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HK: Chilean food is hard to find in America. What are we missing?
LC: I think it has to do with numbers of immigrants, as a starting point, in the U.S. Chile only has a population of 15 million people, so in comparison to other neighboring countries like Peru, Brazil, Argentina, or even Mexico, it is quite small. Also, the Chilean community tends to be concentrated in areas like the Northeast, Florida, California and West/Pacific Coast.
Chile is an elemental, rustic cuisine, much like Italy’s cocina povre, that is based on home cooks, amazing ingredients, and is widely consumed at home as comida casera. The diversity of Chilean cuisine is due to the staggering amount of foodstuffs. The country is 2,600 miles long (equivalent from L.A. to Boston) but covers over 30 latitudes from desert to Mediterranean climate, the southern forests, Patagonia, and the “fertile” Pacific Ocean with dozens upon dozens of native fish and shellfish. The influences here are strongly European (Spanish, Basque, German, and French) combined with the native indigenous dishes from the Mapuches. Thus, the culinary expressions are diverse, highly regional, and very, very seasonal.
At the end, it boils down to awareness. As Chile’s wines become increasingly popular, people naturally begin to wonder, “what would this pair with in its place of origin?”
HK: You’ve got a new book, “South American Cooking,” part of the Knack Series, published by Globe Pequot Press. Tell us how it came about.
LC: This project appeared completely out-of-the-blue last June (2009) through a colleague and editor at Bon Appetit who referred me to the folks at Globe Pequot Press. I thought the idea was intriguing, especially since I have spent a lot of time in other areas in South America, beyond the Southern Cone. It looked fun —and challenging— to produce a cookbook. The book was laid out, researched, tested, photos shot, and edited in about 9 months' time, all while still running our booming luxury tourism business (culinary & wine-focused, of course), Liz Caskey Culinary & Wine Experiences.
This book came to form part of our mission to spread the word on the diversity of cuisine in the southern portion of the South American continent. I wanted to show people how different and intense the flavors are here and how they really don’t have much in common with other Latin cuisines like Mexican, Cuban, or Caribbean food, for example. As I wrote this, I used my own family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (where I grew up), as a measuring stick for cooking this in their own kitchen. I constantly aimed to make these recipes easy-to-recreate and authentic, while serving as a passport for the palate to explore and better understand the regions. And of course, pair beautifully with the wines.
HK: Your book has recipes from Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Brazil. Why not include the rest of the continent?
LC: The book has 96 recipes and 350 photos. With respect to why I did not include the entire continent, I actually address this in the introduction of the book. It was necessary to make some touch editorial decisions about the content given the space. I also did NOT want to do a smattering, or cherry-picking, of recipes from too many countries. Given the sheer dimensions of the entire South American continent, I felt it overly ambitious to simplify and try to represent all the countries’ cuisines in just one book in less than 100 recipes. ... I looked at what I felt were the “pillar” cuisines such as Peruvian and Brazilian and what went with the wines and where those wines were grown in the Southern Cone, which was very different and European in its roots. I felt that Colombia, Venezuela, Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana had stronger Caribbean, Central American, and other influences that were too ample to cover in one short title as a first approach. Thus, the selection sort of naturally emerged, also tied with my living and travel experiences in all the countries chosen. The book’s mission is to serve as a good introduction to a reader completely new to the region.
HK: What are some surprises you experienced as you researched this book?
LC: As I cooked and shot the book with my husband, Francisco Ramírez (a native Chilean and the photographer), the depth, scope, and appeal of these cuisines to a larger audience became even more evident. As I have traveled extensively and/or lived in all these countries (Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile), in recreating these authentic flavors for newcomers to the region to make in their own kitchens, I reconnected with my own memories of these dishes, places, and the people who taught me how to make them. All of these dishes were selected by my own experience of having eaten them in their place of origin during my travels/time there. ... A recipe at its core is not just a simple preparation of food — it speaks of a place, a time, a person, a culture, a tradition. While we simplified these for success, we did NOT do this sacrificing authenticity.
HK: Chilean cuisine has a bounty of ingredients. Does it have a “holy trinity”?
LC: Most people don’t understand that the Central Valley of Chile is one of the few Mediterranean climates in the world. It’s uncanny how similar the topography is to California, to be honest. Thus, we have amazing fresh produce that is extremely seasonal. For example, right now in spring, we are starting with tender asparagus, fava beans, artichokes, and spring lettuces. There are over 400 farmers markets on a weekly basis just in Santiago!
