Chile Food Day
Chile’s leading online news site, EMOL, announced in Monday’s edition that it was “National Day of Chilean Cuisine”, an opportunity to celebrate traditional foods.
Readers were asked to choose their favorites between cazuela de ave or de vacuno, empanada de pino, pastel de choclo, curanto, caldillo de congrio, porotos granados, humitas, charquicán, ajiaco, or paila marina. Although the coincidence of Chile food day and US federal income tax day surprised me, I had grudgingly complied with the latter, and was prepared to answer the food question without hesitation or doubt: the answer is Cazuela de vacuno.
For my over 50-year relationship with Chile, this hearty soup has been my number one comfort food. A full meal in a bowl, cazuela has been, and to a degree still is, a dish served at family meals, lunch and especially on the weekend days, and therefore has always set off memories of its counterparts in my family as I was growing up in upstate New York: pot roast with potatoes, carrots and onions, or spaghetti and meatballs.
And the good thing is that cazuela de vacuno can be easily prepared in the US, although a certain Chilean mano, touch, is required.
Cazuela starts with a big piece of well-cooked beef from one of the tastier cuts like ossobuco or short rib, a potato, a chunk of orange hubbard-like squash, a few green beans, a section of corn still on the cob which you eat by sticking your fork in one end and holding the other with your index finger, a few slices of carrot, and grains of rice, all steaming hot under a sprinkling of freshly chopped cilantro.
Admittedly, the cazuela de ave can be equally welcome on a cool and rainy day in southern Chile, but given the choice, I’ll take the one with beef.
In fact, the last cazuela de vacuno I remember, and remember fondly, is the one Jane and Neal Rabel, forever friends from Houston, and we were served on an overcast, dreary fall day in the southern Chilean town of Loncoche, at the Pitin Restaurant. Cazuela de vacuno is to Loncoche as pot roast is to Penn Yan, NY.
In Loncoche, Penn Yan, or anywhere you are fortunate enough to have a steaming cazuela served you, make sure it comes with a bold Chilean Cabernet sauvignon, preferably from the Apalta Valley in central Chile.
The porotos granados, a more seasonal dish, comes in a close second to the cazuela. The porotos granados requires freshly shelled cranberry beans, chopped corn and small chunks of the same squash you would find in cazuela.
Topped with fresh sweet basil, even on a warm summer afternoon, this relaxing dish pairs nicely with a smooth Pinot noir from the cool coastal hills near the Casablanca Valley, or Carmenere from the Cachapoal Valley in central Chile. One of the most memorable plates of porotos granados I have had was the one confected at the Lucerna Restaurant off the village square in San Carlos, south of Santiago but just north of Chillán. The menu said “porotos granados con plateada” which meant the beans would come with some well roasted brisket-like pieces of meat, but I wasn’t really prepared for the monument they presented me. Oh well, as I recall
I ate most of it, not knowing where or when my next meal would be.
The last delicious plates of porotos granados still fresh in my memory were prepared in the homes of longtime friends, Luisa Bascur in La Herradura near Coquimbo and Valentina Concha in the Aconcagua Valley an hour or so north of Santiago. Expressions of friendship like a big plate of porotos granados on a warm sunny day are indelibly heartwarming.
Next on the scale of favorite Chilean foods (sticking to the list provided by EMOL and dividing the list into terrestrial and marine entries) would have to be a three-way tie between pastel de choclo, humitas, and empanadas de pino. These comfort foods are so commonly served in homes and restaurants, they really are emblematic of Chile. If one is offered, you accept it, you eat it, and you enjoy it. In fact, these three dishes, each quite complicated and time consuming to make, are the most frequently seen prepared foods offered in the streets in Chilean towns and cities. Although they are sold in the streets, they are usually taken home or to the office to eat. Street food, eaten on the spot, has never been a big thing for Chileans, until the Peruvian and Bolivian immigrant population grew to notable levels. Most Chileans still prefer to sit down, pick up a knife and fork, grab a piece of marraqueta bread, and eat as was ordained somewhere in the more civilized past. An exception is students who, as in all parts of the world, will eat anything, anywhere, anytime.
You want the best Chilean empanadas de pino? Ximena makes them, in Santiago, in Santa Barbara, in Port Washington or in Leesburg, VA. But remember, the pino filling must be made a day in advance, and from diced, never ground, fairly lean beef. The best humitas? Hilda Ramirez, a long time (decades) Fernandez Gonzalez family friend and loyal collaborator, makes them.
At this point it is timely to remind readers that daveschile.com blog has presented quite a bit of information, enriched with opinion, about Chilean food in earlier postings. The last of these, and most comprehensive, is the 2018 posting “Chilean Food: Stick With The Basics”.
http://daveschile.com/2018/03/chilean-food-stick-with-the-basics/ If you are interested in reading more about Pastel de Choclo, humitas, and empanadas de pino, you are invited to explore this posting.
Now to the marine favorites. Of the three seafood dishes presented in the EMOL list, curanto, caldillo de congrio, and paila marina, the clear favorite has to be caldillo de congrio. We are now in a category of excellent Chilean dishes, but ones that must be fresh to be delicious, so should be eaten on the Chilean coast, preferably in a restaurant or home with a view of the Pacific surf and a good supply of cold Sauvignon blanc from the Limari or Casablanca valleys.
Pablo Neruda wrote an Ode to the Caldillo de Congrio. His Ode is short and incredibly descriptive. If you were allergic to fish, reading this ode would cause your skin to break out. Or, if you love seafood, his Ode will awaken every fond memory of Chilean seafood you may have acquired along the way. Neruda makes a case for the Caldillo de Congrio to take the prize for the most Chilean of dishes. His description of taking the eel-like Congrio, skinning it, eventually marrying the fish in the stock prepared from the fish head, oil, slices of onion, chopped fresh tomato, and diced garlic, indeed makes real “…que en el caldillo se calienten las esencias de Chile, y a la mesa lleguen recien casados los sabores del mar y de la tierra para que en ese plato tu conozcas el cielo“, the joining of the sea and the land, to find heaven.
Neruda wrote about caldillo de congrio, but he didn’t write about mussels, something I will never understand, as explained in two earlier postings in 2010 in this blog:
What’s Wrong with Mussels, Neruda?
The curanto, a mix of shellfish, meats, and potato traditionally prepared in the ground similar to a Maine clambake, is still hard to find unless you live in Chiloe Island or Puerto Montt. But a curanto, even though it now is prepared in a big pot instead of a hole in the ground, is well worth the trip.
The paila marina, also on the EMOL list of candidates for best Chilean food, is similar to the Caldillo de congrio in that it is best eaten on the Chilean coast, with freshest of ingredients, better in spring, winter, and fall than in summer. This paila has several cousins in the “chupe” category: chupe de jaiva (crabmeat), de locos (the disappearing abolone), and de picoroco (barnacle). These dishes are favorites of ours, and are the subject of a literary project in the making under the auspices of daveschile.com. So, no more details here. Just a heads up to stay alert on a work in progress focusing on Chilean seafood.
So, in summary, I propose that of the list of Chilean foods presented by EMOL, the favorite has to be cazuela de vacuno, followed closely by caldillo de congrio and porotos granados. I leave it to you, dear readers, at least those of you who are still reading at this point, to weigh in and let us know what you believe deserves the top favorite classification. And please, don’t declare locos en salsa verde (abalone with chopped onion/cilantro sauce), roast Patagonian lamb, or Magallanes king crab the favorite, even though they very well may be the best; they were not on the list.
Thanks for reading.
Posted in Leesburg, Virginia on April 16, 2019