Interview with Mariana Velásquez | Colombiana

Intro: Welcome to the number one cookbook podcast, Cookery by the Book with Suzy Chase. She’s just a home cook in New York City sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.

Mariana Velásquez: Hello, my name is Mariana Velásquez and my most recent cookbook is called Colombiana. A rediscovery of recipes and rituals from the soul of Colombia.

Suzy Chase: You’re a James Beard award-winning recipe developer, a food stylist and native of Bogotá. This is your first cookbook devoted solely to Colombian food. Could you please read the author’s note on page 295?

Mariana Velásquez: This manuscript was submitted to Harper Collins on April 7th, 2020 during the first COVID 19 lockdown from our home in South Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York. More than ever, cooking has become a source of comfort and care, learning to cope with uncertainty certainly gave me the courage to write from a more personal place. Seclusion even inspired my husband Diego to cook by following recipes for the very first time. A newly found appreciation for the essential beauty and gifts of everyday, illuminates these pages. The vision of going on a 10 day road trip, from Bogatá to Cartagena, to photograph, the places food and people transformed, into shooting the book entirely in Brooklyn, due to a pandemic. Creative challenges can bring unexpected results. It is my wish, that these recipes give you as much comfort and joy as they gave us. Hopefully in brighter times.

Suzy Chase: Creative challenges can bring unexpected results. You wrote this exactly a year ago.

Mariana Velásquez: It’s crazy to I mean, think about it, you know, to think how as a first time, as an adult to not know, you know, to not know know was going to happen next, nobody knew, you know, and so it was very raw and real and scary at the time.

Suzy Chase: That was the worst part that you couldn’t call anyone and say, Hey, what’s going on? No one knew.

Mariana Velásquez: Yeah, no one knew. I kept hoping somebody would know (laughs) ;and I kept hoping a wise friend would have some insights.

Suzy Chase: Yeah, I kept asking my husband every night. He’s really smart. And I kept saying, Bob, okay, what’s going on? And he’d say, I don’t know. I’m like, no! You have to know, this is awful.

Mariana Velásquez: Oh my god, yeah.

Suzy Chase: So what is one unexpected thing that came out of this cookbook?

Mariana Velásquez: You know, the vision was to go to Colombia and photograph, and tell these stories of women who are essentially the carriers of our culinary traditions. And on these road trips that we had planned, I had already found incredible makers and cooks and chefs and we couldn’t visit them. And so I thought, how about we find women here in New York who are Colombian, who tell this story of our country, through their food and celebrate them. And that was really unexpected, because I had such a different vision and a completely different plan. And that was a great gift because, it’s the Colombiana’s who are here and their story and, and what they share. So that was very special to me.

Suzy Chase: I couldn’t do this interview without asking about Aura Salcedo…

Mariana Velásquez: Yes. Oh my gosh.

Mariana Velásquez: She, Aura, has been with me, accompanying me, testing recipes, cooking up a storm with me every time, teaching me all of her tricks and Sazón and the way that she cooks is so it’s so authentic. It’s so real. There’s no fuss. You know, she cuts up a plantain in the fastest way. She knows when are you guys in the perfect place to multitask. Like no one else. Yeah. That was incredible. And is, you know, I continue to work with her often.

Suzy Chase: It’s your first cooking job in America and you cook eggs and potatoes at the same time, in one pot, when the chef yells, who did this? Take me back to that moment.

Mariana Velásquez: So can you imagine, I’m 17 years old in this very, very high-end kitchen and there’s a million pots boiling over, there were port reductions and broths and soups, everything was being made. And it was kind of, I don’t know, maybe 45 minutes before service began. And the chef ordered me to make the accompaniments for the caviar, which were these beautiful new potatoes and some hard-boiled eggs, that then you would separate the white from the yolk and pass them through a very fine strainer. So they would become powder. And my grandmother always cooked the potatoes and the eggs in the same pot, (laughs) because she was a very practical woman. She was a great cook and there was no need to dirty up two pots. So I did that, thinking I was being very efficient. And to my surprise, after chef Craig asked me, you know, ask who did this. And I was like, I did. He said, never stop doing it this way. He loved that. It was kind of, I don’t know. It made sense to me.