I would say the holy trinity here is pumpkin, beans, and potatoes in the winter and corn in the summer. These vegetable-based starches show up in a myriad of dishes. One great example of this is a classic summertime dish called porotos Granados. This dish blends proliferate summer ingredients like fresh cranberry beans, pumpkin, corn and basil in a stew that is creamy, a touch sweet, and extremely aromatic with a toothy texture from the beans. I think this embodies the essential of Chilean cuisine: simple yet deep, few ingredients with intense flavors, and good textures respected. In fact, this dish constitutes one of the cornerstones of classic Chilean cuisine.
HK: Santiago, where you live, has really blossomed as a food destination and has recovered nicely from the earthquake. To what do you attribute these two things?
LC: Chileans in general are resilient, hard working, and never intimidated by a challenge. This is a country used to 8.0-magnitude earthquakes every 2 decades. They construct the buildings with strict codes and have a prepared attitude. They are persistent and always shake off the dust and get up. I never, ever once say an attitude of playing the victim or hopelessness after the earthquake (or with the recent miners situation). Quite the contrary, they pull together and ¡Chile Arriba! It is so inspiring to see and feel the pride they have for their country.
Chile has been flourishing economically now for many years and the middle class has grown significantly. This is a developed country on par with Western Europe. All of sudden people are traveling abroad, creating businesses, and in general, have cash to spend on culture and eating out. The restaurants in Santiago are booming—and packed! As a tourist destination, it’s the perfect jumping off point. You are also close to 8 major wine valleys (45-minutes to 3 hours from Santiago); the Andes for skiing in the winter or hiking in the summer; and the Pacific coast. The climate here is glorious, similar to Los Angeles, California, and we have the bonus of “reverse” seasons for travelers wanting to escape steamy summers and treacherous winters. …
Getting back to the food culture and Chilean cuisine, the cuisine and amazing ingredients have always been here along with the joints, decades-old eating institutions like Liguria or Confiteria Torres. Young chefs are interpreting these flavors like Rodolfo Guzmán of Boragó. Chileans are now starting to understand and value that their cuisine is an integral, alive part of their national culture and identity, and valuing that. In Santiago, we also have had a lot of immigration and thankfully have new, ethnic cuisine from immigrant communities like Japanese (sublime sushi), Korean, Vietnamese, French, and Peruvian, among others.
HK: You’re coming to visit friends back in the States: What Chilean menu would you serve up?
LC: Hmm, hard question since there are so many dishes. Depends on the season, since Chilean cuisine is so driven by the seasons, how close they are to the sea, and if my buddies have ever “experienced” Chilean cuisine before. Assuming they have not, I would probably make machas a la parmesana (cheesy baked razor clams) and pair it with a zesty Sauvignon Blanc or crisp Chardonnay from the coastal appellations like San Antonio or the northern Limarí from wineries like Garcés Silva Amayna or Maycas del Limarí (part of the Concha y Toro family). The main course would be pastel de choclo (Chilean corn pie, perhaps the national dish, a sweet-and-savory casserole with creamy basil-corn and a cumin-tinged ground beef filling) accompanied by ensalada chilena (Chilean tomato salad) and an earthy, lush Carmenere like the Reserva de Familia from Santa Carolina or Viu Manent’s Reserva. For dessert, leche asada, is a favorite, a baked flan that nods to the Spanish influence here. Probably would skip the wines since Chileans are more into agüitas, herbal teas made from many indigenous herbs good for digestion like boldo or bailhuén.
HK: Wine is king in Chile and Argentina. What are some wines you recommend?
LC: So many wines, where to start?!! In the summertime, I am a big fan of crisp whites like Torrontes (try Altavista’s Premium or Susan Balbo Crios) from Argentina. In Chile, you cannot beat the amazing Sauvignon Blanc which has become a reference point both in Chile and abroad. I love Matetic’s EQ, Kingston’s Cariblanco, and Casa Marin. Malbec is a favorite, although I gravitate away from some of the “big” wines. I am enamored with “ripe” expressions like Mendel’s Unus, Bressia winery, Enrique Foster, and more explosive versions from Achaval Ferrer. In reds in Chile, there are too many to name, including the “three C’s” (Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, and Carignan) in addition to Syrah and Pinot Noir. Favorites are O. Fournier blends from the emerging Maule, the ultra juicy and elegant Coyam 2007 made from biodynamic grapes from Emiliana Orgánico, Loma Larga’s Syrah and Malbec from the cool Casablanca valley, Amayna’s Pinot Noir, and the crème de la crème, Almaviva (joint venture with Mouton Rothschild and Concha y Toro). In Uruguay, tannat is making a serious showing. The best tannat, which really blew my mind, is Amat from Carrau. I love small projects though like Viñedo los Vientos and Pisano Family wines. I could go on and on. The diversity is endless and overall, the price/quality ratio is killer.
