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Persian Appeal

Baked Eggs in Creamy Corn Sauce with Basil
Chilean Tomato and Sweet Onion Sauce
Summer Pork Stew with Tomatoes and Sweet Corn
Grilled Sea Bass with Cheese, Oregano, and Chorizo

August 18, 1999

"Strangely enough, it was ... in Chile that I rediscovered forgotten flavors and images from my childhood in Belgium," Ruth Van Waerebeek-Gonzalez writes in the introduction to The Chilean Kitchen, her collection of home-style recipes gathered in the years since her husband spirited her to a new land. She was immediately enchanted by a slow-moving, rural-based way of life that has all but vanished in Western Europe, and who wouldn't be, when "three times a day, the Chileans line up in tiny old-fashioned bakeries to buy their bread, crunchy and warm out of the oven"? Van Waerebeek, the author of the exuberant Everybody Eats Well in Belgium, took to the recipes of her adopted country with the same zeal she had for her native dishes, first opening with her husband, Sergio, a restaurant that served Mediterranean food and then focusing on the old women and family cooks who are the repositories of any cuisine.

Discuss this column in Post & Riposte.

Previously in Corby's Table:

Hail to the Chef -- July 15, 1999
A tribute to Patrick Clark, a chef who was a model for many young African-Americans and an inspiration to other chefs.

Persian Appeal -- June 3, 1999
A look at Najmieh Batmanglij's A Taste of Persia, and the subtle yet persistent spices of Iranian cuisine.

Help! My Child Is a Vegan! -- April 28, 1999
Stephanie Pierson's useful new guide for teenage vegetarians, and those who love them anyway.

Seasons and Seasonings -- March 3, 1999
A seasonal guide to cooking from the garden by Amanda Hesser, a young woman who knows and loves food.

Seductions of Rice -- January 27, 1999
Selections from a new guide to the universal grain's many flavors.

A Passion for Pastry -- December 17, 1998
Two books that will have you dreaming of the perfect holiday dessert.

Soup With Style -- November 11, 1998
A look at the new book by Barbara Kafka, a cook who takes a fearlessly original approach to soup.

Mangia, Mangia in the Mountains -- October 7, 1998
A trip to Abruzzo with Anna Teresa Callen, whose new book draws on culinary memories of this less-traveled Italian region.

Adventures in Grains and Greens -- August 26, 1998
Paula Wolfert's latest Mediterranean explorations.

Vegging Out -- July 9, 1998
The ultimate guide to eating your vegetables.

More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound

Like most of Central and South America, Chile's cuisine is influenced by "two opposing cultures: the native Indians and the Spanish conquistadores." The Arab Moors who occupied Spain and the French cooks the Chilean aristocracy hired at the turn of the century have left traces too. The book's recipes are straightforward and inviting, and many take advantage of the summer produce still filling local farmer's markets (the height of Chilean summer is Christmastime, when school break begins and everyone heads for the beach).

Corn, both dried and fresh, is central to many Chilean dishes. One of the most delicious-looking recipes from The Chilean Kitchen is eggs baked with fresh kernels, onion, and basil that can be served either at brunch -- the author says it "has become my favorite brunch dish" -- or for a summer supper. Chile peppers enliven a salad of ripe tomatoes and the thinly sliced fresh onions Chileans love; despite the country's name, however, chiles do not permeate its cuisine and are rarely used at full heat. The sweetness of corn and the sweet-acid balance of tomatoes play against the natural sweetness of pork in a fresh-tasting pork stew spiced with cumin, oregano, and a bit of serrano or jalapeño.

Many South American countries use mild, full-fat cheeses in surprising ways, as shown in a recipe for grilled sea bass -- Chile's most famous fish, endangered by its popularity and now being widely farmed -- stuffed with Gouda and chorizo sausage. Try this as a surprise before putting away the grill for the season, and be sure to make enough for your guests -- a lesson the newly arrived author learned the hard way when she first encountered the seemingly limitless native appetite for meat.

    -- Corby Kummer

Excerpts from The Chilean Kitchen, by Ruth Van Waerebeek-Gonzalez

Baked Eggs in Creamy Corn Sauce with Basil

Huevos con Pilco de Choclo

El pilco, a native corn dish, has a name that sounds like a song. This thick, creamy corn sauce, somehow always flavored with basil, turns up in many local dishes. Sometimes meat is cooked in the sauce, sometimes it is paired with other vegetables such as green beans, potatoes, or white beans for a purely vegetarian meal; and sometimes it is simply served as a side dish with roasted meats or poultry.