Suzy Chase: Imagine if he would have been angry, that would have changed your whole path of cooking.

Mariana Velásquez: Completely, completely because it was, you know, it’s, it’s that thing that you feel it was instinct… Instinctual. That was the word I was looking for. So he celebrated that and I, you know, I’m forever grateful.

Suzy Chase: What restaurant was this?

Mariana Velásquez: This was Sierra Mar in Big Sur in California, in this beautiful hotel called the Post Ranch Inn. And Suzy, it was a magical place. You know, it was a new menu every day. This is 1999. When the expression “Farm to Table” was not even that, you know, it wasn’t even called that, this restaurant had incredible ingredients, locally grown. We had our own garden, this lady would make our bread. Kids would come to the back of the kitchen with backpacks filled with Chanterelles and Morels, that they had foraged. It was really an exquisite first experience in the kitchen.

Suzy Chase: So, you learned method and the minutiae that goes into making a recipe trustworthy at Eating Well and Saveur magazines. How is the recipe development in a restaurant, different from recipe development for a food magazine?

Mariana Velásquez: Well, for food magazine, it has to be tried and tried and adjusted. And it has to be really exact, you know, it’s so disappointing when a magazine publishes something that doesn’t work, right? I mean, especially if it’s something that you bake and the cake doesn’t rise, or it implodes, it’s different because you are giving the person instructions without you being there. You know, at a restaurant, things can change. Things can be replaced by ingredients that are in season or each moment that you go to a restaurant. You may have that food, but it’s influenced by so many other elements. You know, it doesn’t always have to be exactly the same, but when you’re doing it for a magazine, it has to be precise. So there’s so much more that goes into it specifically because of that. And the way that you explained the recipes and give directions.

Suzy Chase: I’m curious about how you use your country as a muse for your cuisine?

Mariana Velásquez: So, Colombia is all about color is all about bounty, et cetera, fruits and traditions and music. And for me, cooking is not just cooking, you know, it’s everything that goes around it. It’s the ritual of the table it’s the music you listen to when you invite people over, it’s the dress you wear. It’s how you decorate your home, and Colombia, because we’re a country that’s so biodiverse. We have all the climates, we have, we have so much abundance in culture that I take all of that and translate it into my cooking. So, I like to say that more is more but not in excess, but just generosity and flavor.

Suzy Chase: From Argentina to the Philippines, to Ecuador, to Colombia, the empanada is the same. You say making empanadas is a simple process. Can you walk me through it?

Mariana Velásquez: I think it’s all about getting organized. You know, you make your filling and it could be chicken. It could be beef, it could be just cheese. It could be jam. So you have your filling and you make your dough. And the only thing that is a little bit more labor intensive is putting the empanadas together. And that’s when I suggest having people over to help you do so, you know, and having an empanada party, kind of like having a dumpling party, one person rolls out the dough. The other person cuts it, everybody helps fill and assemble and you can bake them or deep fry them. And you can have some as you’re there and then freeze the rest.

Suzy Chase: Okay, that sounds easy. I can do it. If you had to pick a Colombian feast to make and eat forever, what would it be?

Mariana Velásquez: I would say the food from the Caribbean Coast because of our Syrian and Lebanese immigrants and the communities that have settled there, and have really taken those flavors and combined them with the local cuisine, with the indigenous food, with the Afro Colombian food. And to me, it’s my favorite because imagine it’s braised meat and the sweet and savory sauce, sweet plantains in coconut milk, very crisp cucumbers with herbs. I just love it.

Suzy Chase: Arepas are corn meal patties that resemble an English muffin that are now widely popular, both in Colombian cuisine and American. Can you talk a little bit about the dough and the fillings?

