Colombian Imports

So, through Colombian, Venezuelan, German and British Customs I smuggled three plantains, four sugar-mangoes, a jar of homemade peanut butter from Minca, a bottle of chilli sauce, two large packets of plantain chips (one sweet, one savoury) and a large packet of arepas. The next week or so spent at home I endeavoured to cook up a series of delicious Colombian inspired meals and treats.

Let’s start at the beginning, with the tasting meal. Manu Chao is playing, on the table for nibbles are some plantain chips – delicious things, though I think I prefer the savoury ones. Sweet plantains (when they ripen and turn yellow) taste more similar to bananas. And a few spreads for the arepas and some salad leaves (you wouldn’t find many of those in Colombia for sure). Then some greens cooked with egg and feta cheese, a fried arepa each, plantains that I coated in balsamic vinegar before frying and a dash of tomato ketchup. Then, er, more plantains, sliced into little circles this time.

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Plantains are the best vegetables in the world. I wish they were more utilised in South America. There is so much potential there, such a variety of awesome things you could make in so many different ways, yet all you see on the streets and in the cafés are plantain crisps (or ‘chips’ for all my non British readers). I’d love to open a plantain restaurant, dedicated solely to the cooking and eating of plantains. If I had brought more back with me, I could try out a few things now. But it would go something like this: A restaurant that used plantains, cooked European style. For example, a French Dauphinoise, but with plantains and not potatoes, a good English baked plantain with baked beans and cheese in the middle, caramelised plantain, plantain bread, plantain pancakes etc etc… We tried my little fried ones with syrup and honey too, they were great!

Everyone was pretty stuffed after this, so declined my offer of a pudding arepa, and just opted for the sugar-mango (or ‘mango de azúcar’) and banana smoothie – something I made several times in Colombia using the excellent blenders it is customary for every hostel to provide. No honey or extra flavourings needed in this, the mango and banana perfectly compliment each other. And unlike the regular mangoes we are used to getting in the UK, sugar mangoes don’t have that weird gritty-to-your-teeth after taste. In the Caribbean there are over 20 types of mangoes – so many that even the Colombians don’t have names for all of them, and there are definitely very few names that have English equivalents. A bit like apples in the UK, I guess.

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Several days later I made my first breakfast arepa: a fried arepa, a fried egg with cheese melted on top. Just a note about arepas, too. Then another breakfast arepa the next day with fried bacon and brie melted onto the arepa. Not all arepas look like the ones pictured here, they can be any shape or size, or full of cheese or whatever. I was very confused for ages in Colombia because there are so many different types – Wikipedia lists a fair few of them http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arepa – and Colombians never specify which type they’re selling, they all just get called ‘arepa’. I think the most basic prescription for something to be an arepa is that it must be a kind of bready thing, and be made with corn, or ‘maíz’.

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For dinner, I still had one plantain to use up, so decided to try out substituting it for a potato in one of my favourite ever Brit dishes, Jacket potato with beans and cheese. It wasn’t super successful, perhaps because I cut the plantain in half to bake it, so it lost a lot of moisture and was very dry. If I had another one, I’d try it again, but alas, I must wait until I return to a plantain-growing country! It looked cool anyway!

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And finally, the plat de resistance, the epic chocolate brownie with peanut butter and ice cream. Pictures (good as they are) can’t do this baby justice (though perhaps our faces will give some idea), so I will attempt to describe it here. When in Salento, down in the coffee region of Colombia, we visited a café called Brunch who made famously good chocolate brownies. They used their homemade peanut butter in the centre and the whole thing was hot and gooey, with a yoghurt-and-honey tasting white sauce melted over it. Inspired by this, I used my friend Emer’s most gooey chocolate brownie recipe, my homemade peanut butter brought back from Minca and some vanilla ice cream. Instead of chopping the brownie in half through the centre, decided just to pile one on top of the other, with peanut butter being generously dolloped in between. Then, put this baby back in the oven, then put ice cream on top, then put it back in the oven to melt the ice cream a little, then ate. Wowowowowowowowowowowooooow.

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