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 Im willing to entertain. So I have pursued
remedies, and there are several. If you have glasses, wear them. Keep
your mouth shut, so you dont 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 its 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 grocers bakery and pick up something more
This dish does not taste as odd as it may sound. It is quite
delicious, and almost falls into the category of "comfort
food." Its a really quick and easy recipe to make.
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
Playing with your food:
This is the kind of dish where its 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 dont have canned green chili,
¼ tsp. of crushed red pepper will work. And Ive seen
recipes for this that use capers to replace some of the olives.
Experiment, and enjoy.
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