By Rob Hertzenberg
Two weeks ago, I had a truly enjoyable experience. The following is an excerpt of an e-mail I shared with my family in the States and I thought it was worth sharing here.
I had my usual vegetable and trout delivery on Monday and since my friends John and Holly were leaving for California the next day, I invited them over for dinner. I had a surprise in store for them.
I’d recently met two chefs from Colombia, one of whom is traveling all over South America, working in restaurants for three-month stints to learn as much about regional South American cooking as possible. When I met them, they were working as the head chef and assistant at El Jalapeño’s, a Mexican restaurant here in Cuenca.
Their names are Daniel and Nelson and they met while working in Bogota, Colombia. We had a nice conversation about cooking with all the fresh vegetables I get and Daniel said he’d love to come over sometime and cook a meal for me and my guests. I said that was a great idea, so he and Nelson came over on Tuesday at 4 in the afternoon with a bag full of groceries ready to prepare a wonderful dinner.
I can’t tell you how much fun it was watching the two of them in my kitchen as they prepped for dinner. Daniel said he loved my kitchen and wanted to come back sometime to prepare another meal. Of course, I made sure all my knives were sharpened before they arrived, but soon, they were both busy chopping vegetables, browning rice, making perfect aluminum pouches for five nice fillets of salmon and more.
Knives, sampling spoons and cutting boards were washed and rewashed. Red bell peppers were blackened over the gas burners and then put in a bowl and covered with plastic until the skins were soft enough to be peeled away. Tomatoes were quartered, seeded, julienned and chopped. Garlic was crushed with pestle and mortar with white wine and olive oil. Diced tomatoes and onions were combined with white wine, the juice of one orange, salt, pepper and a little olive oil and the skinned salmon was marinated in that mixture for a few minutes before being put in the aluminum bags and tightly sealed.
Two cups of uncooked rice were sauteed in olive oil and crushed garlic cloves and then white wine was added. A couple minutes later, water was added and the mixture was brought to a boil. Chopped tomatoes, onion, fresh basil, salt and pepper were added and the pot was covered and left to simmer for a long time, with Daniel constantly eying it to see if more water needed to be added. And all the time, we were discussing food and their passion for cooking and how grateful they were to be cooking for someone that really appreciated what they were doing.
Nelson deboned the trout and rubbed it in the garlic, olive oil and white wine. Daniel julienned the roasted red peppers and cut some green onions in three-inch lengths. He grilled the green onions until browned and meanwhile prepared a vinegrette for the red bell peppers with vinegar, sugar, butter, salt and pepper. They were sautéed and plated artfully with the green onions just as John and Holly walked in the door at 6:30. Daniel removed the rice from the pot and put it in a wok over low heat for a few minutes to fluff up while the trout was being sautéed on the stovetop and the salmon was popped in a hot oven for five minutes until the foil bags puffed up, meaning the salmon was perfectly cooked and moist.
Plates were arranged with the bell peppers/green onions beautifully displayed. The rice was added to the plate and we were asked to sit down as Daniel and Nelson brought out the plates and set the foil pouches in front of us as they were opened and the steam rolled out revealing all the flavor inside. Nelson served the trout, perfectly browned — and we ate.
John said it was one of the best meals he’d had in Cuenca and we’ve had many very good meals here. I agreed. It was so nice to not only have Daniel and Nelson cook for us, but to also join us for dinner with lively conversation. Daniel speaks fluent English and is about as charismatic as they come. His passion for cooking is amazing. Nelson speaks a little English, so I had him sit across from Holly who is fluent in Spanish. As you’ll see from the photos, we all had a good time.
Daniel had told me the day before that he was moving on to Peru the day following our dinner, but when he came over, he said he’d bought his tickets and was leaving right after dinner! He and Nelson left at 8:45 to head back to their hostel to pick up Daniel’s belongings before he headed to the bus station to catch a overnight bus to the coast of Peru, where he’d lined up a job in a restaurant. Nelson will stay on the job here and assumes the status of head chef at El Jalapeño’s now that Daniel is gone.
Daniel said he couldn’t have had a nicer parting than preparing a great meal for friends. John and Holly stayed for another two hours, raving about the meal and the conversation.
It was a very memorable night!
Rob Hertzenberg grew up in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He attended the University of Minnesota and Marquette University Law School and worked for The Bank of New York Trust Company in St. Louis for many years before moving to Houston and retiring in 2014. He arrived in Cuenca in March 2015 and says he’s just experienced the best year of his life here.