Bogotá native Mariana Velásquez is aware that Colombian cuisine hasn’t quite made its way to the American mainstream. “Colombian food doesn’t necessarily travel so well, because it’s home-cooked food,” she says. So when she set out to make a cookbook that would bring that food into home kitchens outside of the country, the food stylist, who is now based in New York, considered the cuisine “not from the everyday [perspective where] it surrounds me and I sort of take it for granted, but with the eyes of someone who’s learning about food and goes back to rediscover all nuances and finding beauty in the pedestrian.” With her new cookbook Colombiana, that beauty is on full display.
Sharing Colombian food traditions in a single cookbook was a particularly daunting undertaking given the regional variety of the cuisine. “The food of our country is incredibly vast because of our landscape,” Velásquez says. “Even though it’s a small country, our terrain is pretty dramatic.” Thus, she adds, “the cuisine is very varied, it’s very mixed. So putting it in a nutshell and making it one subject, it’s kind of hard.”
Colombiana manages to capture the variety of Colombian food through five sections, including one on breakfast foods, another dedicated to “afternoon bits and bites” — Velásquez’s own everyday go-tos, which she describes as “Colombian-ish” — and a final “oda al postre” (ode to desserts).
The anchoring middle section of the book is organized into dinner party menus, complete with suggestions for table settings and playlists. It’s a decision that seems to have predicted the desires of this precise moment, but in actuality was one more way to capture the country’s regional diversity. “That is where I wanted to evoke the regions of Colombia and to transport ourselves to those tables in those specific places that have a very different look and feel,” says Velásquez. “So I thought if I develop a menu inspired by those places, by cities or towns or urban or rural areas, I can create that scene through music, through florals, through hosting tips, and then, of course, flavor.” Throughout, Velásquez highlights the Colombianas in New York who, like Velásquez, are preserving and spreading Colombian cuisine. “I feel that we are the ones who carry the food traditions when we move away,” says Velásquez. “As immigrants it’s usually women who maintain the flavors from home.”
These peanut and potato empanaditas are the starter from the book’s “Cauca Valley Soirée” menu, which evokes the “the warm breeze of the lush Cauca River valley,” where “music resonates in people’s hips and spicy ají flavors every party.”
Ají does indeed flavor the sauce that goes with the empanadita recipe, which makes a potentially intimidating 65 mini empanadas. But Velásquez says that making them can be as much a part of the party as the eating itself. “You get your friends to help you do it. There’s nothing more satisfying than creating a work line where everybody helps,” she says. “You’re baking or frying empanadas. People are shaping them and having drinks in between. That’s a really fun way to do it.” Plus, now more than ever, parties — and the recipes that go with them — feel well worth the effort.
Empanaditas de Pipián
Mini Potato & Peanut Empanadas Recipe
Makes about 65 empanadas
Tiny, savory, sublime empanadas made with a red filling of potatoes, peanuts, and achiote can either be baked or fried. Naturally, fried is the traditional way and the most delicious, but if you, like me, sometimes don’t have it in you to deep-fry, the oven method works just fine. Serve with Ají de Maní (peanut sauce, recipe follows) on the side.
Empanada dough is a delicate beast — the moisture in the air and, if you are superstitious, the mood of the cook, will affect how much water you’ll actually need for the dough to be just right.
2 cups warm water, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon grated panela or brown sugar
2 cups yellow masa harina (I like P.A.N. brand)
¼ cup yuca flour or cornstarch
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 quart Pipián Filling (recipe follows)
Canola oil, for frying
1 egg, beaten, for baking
Tortilla press lined with plastic wrap or small heavy skillet such as a cast-iron pan
2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper
Ají de Maní (recipe follows), for serving
3 to 4 limes, cut into small wedges, for serving
Step 1: In a liquid measuring cup, stir together the water, oil, and panela until the panela is dissolved. In a large bowl, mix together the masa harina, yuca flour, and salt. Steadily stream the panela mixture into the dry ingredients until it comes together; it should look like moist sand. Knead a few times to incorporate and form a dough. Test the consistency between your fingers: The dough should be moist but neither too wet nor too dry. If needed, add more water, one tablespoon at a time, until the texture is pliable and not dry. Cover the dough with a damp kitchen towel and use right away.
Step 2: Place 1 heaping tablespoon (1½ ounces) of the dough in between the two pieces of plastic wrap in the center of the tortilla press. The key is to press slightly more gently than you would if making tortillas. Each disc should be 3½ inches in diameter: If it is bigger it will be too thin and will rip. If using a heavy skillet, also place a heaping tablespoon of dough between plastic wrap and press down with the skillet.
Step 3: Fill each masa disc with 1 tablespoon of the Pipián Filling, wet the edge of the dough with water, and fold over to seal in a half-moon shape. You can mend any cracks in the dough by wetting your finger and rubbing a bit of water over it.
Step 4: Transfer the empanada to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough. When you have made 10 to 12 empanadas, transfer them to the freezer for at least 20 to 30 minutes to firm up before frying or baking.
Pour 2 inches of canola oil into a medium Dutch oven or heavy pot. Attach a deep-fry thermometer and bring the temperature to 350 degrees over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, prepare a sheet tray or platter with paper towels. Working in batches, carefully submerge 2 or 3 empanadas at a time into the hot oil. Fry, while moving the empanadas continuously in the oil using a slotted spoon or metal spider, to maintain the even temperature of the oil, until golden and crispy all around, about 3 minutes. Transfer the empanadas to the prepared tray. Cover with foil and keep warm, or serve as you go.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Brush each empanada with egg wash and bake until crisp and golden, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve with the Ají de Maní and lime wedges.
Pipián Filling Recipe
Makes 1 quart
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon ground achiote or sweet paprika
2 scallions, white and green parts, finely chopped
1 white onion, chopped (1¼ cups)
3 garlic cloves, grated or finely chopped
5 ripe plum tomatoes, grated or chopped (1¾ cups)
1 small red bell pepper, seeded, deveined, and chopped (¾ cup)
1 cup beef broth
¾ cup roasted unsalted peanuts, finely chopped
1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed and quartered
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Step 1: Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium. Add the achiote, scallions, and onion and saute, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the onion softens without browning, 3 to 4 minutes.
Step 2: Add the garlic, tomatoes, and bell pepper, and stir to incorporate. Continue cooking until the vegetables begin to soften and form a sauce, 4 to 5 minutes.
Step 3: Add the broth, peanuts, and potatoes and fold them into the bubbling sauce. Season with the salt and pepper to taste, cover, and cook over medium-low heat — checking every now and then to make sure the ingredients don’t dry out — until the potatoes begin to fall apart, 25 to 28 minutes. Turn off the heat, uncover, and set aside to cool.
Ají de Maní Recipe
1 cup dry-roasted salted peanuts
2 ripe plum tomatoes, grated (including skins and seeds)
1 hard-boiled egg, chopped
1 bird’s eye chile, chopped (seeded and deveined if you prefer less heat)
2 tablespoons white vinegar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Step 1: Place the peanuts, tomatoes, egg, chile, vinegar, and salt into a food processor, and blend until smooth. Add a few tablespoons of water at a time to make the consistency spoonable but not too runny.
From the book COLOMBIANA by Mariana Velásquez Villegas. Copyright © 2021 by Mariana Velásquez Villegas. Published by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
Photos by Gentl & Hyers