gather up some energy and head to the Café Havana.  Latin music, dancing, fabulous drinks, and a room fired up with body heat.  

Eric and I took a taxi back to the hotel shortly after midnight.   I don’t like to regret – and really hate to admit regret – but I wish I had sought out a Red Bull or two that evening and ventured back with the rest of the group around 2ish.  The kids have sucked the life out of me and I have become one of those people who fantasizes about sleep.

Day 2 in Cartagena: Three Hot, Sexed-Up Women Who Cook 02.20.2011

Unfortunately, that is not the name of a restaurant in Cartagena.  We had a decadent lunch yesterday at Juan del Mar, a seafood restaurant across from the Hotel Santa Clara, and it was during that lunch that two other women and I decided we would create a cooking show called "Three Hot, Sexed-Up Women Who Cook".  There may have been some wine involved leading up to that conversation, and possibly a mojito when we first walked in the door.  I'm not telling.

I'm feeling completely lost in the Old City, in a good way.  It's easy to get sucked in to the architecture, the exquisite door knockers, the brilliant colors, and in conversation.  A good meal and good conversation, and you have no sense that hours have passed.

There was a group lunch at Juan del Mar, prix fixe.  To start I had Muelas de Cangrejo (crab claws).  I have to pause here and tell you that before I met Eric, there was no gastronomic adventure in my life.  Eric took me to Paris for a few days in 2000 and after a 4.5 hour lunch at Pierre Gagnaire my life has never been the same.  Had it not been for that trip with Eric -- and that lunch -- I don't know that I would so easily order crab claws.

My sister-in-law nudged me to get the crab claws.  I did and it was so worth it.  It was not, however, until the third claw that I truly appreciated her recommendation.  There were eight claws on the plate with a small bowl of melted butter in the middle.  The bite-sized piece of meat was juicy and, while I am not a seafood expert, fresh.  I could swear to you that someone just plucked these crabs from the ocean.   For the main course, I ate Pescado Lamar.

This was a filet of fish in a Spanish stew with passion fruit and curry.  When I was done, there was no evidence on my plate that food had been there.  The fish was accompanied with coconut rice, which, if you have not tried, get yourself to a Colombian restaurant and eat.  

When we were last in Cartagena, a friend took Eric and me aside at a family event and said we needed to scrape the bottom of the rice pot before anyone else got to it.  Delicious.  The rice at the bottom is crispy and tastes as if it's been marinating in coconut for days.

For dessert there was a choice between chocolate torte and flan -- I chose flan.  I always choose flan.  

A piece of star fruit floating on top of the ice vat at
Juan del Mar for chilling wine.
I've talked before about restaurant acoustics and my crazy desire to be able to hear conversation at a meal.  All that goes out the window in Colombia.  Restaurants such as Juan del Mar have open windows, there is loud music, there is usually an open view up to the sky and birds are flying around -- it's really fantastic.  Everyone is deep in conversation that involves a lot of laughing.  Waiters are walking around with bottles of wine through narrow passages between tables.  A lot going on, and all good.

We left Juan del Mar content, some of us ready for nap but opted instead to go on the walking tour of the city.  The door knockers were incredibly distracting.

Day One in Cartagena: Paella, Cilantro Sauce, and Beer! 02.18.2011

Ahhh… Cartagena!  I’m writing to you – live! – from this beautiful city in Colombia and plan on discussing – possibly at length – every bit of fabulous food I eat starting today.  If you haven’t been to Cartagena, you are missing out.  I rave about many things in Cartagena – the people, the hospitality, the night life, the ocean breeze – but one thing truly stands out:  the food. 

So, we’re here to celebrate my sister-in-law’s 40th birthday.  We flew in from DC and landed in pure hotness.  There were a lot of people coming in from the States for the birthday weekend, and we all gathered outside the airport and boarded a small charter bus (sipping iced coffees all the while) to head over to the hotel in the Old City.

