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Cheap Eats:
Carne Picada

In the wonderful movie Diva, there is a scene where one of the characters is chopping onions wearing a full-face diving mask with a snorkel. I really identified with that, since my eyes dissolve even if someone else is chopping onions nearby.

As Benjamin Franklin noted, "Onions can make even heirs and widows weep." Sulfuric compounds are released when you cut an onion, and these are what make you cry. However, since onions (along with garlic) are among the best things you can add to a dish, avoiding them is not an option I’m willing to entertain. So I have pursued remedies, and there are several. If you have glasses, wear them. Keep your mouth shut, so you don’t inhale the sulfuric compounds. Stick the onions in the refrigerator the night before, or the freezer a half hour before chopping. And, since the sulfuric cells cluster at the base of the onion, it helps if you cut off the bottom last.

Now, on to South America. Sometimes it’s hard to really attach a country to a recipe; people move, borders change. The following recipe is largely associated with Venezuela, but has a near twin in neighboring Colombia, geographic proximity as well as shared history creating many similarities between the two countries. It was only a few years after Columbus arrived on this side of the ocean that Spain laid claim to the coasts of what would become Colombia and Venezuela. This was not an easy area to explore, but tales of El Dorado spurred the Spaniards into the dense jungles, up the steep mountains, along the pestilential rivers. The natives in this region were few, and were quickly absorbed, making only minor contributions to the customs of the newcomers. But the conquerors of this region found themselves isolated, and the life that developed here was not traditionally Spanish, either.

Though retaining much of its Spanish heritage, the cuisine, too, was affected by the climate and terrain of the region. Cool highlands and tropical lowlands offered a variety of habitats for foods, from the luxurious tastes of avocado, banana and chili grown in the steaming valleys to the tough beef raised on the high, tall-grass plains (llanos).

I recommend serving the following with sliced avocados and cornbread. Cornbread is a pleasant substitute for the more authentic arepa, a leaden mass of corn flour, salt and water that is grilled until the outside is golden, with the inside left uncooked and doughy. It is a staple among the poor of Venezuela and Colombia, but there is no reason you need to eat it when you can grab a package of Jiffy cornbread mix, or nip over to your grocer’s bakery and pick up something more palatable.

This dish does not taste as odd as it may sound. It is quite delicious, and almost falls into the category of "comfort food." It’s a really quick and easy recipe to make.


Carne Picada

1 medium onion, chopped

1 Tbs. olive oil

1 lb. lean ground beef

½ tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. salt

½ tsp. ground black pepper

1 canned green chili, chopped

20 pimento-stuffed green olives, sliced

½ cup raisins

1 large fresh tomato, chopped

Sauté the onion in olive oil over medium heat until it becomes transparent. Add the ground beef, and continue to cook, gently breaking up the beef. Once the beef is broken up, add the cumin, salt, and black pepper, and mix well into the beef. When beef is nearly all browned, drain any excess fat from the pan, then add tomatoes, green chili, raisins and olives, and stir to combine. Continue to simmer for another 2 or 3 minutes, or until all beef is cooked through.

Serves 4.


Playing with your food:

This is the kind of dish where it’s easy to make substitutions. You can substitute ½ to ¾ cup canned tomato, chopped, for the fresh, slightly reducing salt to compensate. I sometimes use ground turkey instead of beef (note: only frozen ground turkey really saves you money — fresh costs almost as much as beef). If you use turkey, add all the goodies at the same stage as salt and pepper (since turkey is drier and less flavorful than beef, it needs longer exposure to the flavor elements — in fact, to keep it moist, pour in a little of the juice from the canned tomatoes, or add a little broth). If you don’t have canned green chili, ¼ tsp. of crushed red pepper will work. And I’ve seen recipes for this that use capers to replace some of the olives. Experiment, and enjoy.

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