When the heavy aroma of cooking hot dogs hangs in the air my boyfriend knows to run. That’s because I only cook hot dogs in one dish: lentils, or lentiche, the Italian word for lentils, as the woman I learned from would call it. When I first perfected this dish a few years ago, I cooked it almost every day for three weeks straight and my boyfriend ate it every time he came over. He may hate lentiche now, but I still love it.
I learned to cook lentiche from my stepmother, Luz Melina Boyd, who was born and raised in Colombia. The lentils, as with many of the other dishes she taught me, adopted an Italian name because this was the only language the entire family knew. After watching her for many years, I picked up on how to cook this dish and several others. When cooking lentiche, I begin cooking by chopping half of a green bell pepper into small pieces until I can no longer stand its overwhelming smell. These little pieces are then added to a large pot lined with olive oil. Following the green peppers is the chopped onion. Despite the fact that I cry nearly every time I cut into the onion, I do love the smell of freshly chopped onions. It is an strong smell, but it makes my mouth water. These pieces get added into the pan along, followed by a diced tomato. All of these ingredients are allowed to simmer until the air hangs heavy with the scent of the sautéing vegetables.
After the vegetables are soft, the lentils and twice as much water is added to the pot with a packet of Goya and a reasonable amount of salt and garlic powder and the burner is turned on high until the mixture begins to boil. This may seem odd, but I then slice five or six hot dogs into small pieces and add these to the pot. I turn down the heat and let the lentils boil for about 25 minutes until they are soft. And of course I make white rice as a side – growing up, we ate white rice with every meal. The rice and lentils can be eaten separately or together in one bite. And that first bite is heavenly. There is a salty taste, but the hot dogs also added a meaty flavor to the whole dish. When eaten with rice, the rice helps tone down the salty taste of the lentils so that it is not too overpowering.
This was not a dish I perfected to make immediately. I spent several years watching Melina in the kitchen before I even attempt to make any specific meal. When I was in high school, I would often watch Melina as she cooked. I was always curious about what Melina was doing to create the scent of onions in the air or smell of freshly cooked beef. Often, I would sit and watch her as she tossed chopped onions and garlic into a pan lined with oil. These were always the starting ingredients for the rice and several other dishes that came so naturally to her. At first, I watched and spoke with her more to socialize about that day at school or our plans for the weekend, but as time passed, I really started to pay attention to the things she was doing to create that evening’s meal. From watching her, I learned that the garlic and onions were simmered lightly in oil to make them tender and draw out flavor for the rice that was added later. Also, I learned that the potatoes and other vegetables should be to the pot before the meat because the meat always cooks faster than the vegetables. And cooking red meat in red wine gives it an almost sweet taste, but does not drown out the natural beef flavor. I learned these techniques and more, and today I continue to make meals using all that I learned.
Late in my high school career, my parents mandated that my brother and I cook a meal each at least once a week to both help the family and become familiar with the kitchen, as one day we would have to cook for ourselves. I think the first meal I tried was carne e potate. Standing awkwardly in the kitchen, I tried to remember the steps I had learned from watching Melina so many times before. I began by sauteing chopped yellow onion and tomatoes in a small amount of oil until the onions appeared slightly golden brown. Then, I added sliced potatoes with their skin still intact, and shortly after that thin strips of beef, fat removed, were dropped in. After sprinkling some salt and Goya seasoning onto the mixture, I let it simmer for fifteen to twenty minutes until the potatoes were soft. Melina also reminded me that red wine can be added to this dish to give to a sweeter flavor, but it is not necessary. Also, she taught me a secret to keeping the sauce the correct consistency because you do not want it to be too fluid. It should be somewhat thick. I still remember her whispering to me when we were alone in the kitchen, “If it is not thick enough, add some of the dried box mash potatoes.” And this secret technique actually works. These potatoes soak up some of the liquid and it doesn’t make the meal taste strange because there are already potatoes in it.