The Old City takes up a small area and each event for the weekend is within walking distance from our hotel.  (Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s house is in sight of our hotel.)  Once our bags were carted away, we walked along cobblestone streets to my brother’s apartment where a large table was set with shrimp paella, salad with avacados and artichoke hearts, flattened plantains, a bowl of cilantro green sauce for the salad (which I used with the plantains and the paella), a sour cream sauce (for the plantains, but I did not use), a large pitcher of fresh raspberry juice, and large glasses of Cervaza Aguilla.


While I was running around trying to get the kids situated, some sane person handed me a cold glass of Cerveza Aguilla.  This is my third visit to Colombia and I can say with certainty that drinking cold, cold beer in the summer months is a must and a pleasure.  Cerveza Aguilla is a light (ish) and really tastes great on a hot day.

We all sat at a long table and began eating.  I’ve mentioned before my love for cilantro and as soon as heard there was cilantro sauce on the table, I was happy.  Although the cilantro sauce was meant for the salad, I knew I had to put it on the plantains.  What a smart decision.  There is a bit of kick to the sauce, but not too great. 

All of the food for our lunch was made by the house cook and I am working with a translator to get the recipe for the sauce, and quiz her about her favorite Colombian foods.

I’m a little hesitant to say this out loud but I think I just need to do it:  paella is not my absolute, favorite food in the world.  Especially when there is seafood involved.  I know:  I just lost my entire Latin and Spanish readership.  I’m going to have to move on.  It was a beautifully-made paella with lots of shrimp.  I dressed it up with the cilantro sauce and found it to incredibly satisfying.  Sometimes the rice in a paella dish can be firm and I tend to prefer it on the fluffy side, which is what I got today.

I did try the cilantro sauce on the salad but was not crazy about it. 

We’re off to a big dinner tonight, which will end in dancing on a roof overlooking the ocean.   More to come. 

You Had Me at Free Wine Tasting 02.05.2011

I've been meeting a group of girlfriends on the first Thursday of each month at Le Chat Noir on Wisconsin Avenue for a free wine tasting.  The evenings are an excuse to decompress from work, babies/children, etc., talk about really important things, and to taste new wine.  The food is great, too, but we linger with the wine for a bit before getting to the food.

The restaurant exudes warmth, the staff is friendly and busy due to the constant flow of diners.  And lingering of diners; there is lots of lingering going on at The Black Cat.  

The wine tasting happens in the wine lounge, which is on the second floor of the restaurant.  I've never eaten in the first floor dinging room.  

The wine tastings at Le Chat Noir also feature the wine distributor who walks around to the tables and chats you up about the wine.  I love this.  This week, the wines came from The Country Vintner and Justin Pass presented the wines.  Justin knew the seven wines we tasted inside and out, and I would have been perfectly content listening to him talk about the wines much longer.  

The first flight was white.  We tried three wines and one stood out for me:  Chateau Guirauton Graves Blanc (2009).  I kept my nose in the glass for a long time because the peachy smell was divine.  This is a white Bordeaux that retails for less than $20.  I had a glass of it with my dinner.

The other two whites were Guilhem Blanc (2009) (good, but did not blow me away); and Trouillet Macon Solutre (2008) (a Chardonnay).  I could not fully appreciate the Chardonnay because my mouth was still dancing from the Bordeaux.  

There were four tastings in the red flight.  I enjoyed all of them, but especially the first one:  Raffault Chinon "Galuches" 2008.  I was scribbling notes about the wine when Justin used a word that describes this wine perfectly:  gritty.  Peppery and gritty.  I tasted the pepper right away; Justin pointed out that I was tasting green peppers.  The Country Vintner also says this wine has a nice "embedded grip" that "carries the lengthy finish" -- could not agree more.  I've never used "grip" to describe wine, and it's a perfect word for this wine.  

The other three wines in the red flight were:  Chateau Thebot Bordeaux Rouge 2007; Domaine L'Hortus Classique Rouge 2008, and Domaine de Triennes "St. Auguste" 2006.  All good with varying degrees of thickness, but the 2007 Chateau Thebot stood out.