Living with a host family in Ecuador was an amazing, and often humbling experience. To enter a new culture and household is to suspend your understanding of yourself as an independent adult and begin to learn anew how to function in the world around you. One of the more challenging and rewarding of these shifts was to step away from my accustomed position in front of the stove for the year and instead learn from and enjoy my host mother’s cooking.
Here is some of the wisdom I gleaned from this amazing woman:
Food as Medicine
-Radishes are good for the thyroid
-A tea of linseed oil and corn silk is good for the kidneys, hot or cold. Make sure to dilute significantly, as it is extremely potent
Kitchen Tricks & Tips
-Place corn husks on top of pot of boiling corn or humitas to avoid boiling over or drying out. (The amazing Andean corn, choclo, must be boiled a long time and may still require water to be added to the pot from time to time
-When using whole cinnamon sticks, boil first and then add a little cold water to release more of the flavor
-Rinse onion in water right after peeling so it doesn’t bother your eyes as much when you chop it. You can also cook large chunks of it (especially pearl onions) and remove it from the soup before serving.
-You can use the rind of a squeezed lemon and a little sugar to scrub your hands instead of soap
Papas Con Salsa de Pepas (Potatoes with Toasted Pumpkin Seed)
My host mother was particularly proud of this unique dish, for good reason. Rather than using peanuts, which she claimed were taxing on the digestive system, she created a delicious sauce using pumpkin seeds. First, she would toast the seeds in a pan, then place them over a towel and crush them by hand, then winnow them by dropping them from one hand to the other while blowing gently. (Here, we have the luxury of already roasted and shelled “pepitas” that can spare us this involved process.)
Then she would make the refrito of fried onion, salt, and achiote that forms the base of many Ecuadorian dishes, blend the pumpkin seeds with milk, and add the mixture to the pan to simmer for about a minute, being careful not to let it dry out. As soon as it was melded and warmed through, she’d stir it into boiled potatoes and serve it piping hot. One of my all-time favorites!
Papas En Chamara Con Salsa de Queso (Potatoes “In Jacket” with Cheese Sauce)
A popular supper-in-a-hurry in our household. Small potatoes boiled whole in their skin, topped with a simple sauce of cheese (usually a flavorful soft cheese called “queso de comida”) and milk blended together.
Peeled and boiled potatoes mashed, mixed with a beaten egg, a splash of milk, and a little crumbled cheese to form a soft dough. Handfuls of the dough are rolled into balls, flatten into disks and fried until golden. Yum!
Ají (Hot Sauce)
The ubiquitous condiment found on any table in Ecuador, though in this family only when we had company, since they were not fond of heat. I am not usually one to reach for the hot sauce, but from the beginning I was quite partial to spooning this mildly tart and spicy sauce over my rice and potatoes. I was excited to finally learn how simple it was to make: a tree tomato, boiled and freed from its skin and core, then blended with a rehydrated chili pepper, salt, and sometimes onion or cilantro. Yum!
Avena (Oat Drink)
Breakfast and supper often included a mugful of avena or another hearty hot beverage. It got to the point where I desperately craved an avena to round out any evening. Only slightly more involved to make than my usual bowl of oatmeal. Bring 4-5 cups of water to a boil with a cinnamon stick, then stir in a cup of oats and a splash of cold water and let cook until soft. Blend, then return to pot and simmer gently for a couple more minutes with plenty of sugar and a little milk. I also loved similar preparations made with quinoa, a special corn called morocho, or my favorite, a toasted barley flour called máchica. These were usually made with panela, bricks of minimally refined brown sugar, which would be broken into chunks with a hammer and dissolved in the boiling water before adding the grain. Yum!
La Sopa: Anatomy of a Soup
Lunch is the central meal in Ecuador, and always begins with a bowl of soup. I ate soup at least once a day without fail, and became quite familiar with the basic process by which they were made: Bring water to a boil, then add a heaping spoonful of achiote paste and usually some cubed potato, then the other ingredients depending on the amount of time they needed to cook. Just a few minutes before serving, a few generous spoonfuls of salt, a splash of milk, and sometimes a bit of cumin or cilantro was stirred in. Sometimes the soup would be blended into a crema, otherwise spooned straight into bowls. Never got old.
I can’t believe my fortune to have such a patient teacher and guide, and get to enjoy three delicious home cooked meals each day. So blessed.