The following recipe has become my favorite brunch dish. The chunky, tasty corn mixture makes a wonderful accompaniment to baked eggs. It's easy, healthy, and surprisingly good. Just don't forget to serve a pungent fresh tomato salsa, for example, Chancho en Piedra, alongside in the pure Chilean tradition.

Serves 4

1 tablespoon butter Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons finely chopped onion 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh basil
4 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels 4 or 8 eggs (1 or 2 per person)
1 1/2 cups whole milk or half-and-half 2 tablespoons butter

Preheat the oven to 400F (205C). Butter 4 individual earthenware dishes or 1 large one.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add the onion and sauté until softened but not browned, 4 minutes. Add the corn and milk. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the corn is tender and most of the liquid is absorbed, 10 to 15 minutes. (Frozen corn will take a little longer than fresh because it releases more water.) Season generously with salt, black pepper, and basil. (The dish can be prepared in advance up to this point. Reheat the corn mixture, adding a little milk if necessary, before continuing.)

Spoon the corn mixture evenly into the prepared dishes. Make an indentation in the corn mixture in the center of each dish for the eggs. Carefully break 1 or 2 eggs at a time into a bowl, and let them slide into each indentation. Season with salt and black pepper, and dot with the butter, Bake 7 to 10 minutes, until the egg white is milky and the yolk is set but still soft. Serve immediately.

Chilean Salsa

Chancho en Piedra

Select juicy red tomatoes, pungent green chiles, sweet onions, and young garlic to capture the Chilean summer on your table. This is the national salsa. It's an exhilarating complement to the grilled meats and roasted chicken or fish and a zesty companion to Chilean specialties, such as empanadas, humitas, and Pastel de Choclo. Indeed, this delicious salsa combines with nearly everything, and it easily becomes a hot addiction!

Makes about 2 cups

6 cloves garlic, peeled 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh cilantro
2 green serrano or jalapeño chiles, seeded and chopped 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt or kosher salt 1/2 cup vegetable oil
6 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 cup finely chopped sweet Spanish or Vidalia onion

In a large mortar, crush the garlic, chile peppers, and salt to a paste, using a circular motion with your pestle. If you don't have a mortar, use a knife to chop the garlic and chiles with the salt as fine as possible; then use the broad side of the knife against the chopping board to purée the mixture.

In the same mortar or in a serving bowl, add all the other ingredients and combine well. To control the heat, set some of the puréed chile mixture aside and add at the end to taste. This salsa is best when freshly prepared, but leftovers will keep well 2 to 3 days in the refrigerator.

Chilean Tomato and Sweet Onion Salad

Ensalata a la Chilena

This salad is without a doubt the queen of the Chilean salads. Juicy red tomatoes are paired with lots of paper-thin onion fans, and the flavors are heightened with a sprinkle of hot chiles and cilantro. In the Central Valley we are blessed with a warm and endless summer and sun-ripened, sweet tomatoes are abundant in our country markets for several months a year.

The sweet tomato offers us el regalo de su color fogoso y la totalidad de su frescura, "the gift of its fiery color and its total fresh coolness," as Pablo Neruda sings in his "Ode to the Tomato."

Serves 6

1 large Spanish or Vidalia onion, halved lengthwise and very thinly sliced 1 serrano or jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely minced
1 tablespoon salt 1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro or parsley
5 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and sliced 3 tablespoons vegetable or extra-virgin olive oil

Place the onion slices and salt in a bowl; cover with cold water, and soak for about 10 minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse briefly under cold running water. Shake well. This step will eliminate most of the sharpness of the onion.

Arrange the tomatoes on a platter. Salt generously. Top with the onion, chile, and cilantro. Sprinkle the oil evenly over the salad, toss to combine, and serve at once.

Summer Pork Stew with Tomatoes and Sweet Corn

Tomaticán con Pulpa de Cerdo

It's common knowledge in Chile that the country folk eat better and healthier than do their counterparts living in the big cities. Their diet is based on myriad vegetables, mostly grown in their own backyards; little meat; and hearty legume dishes in the damp winter months. This should be inspiring for the health conscious among us!

This summer stew is a perfect example: Little nuggets of pork are cooked until tender in juicy tomatoes, onions, and sweet corn. A handful of minced cilantro, parsley, and pungent chili peppers sprinkled over the stew before serving gives the dish an extra, welcome bite. Tomaticán is often prepared with chicken or beef for an equally tasty dish. Arroz Graneado makes a perfect accompaniment, or serve tomaticán with a variety of Chilean salads.

