El Dorado cuisine. Black beans plus: Venezuelan food goes beyond basics

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

TO complement its scenic landscape of tropical lowlands, superb beaches, and majestic snowcapped mountains, Venezuela is the home of a fascinating array of fruits and vegetables. Employing these with meats and a variety of spices, the multicultural inhabitants have developed a diverse and delectable cuisine.

The towering Andes Mountains and the Amazon jungles have kept Venezuela separated from the surrounding countries. So today, this home of many cultures has a rich ``kitchen'' - a culinary world somewhat different from those of neighboring lands. Historically, the coastal subtropical rain forests frightened the early conquistadors for a time.

But the forests did not quash their eagerness to discover the mythical El Dorado - a haunting, fairy-tale city of gold.

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Conquistadors fought and overwhelmed hostile coastal Indians, then penetrated inland. But, of course, they did not find the city of their dreams.

Instead, they found a dramatic ``sea'' of lofty mountains, with wild rivers descending to fertile valleys.

Here, they discovered that all types of fruits and vegetables could flourish - from tropical plants to colder-climate crops. They settled this beautiful land and, with the combination of many fruits and vegetables, developed their own generally unique cuisine.

Unlike Mexico and Peru, Venezuela had no great, ``classical'' Indian civilization to form the base of its cooking.

The original inhabitants of the country, however, had a number of their own simple foods, which are preserved to some degree in its cuisine today.

When the conquistadors in the early 16th century began to settle, they incorporated these dishes into their cooking, which had already been heavily influenced by the Moorish invasion of the Spanish peninsula.

As the years slipped by, other ethnic groups came to the country with their own specialties. A number of these specialities also began to creep into the Venezuelan cuisine and are now a permanent part of it.

Hence, with a base of Indian- and Moorish-influenced Spanish cooking - and embellished by Chinese, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Peruvian, and German cooking - the modern Venezuelan cuisine is richly varied.

Maize, or corn, formed the basis of Aztec and Inca food. It's still the preferred grain in Central and South America.

In Venezuela, too, the Indians made a corn bread, which is called arepa. It's the country's specialty and is eaten in great quantities by almost all the inhabitants.

In its plain form, arepa is prepared from corn flour, salt, and water, and is rather tasteless. Nevertheless, this primitive Indian bread can be enhanced in many ways.

It is delectable when cheese, eggs, and spices are added to the dough, which is then made into small patties or cylinders and fried. It is at its best, however, when served hot and stuffed with various types of cheeses.

Other corn dishes are also popular:

Cachapas, fried in pancake form and filled with cheese or meat.

Empanadas, cheese or meat-filled turnovers.

Tequenos, cylindrical fried delicacies stuffed with white cheese.

Hallacas, a combination of cornmeal, meat, vegetables, and spices.

In the humble homes where traditional foods are still common, everyday fare might be:

Guasacaca, a semihot salad relish eaten with meat.

Parrilla criolla, marinated beef cooked over charcoal.

Hervido and sancocho, both meat or fish and vegetable stews.

Along the seacoast, where the seafood is plentiful, the housewife expands her menu to include such dishes as:

Sopas de pescados, seafood soups.

Pescado en escabeche, a pickled fish dish of Moorish origin introduced by the Spaniards.

Overshadowing all these dishes throughout the country is pabell'on, the king of Venezuelan food. The national dish of the country, it is the favorite of both rich and poor.

Made from meat, rice, and black beans and served with arepas, it combines the food of the Indians, Moors, and Spaniards.

Whether served in the primitive jungle huts, in the villas on the cool mountain plateaus, or the mansions of the wealthy in Caracas, pabell'on is Venezuela's food par excellence.

The black beans included in this dish are often served by themselves as the main course, especially in the homes of the peasants and city laborers. The people are so enamored with this dish that they call it caviar criollo (native caviar).

No traveler to Venezuela should return without sampling black beans.

In the immense diversity of foods, one is sure to find a few that will leave a pleasant memory.

On the other hand, if a lover of fine foods cannot travel to that South American land, then the following recipes will give a tantalizing insight into the varied foods of Venezuela.

Caraotas Negras - Mashed Black Beans 1 1/2 cups black beans, washed and soaked overnight in 4 cups water 4 tablespoons olive oil 2 medium-size onions, chopped 3 cloves garlic, crushed 4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves 1 hot pepper, finely chopped 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1/2 teaspoon cumin

Place beans with their water in saucepan and bring to boil, cover, and cook over medium heat for 45 minutes.

In the meantime, in frying pan, heat oil and saut'e onions over medium heat for 15 minutes.