HK: Argentineans and Uruguayans are famous for their grilled meat. What makes it so distinct and special?
LC: It’s grass-fed. Honestly, the beef has a flavor that is complex, deep, and creates a sort of umami in your mouth. This is enhanced by the unique cuts of beef that in many cases use the fat to flavor and baste the meat as it cooks, like the ubiquitous bife ancho or bife chorizo, a sort of strip-steak type cut. It also has to do with the way they grill here. Gas grills are unheard of in these latitudes since mesquite wood or charcoal are the preferred method, known as brasas. The flavor of the wood imparts this distinctly smoky flavor as the meat cooks also deepening the taste. Finally, I would say the master grillers understand how to salt and cook the meat correctly. Using coarse sea salt to gently coax out the flavors and cooking until perfectly juicy which has to do with knowing how to manage the direct heat of the fire and the initial searing. I don’t eat much red meat, but when in Argentina or Uruguay, I can never, ever resist.
HK: Lastly, share with us a practical travel tip when visiting Chile, Argentina or Uruguay.
LC: In my experience, many people don’t have a clear notion of the Southern Cone’s geography and distances. It’s a huge continent so if you try to cover too much ground in a short trip, you’ll feel like you spent the bulk of your time in transit. Let me put it this way, would you do Boston, Miami, Austin, Chicago, and Seattle in 10 days? No! Well it’s similar in scale here.
I would suggest focusing on certain areas and opting to go more in-depth than a generalist, two-week tour that leaves you feeling like you sat on a plane/bus/car more than you connected with the local culture. For example, explore Chile’s Central Valley (Santiago, Valparaíso, and Wine Country) and maybe a trip to the northern Atacama Desert, Easter Island, Lake District, OR Patagonia. Not all of them! Or if you want to understand the intimate connection with the Andes, and those wines, try Chile and Mendoza (just over the Andes, about 6 hours driving); or grasp the shared Rioplatense culture and the intrinsic relationship between Uruguay and Buenos Aires. Beyond the awe-inspiring geography, you only get to truly know the soul of the place through its people. Pick what you feel drawn to and start there. I notice in our clients that many fall in love and get bit with the Southern Cone bug and come back time and time again. This place feels familiar yet exotic, passionate yet livable, and utterly delectable. Definitely we live the dulce vida here. I cannot imagine calling anywhere else “casa.”
Following is Liz's recipe for Carbonada.
This dish from Argentina and Uruguay is prepared throughout the country’s regions particularly in the winter. This sweet-and-savory dish always includes stewed beef; onion; tomatoes; fresh starchy vegetables like corn, squash, or sweet potatoes; and the unusual addition of fruit such as peaches (canned in the colder months), pears, or grapes. In Argentina, I have even seen Argentineans traditionally prepare carbonada inside a whole pumpkin. The contents are added and the whole pumpkin is baked in the oven or over hot coals. The most important component beyond the flavors is the soupy nature. If the liquid disappears, it’s not truly carbonada, so ojo, careful, with that.
I suggest that you experiment with your favorite flavors for your own unique carbonada. This recipe is adapted from my cookbook, Knack South American Cooking, now out in the United States. And this may be a rhetorical, but don’t forget the Malbec or the Tannat. Puh-lease. Salud, che!
2 tablespoons olive oil
1½ pounds stewing beef, cut in small cubes
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon oregano
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 cups beef stock
1 cup white wine
3 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
3 sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 cups pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and cubed
4 ears sweet corn, cut into 2-inch slices
2 peaches, fresh or canned, peeled and cut in ½-inch dice
1 pear, peeled and cut in ½-inch dice
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, for garnish
Heat half the oil in heavy pot. Add beef and brown. Reserve. In same pot, heat remaining oil and sauté onions until soft. Add the garlic, tomatoes, and pepper; sauté 5 minutes until tomatoes are soft. Mash slightly.
Add the bay leaves, oregano, vinegar, stock, and wine. Bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits.
Incorporate reserved meat with potatoes, sweet potatoes, and squash. Cover and simmer on low, about 40 minutes, until vegetables are tender. During the last five minutes of cooking, add in corn cobs and fruit; simmer for 5 minutes.
To serve, ladle into deep bowls with ample room for meat, vegetables, and the delicious broth. Garnish with parsley and serve with crusty country bread.
For more on Liz's book or to purchase, go to http://eatwineblog.com/2010/07/08/the-grand-debut-knack-south-ameri...