Serves 5

3 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil 2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 1/2 pounds pork stew meat, cut into 1/2-inch cubes 2 pounds tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste 1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
3 medium onions, halved and thinly sliced 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh parsley
1 large clove garlic, finely minced 2 tablespoons finely minced fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon ground cumin 1 serrano or jalapeño chile, seeded and finely chopped, or to taste

Heat the lard over high heat in a heavy saucepan or Dutch oven. Add the pork, and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and black pepper.

Reduce the heat to low, add the onions, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened but not browned, 8 minutes. Add the garlic, cumin, oregano, and tomatoes with their juices; simmer partly covered over low heat until the pork is tender, 45 minutes. Add the corn and simmer 15 minutes more. Taste for seasonings. Before serving, sprinkle with the cilantro, parsley, and chile.

Chilean Rice

Arroz Graneado

Ever since the Spanish settlers introduced rice, Chile has produced this versatile grain in the northern provinces. It soon became a staple in the people's diet.

Chileans like their ricegraneado, meaning the rice grains are fluffy, separated, and delicately flavored with onion, bell pepper, or carrot. To prevent the grains from clinging together, the rice is rinsed under cold running water before cooking. I try to stay away from converted rice, which has been soaked and pressure steamed; the procedure reduces the surface starch but eliminates most of the flavor as well.

Makes 4 Servings

1 1/2 cups long-grain rice 1 1/2 tablespoons finely diced or grated carrot
2 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil 2 1/4 cups hot water
3 tablespoons very finely chopped onion or scallions 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1 1/2 tablespoons very finely diced red bell pepper 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh parsley or cilantro (optional)

Rinse the rice thoroughly under cold running water and drain.

Heat the lard in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, bell pepper, and carrot; sauté, stirring, 2 minutes. Add the rice, and cook until the rice has absorbed the flavorful oil, 1 minute. Pour in the hot water, and add the salt and parsley.

Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer 15 to 20 minutes. Do not stir, and cook the rice as slowly as possible. Use a heat diffuser, if you have one. The rice is done when the water has been completely absorbed and the rice is tender. Fluff the rice with a fork and serve at once.

Grilled Sea Bass with Cheese, Oregano, and Chorizo

Cancata de Corvina

I actually discovered this dish by following my nose! Irresistibly intrigued by aromas reminiscent of pizza and grilled fish, we entered a tiny restaurant. We were greeted with"Pasa no mas, la cocina esta abierta" ("Come right in, the kitchen is open"), which led us to believe we were in the right place. And there it was, a huge fish grilled over smothering charcoal with all my favorite pizza toppings: cheese, spicy sausage, and tomatoes seasoned with garlic and oregano. An odd combination that, surprisingly, tasted great.

The origin of the name cancato -- from the Indian word canca, meaning "grilled" or cancay, meaning "grilling or toasting" -- makes me believe that it's a dish with history. Cancato is a specialty of southern Chile. It's usually prepared with a big fish; but I've found it more practical to use smaller fish, because they don't fall apart and are easier to serve. Sometimes the fish is folded in half to enclose the filling, but traditionally, it's grilled open-faced. Both versions are delicious and recommended for your next cookout. Serve it with a variety of Chilean salads.

Serves 4

4 (1-pound) whole small sea bass or red snappers 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste 1 tablespoon dried oregano
4 ounces Spanish chorizo, thinly sliced 4 tablespoons butter, melted
3 tomatoes, peeled and sliced Small bunch parsley
1/2 pound Gouda cheese, thinly sliced 1/2 cup white wine

Prepare the coals for grilling.

Cut each fish along the sides, detaching the bones from the flesh, leaving the sides attached at the back. Carefully open the fish like a book. Discard the bones.

Place the fish on a fine meshed grill, skin side down. Season with salt and black pepper. Arrange the chorizo, tomatoes, and cheese evenly over each fish. Sprinkle with the garlic and oregano. Drizzle with the melted butter.

Grill the fish until the cheese starts to melt, 10 to 15 minutes. Brush the fish a few times with the parsley sprigs dipped in white wine to give the dish a special touch. Serve at once.

Corby Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The Joy of Coffee
More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound

Copyright © 1999 by Corby Kummer.
Recipes and links from The Chilean Kitchen by Ruth Van Waerebeek-Gonzalez. HPBooks: New York, New York, 1999. Paperback, 324 pages. ISBN: 155788-307-6. $16.95. Copyright © by Ruth Van Waerebeek-Gonzalez.
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