Big things are happening on Monroe Street.
That's big, as in two 12-foot statues of women flopped out nude in rippling folds of hefty, corpulent flesh.
The exhibit of paintings, drawings, and sculptures of artist Fernando Botero is drawing crowds to the Toledo Museum of Art. Casual and serious art-lovers alike soak in the whimsy -- and sometimes the horror -- of one of the most successful artists of our time. Botero's figures are lightheartedly lumpy, misshapen but not deformed, heavy with a sensual love of life.
Which got us thinking: How much do we know about the land that gave birth to such enchanting images? Botero is a native of Colombia, and his homeland is apparent in every stroke of his brush.
We may know the basics, that Colombia is a well-populated and largely poor country on the northern tip of South America. We may associate it with the drug trade and the production of cocaine, and we may even realize that although it is still dangerous, the level of extreme violence that once plagued it has considerably lessened.
But to truly understand another nation, you have to know its culture. And one of the best ways to appreciate a country's culture, along with seeing its art, is to experience its food.
Because Colombia is a coastal country, much of its food comes from the sea. Because it is on the Equator, its climate is tropical, so its produce is what grows in heat and humidity. And because it is the second-largest producer of rice in Latin America, rice is eaten at almost every meal.
Put it all together, and you've got Rice with Coconut and Shrimp, or Arroz con Coco y Camarones. This dish is especially popular in the region around the Caribbean Sea (the country also borders the Pacific Ocean) and makes use of the popular Caribbean ingredient, sugar. It is the sugar that marks the difference between the Colombian version of the dish and the Thai version that uses many of the same ingredients, plus curry.
The Colombian version is sweet, and anyone who does not like meats cooked in a sweet sauce may want to tone down the sugar or eliminate it altogether (they also may want to add curry paste, but that would take it away from the world of Botero and Colombia). But the rice cooked in coconut milk cannot be resisted; I used light coconut milk, which has 60 percent fewer calories than the regular, first-pressed stuff. It also has less flavor, of course, and also aroma, so you have to decide whether to make the trade-off. Do you want low fat or high flavor?
Next up is a traditional chicken soup, Sancocho de Gallina, that has a couple of distinctive twists. One of the twists is its unworldly light and refreshing taste, courtesy of a blast of lemon juice and an intriguing blend of cilantro, scallions, and cumin that are added in the last stages of cooking.
The other twist is the mixture of tropical starches that enliven and thicken the soup. Potatoes, plantains, and yucca root all go into the pot, wildly different variations on a theme. Plantains are a relative of the bananas they resemble, but don't be tempted to substitute a banana for them; the flavor and especially texture are completely different. Yucca root is the starchy root of a desert plant related to the Joshua Tree, the iconic lonely plant of the Mojave Desert that lends its name to a national park and a seminal album by U2.
Plantains and yucca are available at some Hispanic markets and also occasionally at major supermarkets. I don't want to say the name of one supermarket that routinely carries them, but it rhymes with "Meijer."
The original recipe calls for a roux to thicken the soup, but I opted to leave it out in favor of that delightfully light, bright, fresh taste. Because starch thickens liquids, if you want it thicker you can add the potatoes, plantains, and yucca earlier in the cooking process. To reheat it for a second day, add a little cilantro and a squeeze of a lemon wedge to pep up the flavors again.
For a hit of beef, I made a braised and broiled flank steak, a Sobrebarriga. As is the case with all regional specialties, there are countless ways to prepare this dish, so I chose the one that involves beer. The meat, which is a particularly tough cut of beef, is braised in beer at a gentle simmer for a full two hours for meltingly soft tenderness and a beefy richness. Before it is eaten, it is browned under a broiler for another intense layer of taste on the top.
And because the people in Botero's paintings and sculptures certainly never passed on an opportunity to have a dessert, in our culinary tour of Colombia, neither should you. Because it looked so good, we decided to try a specialty that traditionally is served only at Christmas, Postre de Natas. This is a thick pudding called a natilla that is also popular in Spain and Cuba, but those countries use eggs to make a custard. In Colombia, the preferred method is to shun the egg yolks in favor of cornstarch -- and a lot of it.
This is not a typo: The recipe calls for one cup of cornstarch for three cups of milk and one cup of coconut milk. The result is not a pudding, shall we say, that is runny -- some versions cut it into squares before serving.