Carne e potate was the first dish I made on my own, but lentiche was the first dish I perfected. This perfection did not come immediately though. I took actual practice to perfect this dish; merely watching Melina cook did not teach me everything I needed to know. I think the first time I made it I undercooked the lentils. With every bite, I could feel them crack between my teeth. Unfortunately, my family was also involved in this experiment and they suffered through the unbearable crunchiness of my lentils. Despite this failure, I did not give up and repeated my lentil escapade until one day I got it right. And they were perfect. They contained just enough salt and were soft and delicious. I had to learn from practice that 15 minutes was not long enough to cook the lentils and that I should check them to make sure they were soft enough before serving. I also learned that a fair amount of salt was needed or the lentils would lack flavor.
Of the meals I learned to make from Melina, I think lentiche is the only one I can make that I think measures up to hers. My carne e potate is good, but I still think Melina’s taste better. With some practice, I’m sure I could make it as good as I want it to be, but Melina has many more years of cooking under her belt than I do. I believe part of my love of her food – why I think it is so much better than my own – maybe because to me, this is my version of a real home-cooked meal. This is the food I ate growing up and when Melina cooks it, it feels like we are all together again as a family, like we were when I was younger. This may partially explain why her cooking tastes better than mine to me. The funny thing is that Melina does not think her cooking is as good as her own mother’s cooking. I have tried both Melina and her mother’s cooking and think they are both very good. Melina’s mom merely knows how to make some dishes that she does not, such as empanadas, just the same as Melina knows how to make some dishes that I have not yet learned. However, using Melina’s techniques and experimentation, I have made some meals of my own.
I have applied Melina’s cooking methods to other meals I have made. I am no longer afraid to mix vegetables, meat, and sauce all in one dish as Melina does. I am also less afraid to venture through the veggie aisle and grab unknown vegetables just to try, such as red lettuce, Thai eggplant, and some other green vegetables that I honestly could not identify (they looked good!). I learned that it is acceptable to mix things that many people in the United States fear mixing. And, honestly, I have made some very good meals by mixing some unusual ingredients. Several weeks ago, I bought a small round green vegetable called Thai eggplant, a brussel sprout, and mushroom. I chopped these vegetables and cooked them in a pan with three small steaks, following similar steps as those used to make carne e potate. It seemed strange even to me at first, but I soon grew to enjoy the dish and am not afraid to try making it again. The vegetables were all soft and the meat was lightly seasoned with salt. Overall, it was a good meal. However, I may try to use regular eggplant because the Thai eggplant had too many seeds for my liking.
Today, I possess an adventurous nature when it comes to cooking and eating, but I was not always like this. I love Colombian and other foreign foods because of how different they are from the general American food. However, I once stuck only to an American diet of chicken fingers and hamburgers. In all honesty, the first Colombian meal I ate, I did not want to eat. We went to Melina’s sister’s home along with several of her relatives for a celebration of some sort. I must have been fourteen and stuck strictly to consuming American food or the simple Italian foods available in town, such as pizza or pasta. That night we were served beans and rice for dinner that her sister’s mother had made. When the plate was placed in front of me, I just stared. The beans look odd in their brown sauce and I did not know whether to eat my rice in combination with the beans as her family did or rebel and eat it separately. After some encouragement from my father, I finally picked up my spoon and dug in. And it was amazing. The beans were soft and the sauce was creamy and rich. It took some time, but I eventually learned to dip my rice in the sauce with the beans to balance the salty taste of the beans with the less intense taste of the rice. Melina never learned to make the beans and rice; therefore, they were a delicacy we were only served at her sister’s home. However, she did teach me to make the dishes she knew and she passed on several of her cooking technique, along with a love of food and an adventurous cooking nature.
By being open to try new things, I have created some delightful dishes of my own that have stemmed for meals Melina served me as a child. This is why I can say that my stepmother taught me all I know about food. There are a few dishes I learned to make from my father and some from my mother, but most of what I cook today is either a replication or some variation of a dish that my stepmother taught me. I hope, also, to one day pass on the lessons I have learned about cooking to my own children. I would much rather they are able to make their own food and not have to rely on canned soup and ravioli food dinner.
Included below are several other sites that have recipes and other information for people interested in Colombian food.
Below I have included images of several other Colombian recipes from my own cookbook.
Riso con pollo (Rice with chicken)