Stir in garlic, coriander leaves, and hot pepper, and stir-fry for a further 5 minutes.

Add frying pan contents and remaining ingredients to beans. Simmer over low heat for 30 minutes, or until beans are well done.

Serve as is, or mash and serve hot or cold. For 4 people.

Note: It's very good as a side or main dish and as part of pabell'on.

Arroz Blanco - White Rice 4 tablespoons butter 1 large onion, finely chopped 1 clove garlic, crushed 1 cup rice, rinsed 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 2 cups water

In frying pan, melt butter and saut'e onion over medium heat for 15 minutes. Add garlic, rice, salt, and pepper and stir-fry for a further 3 minutes.

Add water and bring to boil, cover, and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes.

Turn off heat and allow rice to cook in its own steam for another 20 minutes. Serve as a side dish with all types of stews, or as part of the dish pabell'on. Serves 4.

Guasacaca - Avocado Salad 4 medium-size avocados, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes 2 medium-size tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch cubes 3/4 cup chopped green onions 2 hard boiled eggs, chopped into small pieces 1 small hot pepper, very finely chopped 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves 2 cloves garlic, crushed 4 tablespoons olive oil 3 tablespoons lemon juice 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper

Place avocados, tomatoes, green onions, and eggs in salad bowl. Gently toss and set aside.

In small bowl, mix remaining ingredients and pour evenly over vegetables. Gently toss just before serving. Serves 6 to 8.

Note: It's usually served with grilled meat.

Sancocho - Chicken Stew

In Venezuela, all types of meat and tropical fruits and vegetables, such as apio, cassava, plantain, and yam, are used when making different versions of this stew. In the following recipe, however, vegetables readily available in North America are employed.

4 tablespoons butter 2 pounds chicken, cut into about 2-inch-square pieces 2 medium-size onions, chopped 4 cloves garlic, crushed 1 medium-size carrot, scraped and chopped into small pieces 1 medium-size potato, peeled and chopped 1 cup chopped turnips 1 cup chopped squash 1 cup chopped cabbage 1 hot pepper, finely chopped 5 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves 4 tablespoons tomato paste 2 teaspoons salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1/2 teaspoon cumin 4 cups water 1 small zucchini, about 6 inches, chopped 1 green banana, peeled and chopped

In saucepan, melt butter, and saut'e chicken pieces over medium heat until they begin to brown. Add onions and stir-fry for a further 10 minutes.

Add remaining ingredients except zucchini and banana and bring to a boil, cover, and simmer over medium heat for 40 minutes.

Stir in zucchini and banana, and simmer for a further 20 minutes. Serve hot. Serves 6 to 8.

Pabell'on - Shredded Steak and Beans 1 pound beefsteak, cut into large pieces 1 recipe of arroz blanco 1 recipe of caraotas negras 6 tablespoons olive oil 6 eggs 2 unripe large bananas, peeled and cut in half, then sliced 1/2-inch thick 1 medium-size onion, finely chopped 2 medium-size tomatoes, chopped 2 cloves garlic, crushed 1/2 hot pepper, finely chopped 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper

In saucepan, place meat and cover with water, bring to a boil, then cover and cook over medium heat for 13/4 hours, or until meat is well cooked.

In the meantime, prepare one recipe of arroz blanco and one recipe of caraotas negras. Set aside, but keep warm.

In frying pan, heat 4 tablespoons oil and fry the eggs. Remove and set aside, but keep warm. In the same oil, fry bananas until they begin to brown, turning over once. Remove and set aside, but keep warm.

Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil, and saut'e onion over medium heat for 10 minutes.

In meantime, remove meat from stock and stir in stock into the caraotas negras. Shred meat pieces with fork and add to onion. Stir in remaining ingredients to meat and onions. Stir-fry for 15 minutes over medium heat.

Arrange each table plate with rice in the center, covered with a portion of meat mixture and topped by a fried egg.

Ring rice with caraotas negras, and top with a few pieces of fried bananas. Serve immediately.

For 6 people.

Note: Instead of 6, a meal can be prepared to serve 8 by adding 2 more eggs and a little more oil for frying.

Torta Criolla de Queso - Egg and Cheese Cake 6 eggs 1/2 pound cream cheese 1 1/2 cups sugar 1/2 cup slivered almonds 2 tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 teaspoon vanilla

Place all ingredients in food processor. Process into a batter. Pour evenly into well-greased 8-by-12-inch pan, and bake in 400-degree F. preheated oven for 20 minutes. Chill before serving.

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