Meanwhile, the coconut milk adds a distinctive Colombian flavor (and more than a few calories). Other versions flavor the pudding with wine. And while most forms of Postre de Natas require a brown sugar product called panela for its caramel flavor, this one substitutes condensed milk.
It's a sweet ending to a culinary trip to the world of Botero.
Contact Daniel Neman at email@example.com or 419-724-6155.
Rice with Coconut and Shrimp
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon salt, divided
2 cups white rice
4 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon pepper
4 cups coconut milk
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
Place the shrimp in a bowl and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil, chili powder, onion powder, and ½ teaspoon salt. Refrigerate for 15 minutes.
Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a medium pot over medium heat.
Add the rice, sugar, remaining ½ teaspoon salt, and pepper. Stir until well coated.
Add the coconut milk and bay leaf and bring to a boil for about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and add the shrimp. Cover and cook for 20-25 minutes or until the rice is just tender and the liquid is absorbed.
Remove from the heat, discard the bay leaf. Add the parsley, let it rest 5 minutes, and serve hot.
Yield: 8 servings
Sancocho de Gallina
1 1/2 quarts (6 cups) chicken stock, divided
1 yucca root, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
2 plantains, peeled, halved, and sliced into thirds
2 red potatoes, peeling optional, cut into chunks
3 chicken breasts, skinned and quartered with bones left on
2 lemons, juiced
1 teaspoon cumin
1 bunch scallions
1 bunch cilantro
Salt and pepper
In one cup of chicken stock, simmer scallions, cilantro, and cumin for a few minuets. Set aside until cool, then process into a smooth, green-colored liquid. Set aside.
In the remaining 5 cups of chicken stock, simmer the quartered, skinned chicken breasts. Skim the scum off the top with a strainer or ladle, and discard. The chicken will take about an hour to cook. As the soup begins to simmer, add the yucca and potatoes, continuing to skim if necessary.
After about a half hour (30 minutes from completion time), add the plantains. After another 20 minutes (10 minutes from completion time), add the processed scallions-cilantro-cumin mix and the lemon juice.
Before serving, make sure the chicken is done and the potatoes and yucca are soft e_SEmD if overcooked, they may disintegrate, but their flavors remain. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Yield: 6 servings
Sobrebarriga (Flank Steak)
2 pounds flank steak, trimmed of all fat
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons vegetable oil for marinade
1 cup coarsely chopped onions
1/2 cup finely diced celery
1 teaspoon minced garlic
4 small tomatoes, finely chopped
3 tablespoons oil for frying
2 cups water
1 bottle of beer
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Marinate the meat overnight with 1½ teaspoons salt, pepper, vegetable oil, onions, celery, garlic, and tomatoes. The next day, heat 3 tablespoons oil over high heat in a heavy casserole and add the flank steak; brown it quickly on both sides without burning. Transfer the steak to a plate and sauté the vegetables from the marinade until they are soft but not brown. Return the meat to the casserole. Pour in the water and beer and bring to a boil.
Cover the casserole, lower the heat and simmer slowly for 2 hours until the meat is tender. In the last hour of cooking, add the remaining ½ teaspoon salt and the cumin.
When tender, remove the flank steak and put it on an oven-proof dish under the broiler. Broil briefly, making sure it does not burn. Top with tomatoes and onions, slice the beef thinly against the grain, and serve with white rice.
Yield: 4 servings
Postre de Natas
3 cups whole milk, divided
1 cup cornstarch
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup grated coconut
2 cinnamon sticks
1 can (14 ounce) condensed milk
1/2 cup sugar, or to taste
Pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon butter
Cinnamon powder to taste
Place 1 cup of milk in a small bowl, add the cornstarch and stir to dissolve it. Set aside.
Place the coconut milk and grated coconut in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Set aside.
Place the remaining 2 cups milk and cinnamon sticks in a medium pot and bring the mixture to boil over medium-low heat. When the milk is a little warm, but not boiling, add the coconut mixture.
When the milk starts boiling, add the condensed milk, sugar, and salt. Stir well with a wooden spoon. Add the milk and cornstarch mixture and continue to stir constantly. Add the vanilla. Reduce the heat to low and continue stirring until the pudding thickens, about 2-4 minutes. Add the butter, stir, and remove from the heat. Discard the cinnamon sticks. Ladle into a serving dish or individual custard cups. Sprinkle cinnamon powder on top and let it cool at room temperature for at least 1 hour. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Yield: 6 servings