Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Cilantro Way

In the kitchen of my childhood, in the middle of our round wooden table, sat an ever present rinsed-out glass herring jar. My abuela had repurposed it to hold her home-made Colombian spicy sauce, called Aji. On sunny mornings, the day's rays glinted off the jar's ruby red cap and sent rainbows shooting out from the raised fish outlines etched on its sides.

Sunday afternoons would find my abuela pulling out her wooden cutting board and with a heavy thud, she'd set it in the middle of the table. Her board had been worn to a caramel brown in the center, and on it, she would begin slicing white onions, flattening garlic bulbs with the edge of a butter knife, dicing tomatoes, chopping cilantro, seeding Aji peppers, and filling our house with the sweet ripe smell of onion and garlic. When the ingredients were ready, my grandmother would take her wooden spoon made smooth with years of use, and mix everything together in a glass bowl for the week's Aji.

My abuelita's Aji wasn't blazingly hot, as the Aji peppers would lead you to believe, but instead it was a condiment that skimmed across your taste buds turning what seemed lifeless before you, rice, soup, potatoes, chicken, alive with a more profound level of experience. All you needed to do was unscrew the jar's squeaky metal rim, reach in with your tablespoon and bring it back up generously filled with the Aji, and spoon atop your food. With a snap of a finger, your meal was abracadabra'd into something that made you smile through a mouth watering explosion of delight.

The Aji peppers never made the original taste of the food disappear. The opposite happened. Your  chicken, your beef, became more -- from something routine to in-the-moment sparkling.

My grandmother is gone now, but the lesson I learned from her then, of how a few embellishments can catapult the ordinary into the stratosphere, has stayed with me. 
With some small effort, the surprise addition of the new and novel, an already delicious existence can become spectacular. Like a walk on a misting day without an umbrella, a spontaneous weekend away, or throwing down a blanket unannounced in the living room and spreading out a picnic dinner.

Just a small dusting of lip-tingling unexpectedness and life goes from mundane to thrilling.
Just like Aji spooned over a 5 o'clock dinner.
Abuelita's Aji
1 cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
2 seeded, chopped Aji peppers
1 sweet onion cut in strips
2 coarsely chopped plum tomatoes
Juice of three limes
3/4 cup water
1 crushed garlic bulb 
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper

Mix together in a glass bowl. Let sit at room temperature for a few hours, then keep refrigerated in a repurposed glass jar. (it must be a repurposed jar)
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  1. I'm IN. My daughter recently announced her favorite food is "condiments," so why not add Aji to our repertoire? And now I also want a herring jar and an abuela.

  2. mmm i was hoping you would share the recipe...i am so making this...i love trying new things...i like a bit of spice though...but flavor is far more important...printing...we will be making some...

  3. Jocelyn: I know you'll love it. It's delicious stirred into soups.
    Andrea: the lime juice is optional. going to add that in there now.
    Anna: it's the kick that wintry food needs. So fresh...
    Nichole: I hope you try it!

    Brian: my friend, please let me know how you and T like it!

  4. Oh, Alexandra. I love this. Your words, memories - the recipe - the combination - all of it. Beautiful.

  5. I don't cook, but I might have to try making this because it is right up my alley.



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