cookbook club: Colombiana

Welcome to book three of our Savoring the Diverse Flavors of Latin America season of Cookbook Club.  So far, we’ve taken a bird’s-eye view of Latin America through the Latin American Cookbook, then honed in on the central region of Chile with The Chilean Kitchen. Now, we’ll explore the beautifully diverse country of Colombia, and the powerful food culture held by its women in ColombianaA Rediscovery of Recipes & Rituals from the Soul of Colombia, by the inimitable Mariana Velásquez. 

The Republic of Colombia is in the north of South America. For its size, its terrain is notably diverse, creating natural boundaries that cradle distinct cultural enclaves. Colombia has coastline on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean; also, mountains, desert, and fog forest. “All climates, all year long.” 

four cookbook covers

In addition to Colombia’s numerous indigenous civilizations, cultural influences came from Europe (Spain, et al), the Middle East, and Africa (via enslaved people). These are evident in the art, the music, and, of course, the food – Colombians are beloved for being generous with it all!

“Beauty, photography, storytelling, culture, and food. I realized I could preserve forever into an image, a moment as ephemeral as a meal.”

Mariana Velásquez

about the book

When design is done well, it has the power to lure you into a journey and hold you in its spell. At least that’s how I felt as I started paging through Colombiana. The combination of black and white historical images, colorful and masterfully designed illustrations, and moody, evocative full-bleed color photography by Gentl & Hyers was transportive. To learn later that most of the photos were shot in the author’s Brooklyn apartment blew my mind. 

Beyond its beauty, this book has brawn. Velásquez is a chef, a recipe tester and developer, and a highly-respected food stylist. She is intimate with “the method and the minutiae that go into making a recipe trustworthy.” The result? Not only are the recipes a joy to read (even if you don’t cook them), they’re also reliable (and delicious).

Velásquez has plenty of experience adapting recipes from her native culture to her present life in the US. She knows what works, and what must absolutely be enjoyed in its place of origin. La Despensa, the pantry and tools chapter of Colombiana, is indispensable. And truly unique. For each ingredient you’ll learn how it’s used and for what, what it tastes like, good substitutes, and even reliable sources and brand names to look for.

And just because something is nearly impossible to make at home in the US doesn’t mean Velásquez is leaving it out of the story! Take the story of bollos – “warm white corn… wrapped like tamales in fresh green corn husks…” that are “cut into rounds and smeared with toasted sesame paste, or split open and panfried in a bit of butter.” (p 49) These street food staples are usually purchased from an expert maker. The description made me want to take off on a Colombian adventure right away!

Colombiana is as beautiful as it is rich with culinary treasures that celebrates the warm, generous, vivacious women of Colombia, including warm introductions to the women of the Colombian diaspora – those who keep the flame and flavor of their culture wherever they go. 


During our Q&A session with Mariana Velásquez, she shared one typographical error that escaped detection before printing… 

On page 33 in the recipe for Cheese Arepas, the correct amount of water is 2 cups, not 6. 

about the author

Before writing her own books, Mariana Velásquez honed her cooking skills in professional kitchens in Big Sur, California and New York City. She worked as a recipe tester on several highly-acclaimed cookbooks, and in the test kitchens of Saveur and Eating Well magazines. 

Along the way, Velásquez’s innate sense of style, color, and creativity developed into her current work as a food and experience stylist. She now shares her distinctive style with the world as a consultant, author, podcaster, and through her recently-announced line of tableware. 

Mariana was kind enough to join our group for our discussion session. She shared her history, love of food and culture, and experiences creating this cookbook about the women of Colombia during the pandemic without leaving her home in Brooklyn. She is as generous and engaging in person as she projects in her body of work, and we all look forward to experiencing what she creates next!

the cooking part…

For each cookbook I create a menu featuring a selection of recipes – like an assignment. This provides some structure for prep and for our conversations. They’re only suggestions, and many people experiment with whatever strikes their fancy. This round I also included some challenges for those who wanted to push their limits a bit. 

small bites
empanaditas de pipián (mini potato & peanut empanadas)
pandebono (rice bread puffs)
arepitas con jalea…(little arepas with tomato coriander jam)

lentejas ahumadas con chorizo (smoky lentils with chorizo)
Bogotáinian ajiáco (potato soup with corn, chicken, & capers)
cebada perlada cladosa…(soupy barley, mushrooms, chorizo)

sancocho (Colombian-style stew)
arroz atollado de pato (sticky duck rice – can sub chicken)
pollo guisado (chicken braised in coconut & sweet chiles)

arroz de coco blanco (white coconut rice)
ensalada de pepino machacao (smashed cucumber salad)
arroz con fideos… (rice & angel hair pilaf beef, capers, raisins)

postres de coco… (Tia Lilita’s coconut custard)
esponjado de limón (lime mousse)
arroz “cocada” (caramelized coconut rice pudding)

challenge time
there are several variations on arepas… try one
feeling like a fancy dessert? try mango-sesame baked Alaska
throw a party and use one of the menus in full – including the music!

notes on what we cooked

Many of us went off-menu with this book – mostly because there are so very many alluring recipes that we all explored what caught our attention most.

Sticky duck rice with sausage and eggs is maybe the most surprising sleeper of the menu. And it turns out to be one that the author recommended as well… only a few people made the recipe, but they all raved so much that I can’t help but put it first on the list. 

Coming in as the easiest and most satisfying dish was the smoky lentils with chorizo soup that only gets better if you can refrigerate or freeze some for another meal. In fact, prepare double just to make sure!

Several people tried their hands at empanadas – each of the books this season have them in some form. It’s been fun to compare recipe notes and see what style suits each cook best. In Colombiana, Velásquez even offers one of her signature all-inclusive menus celebrating empanadas: Empanada Saturnalia. Get a group of friends together and dig in!

For the bakers out there, a couple of must-try recipes include pandebono – rice bread puffs that are the Colombian answer to Brazilian pao de queijo, and pan de arroz – rice bread rings. The pan de arroz are “crunchy, cheesy” rings from the village of Villavicencio in the Colombian plains near Venezuela. Easy to make, very difficult to perfect, delicious anyway.

Lastly, you can’t miss all the different preparations of plantains. Among the group, we tried madurossweet plantains and rice, and – my personal favorite – Plátanos en Tentación, sweet plantains stewed in orange-scented coconut milk. 

looking for a little music to go with dinner?

One of our group members made a Spotify playlist of all the music the author recommended in her event menus… Enjoy! Colombiana Spotify playlist

in closing

If you’ve read this far, you may be one of the people who noticed that I’m a couple months behind on these posts. It’s been a very full and chaotic couple months, but I’m getting back on track now and you’ll see a few more books added in the next month or so since, at the time I’m writing this, the cookbook club is actually headed into the third book of the next (winter) season and getting ready to announce Spring 2023!

So, more very soon! Meanwhile, if you’d like to catch up with past seasons’ books, you can get started HERE.

As always, I want to thank Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore and all our friends at the 92nd Street Y for creating these programs that provide great opportunities for furthering food and drink scholarship and cultural enrichment. 

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