A tale of two chile sauces

A tale of two chile sauces
Ari LeVaux - 02/28/2019

Santa Marta, Colombia. In a plaza near the center of town, I bought some empanadas from a small stand. The couple selling them were neatly dressed and well groomed, looking more like college kids than refugees from Venezuela, Colombia’s troubled neighbor to the east. The refugees blended in seamlessly with the strolling romancers, lounging elders and Spandex clad exercisers. I assumed they were locals until I saw the green sauce they served alongside their empanadas. That sauce, called guasacaca, is a part of the Venezuelan identity that they could not leave behind. And the Colombians surely feel the same thing about their red counterpart, aji picante.

Where there are chile peppers, there is chile sauce. And where there is chile sauce, there is a choice between green and red. Red chile are fully ripened and pack a distinct sweetness along with their heat. Green chile are picked before they ripen, and have a slightly bitter, pungent and more complex flavor.

In New Mexico, where chile lords over the local cuisine, no restaurant order is complete without a response to the official state question: “red or green?” In the northern part of  South America, the red vs. green divide follows the boundary between Colombia and Venezuela. Colombians take their chile via the sharp red sauce called aji picante, while Venezuelans, including the refugees in that plaza in Santa Marta, prefer the smooth green chile sauce known as guasacaca.

Where these sauces are consumed, there are as many versions of aji picante and guasacaca as there are kitchens. In both countries, their respective sauces are applied to savory substrates like beans, meat, plantains, empanadas and even salad. Aji picante contains red chile, and sometimes tomatoes, with cilantro and onion tops being the only green components. In the case of the relatively mild guasacaca, which is sometimes called Venezuelan guacamole, the green color comes from bell peppers, avocado, cilantro and parsley.

The Venezuelan refugees in the Santa Marta plaza, two of about 3 million who’d been welcomed by the Colombian government, served their empanadas with a guasacaca thin enough to be squirted from a squeeze bottle. Instead of avocado, their version was thickened with powdered milk and a shot of mayo – a guasacaca recipe for a tight budget, lean as these entrepreneurial Venezuelans, but strong enough to get the job done. It added a dose of earthy green plant flavor and creaminess to nicely balance the meat filled pastry.

After discovering guasacaca, I kept my blender busy as I experimented with various formulations of this glorious green condiment. I put it on boiled yucca, pollo asado, fried fish, even leftover ceviche. But I was, after all, in Colombia, and I eventually embraced the fiery red chile sauce of my adopted place.

Here, each restaurant brings a new version of aji picante to be studied, followed by an attempt to recreate it in my kitchen. Unlike guasacaca, aji picante doubles as a marinade, adding spectacular flavor to the local beef, while softening its chewy texture. The large eggs from the red chickens behind my casita, scrambled with soft chunks of local cheese, seem to have been created just for aji picante. To have a batch of aji picante on hand is all the reason one needs to cook anything. This morning, I turned the tables and put my scrambled eggs into a bowl of aji picante and used them to mop it up.

Although I’m currently smitten by aji picante, the color (and texture and flavor) of one’s chile sauce is a personal thing. So I’ll pass along recipes for both national sauces, assembled from what I’ve learned on my travels. One could do worse than to set a bowl of each upon the same table. In fact, given the current situation along the border between these red and green nations, and the generosity of the Colombians, there are surely many tables in Colombia set with both sauces.

The proportions are highly subjective, and dependent on your personal taste, but here is a framework to get you started.

Aji Picante

1⁄2 cup water
1⁄2 cup white vinegar (cider vinegar works too)
1 habanero or other hot red chile, in quantity that gives you heat you can handle and enjoy (I need to make it hot enough that my wife won’t drink it all)
3 green onions, chopped 2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoon lime juice 1 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 cup cilantro leaf
1⁄2 cup chopped red bell pepper
Optional: 1⁄2 cup chopped, seeded tomatoes
Add water, vinegar, chile, oil, lime juice, salt and white parts of the onion to a blender and liquefy. Add cilantro, red bell pepper, tomatoes and onion tops. Pulse a few times to blend these final ingredients as finely as you like. Serve immediately or let sit overnight to develop the flavor. Season with vinegar.

Guasacaca

1 avocado
1 medium onion, chopped
2 garlic teeth, as they call cloves in these parts
1 green bell pepper
1 bunch cilantro leaves
1 bunch parsley leaves
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon white or cider vinegar
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon pepper
Add the avocado, onion, garlic, bell pepper, cilantro and parsley to a food processor, and blend. When smooth, keep blending and drizzle in the oil and then the vinegar, then add the salt and pepper. Taste, and adjust seasonings as you wish. Serve in a bowl alongside whatever else is on the menu.

Top Shelf

Rockin' Reverend, a king & a doll, and gastro heaven
Rockin' Reverend, a king & a doll, and gastro heaven
By Chris Aaland
04/18/2019

Dude, where’s Makar? He’s in a burgundy and blue jersey, of course! The day after skating in the NCAA men’s hockey championship game for UMass – and two days after winning the Hobey Baker Award as the most talented college hockey player in America – Cale Makar signed his entry-level contract for the Colorado Avalanche.

Meltdown goes big for 25th
Meltdown goes big for 25th
By Chris Aaland
04/11/2019

The sweet sounds of banjo, mandolin, fiddle, dobro, guitar and upright bass will fill the air this week as the Durango Bluegrass Meltdown turns 25. The Meltdown rolled out all the stops for the big anniversary, too, by booking one of its finest lineups ever.

Delicious water and funkalicious roots
Delicious water and funkalicious roots
By Chris Aaland
04/04/2019

It just doesn’t take much anymore. I spent my 51st birthday Sunday afternoon at Durango Craft Spirits, listening to tunes with my buddy Michael McCardell, while enjoying a couple of old fashioneds and a mule.

Goodbye to BREW, gospel- ninja-soul & Cuckoo's 20th
Goodbye to BREW, gospel- ninja-soul & Cuckoo's 20th
By Chris Aaland
03/28/2019

Sadly, one of Durango’s favorite nightspots and a magical brew-pub, BREW Pub & Kitchen, closes its doors this month. Like many other restaurants and businesses, the aftermath of the 416 Fire chipped away.

Read All in Top Shelf

Day in the Life

It's Snow Joke
It's Snow Joke
By Stephen Eginoire
04/18/2019

“It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” Hall of Fame baseball catcher Yogi Berra once said. That’s a sentiment no one can argue with in these parts. According to Snotel, as of April 12, we are sitting at 153 percent of average snowpack in the San Juans.

Slippery When Wet
Slippery When Wet
By Stephen Eginoire
04/11/2019

What could be a better way to squander a beautiful, warm spring weekend than to spend it sloshing through an icy, water-filled canyon where the non-appearance of direct sunlight is the only guarantee?

Salty Dawgs
Salty Dawgs
By Stephen Eginoire
04/04/2019

A few thousand CFS of cold, clean, snowmelt roaring through one of the driest climates in the United States is a sight to behold.

Etched in Stone
Etched in Stone
By Stephen Eginoire
03/28/2019

With tens of thousands of Ancestral Puebloan sites spanning the Four Corners, rock art decorates countless desert-varnished boulders and cliff walls. These ancient etchings conjure tales that almost seem best left to the imagination.

Read All in Day on the Life