Mariana Velásquez: Yes. So in Colombia arepas are usually only stuffed with cheese, but when we do, we use it as a vessel for butter, for salt, and they accompany other savory foods, uh, arepas are usually in for breakfast. And in the book, I actually give a couple of recipes, one for sweet corn arepas, arepas chocolate, uh, which are my favorite because the corn is very, very sweet. They’re yellow and they’re delicious. And then I give a recipe using pre cooked masa, which is very quick. And you just add water and form the dough. You can do a little salt, a little oil or a little butter. And then the third option is when you buy the corn, that’s been dried and then you cook it and then grind it and form the arepas yourself as well. So different stages, different versions, but arepas are such a common, they’re kind of like a unifying factor in Colombia. I was explaining in the book that Colombian cuisine is very, very regional, but arepas is one of those foods that you see across the country. And I really love this poem by a Columbian scholar. And he says, arepas means family, means mom, means Homeland and means history. It means strength. It means perseverance. And that’s an excerpt of something he wrote. And I imagine that that’s what arepas means in our country. It’s all of that.

Suzy Chase: Are you familiar with the arepa lady who used to have a cart under the seven train in Jackson Heights?

Mariana Velásquez: Yes, Yes, yes. I’ve read her stories on the papers for years and talk about a Colombiana, a very persevering Colombiana.

Suzy Chase: Yes. I wonder what she’s doing now. I hope she’s doing okay.

Mariana Velásquez: I hope so.

Suzy Chase: So Colombia is a country with rich biodiversity, as well as cultural diversity. Bogota, where you’re from in particular is an epicenter of the diverse food traditions from all over Colombia. What are some of your favorite street foods?

Mariana Velásquez: I absolutely love Merengon, which is a meringue like pavlova-ish dessert that you find on, on the roads on the streets and basically the square meringue with cream and strawberries. And it’s so simple and so delicious. So, you know, when I go for my hunting for fabric or for flowers in this one neighborhood in Bogota called San Andresito, like little San Andres, they have these roast pork sandwiches that are heavenly, you know, the pork is roasted very slowly and it’s a little bit sweet and then they slice it really thin and serve it in these sweet rolls sandwich with kind of like a cucumber relish, but it’s delicious. And it always makes me think or fabric hunting in Bogota.

Suzy Chase: Over the weekend I made your recipe for smoky lentils with chorizo on page 95.

Mariana Velásquez: Yay!

Suzy Chase: Lentejas ahumadas con chorizo?

Mariana Velásquez: Perfecto!

Suzy Chase: What? Really?

Mariana Velásquez: Yes!

Suzy Chase: So on that recipe, you write lentils tend to be either loved or hated and your husband hates them, which made me laugh.

Mariana Velásquez: Yeah, Diego hates them. I have to wait for him to travel, to make lentejas. You know, because it’s kind of hard to make, just lentils for yourself. Right. I mean, you kind of have to make a large pot.

Suzy Chase: It’s a lot..

Mariana Velásquez: I also don’t want to eat lentils all week so I have to wait for him to be away.

Suzy Chase: I’m dying to know why he doesn’t like lentils.

Mariana Velásquez: He associates them with kind of boring food.

Suzy Chase: Mmmm, yeah! So in this recipe I thought the smokiness of the lentils and the saltiness of the chorizo worked so well together.

Mariana Velásquez: Oh, thank you. And you know, this was a recipe I really enjoyed putting together because it’s that satisfying tastes of the smoke that makes them different and, and really yummy. And they, you know, they’re the kind of food where you can invite many people. You can have plenty, it’s generous. So I love it.

Suzy Chase: Now to my segment called “Last Night’s Dinner,” where I ask you what you had last night for dinner?

Mariana Velásquez: Oh, great. So last night we had friends over and I made roasted cod with asparagus and zucchini and some herbs, not very Colombian at all, but then to start, I made a cold soup. I made, I gazpacho with papaya and tomato, which is in the book. And it was a hit, you know, last night was so warm in New York city that it was a great appetizer.

Suzy Chase: You collaborated on more than 20 cookbooks, probably most notably with Michelle Obama. But I noticed that you worked on Red, White, and Que by Karen Adler and Judith Fertig, and I used to be Karen Adler’s cookbook publicist at her cookbook publishing house called Pig Out Publications in Kansas City and I credit her with my love of cookbooks, and I actually had them on my podcast to chat about that cookbook.

Mariana Velásquez: That’s amazing. And, you know, as a stylist, when I have worked with different authors to prepare their food, to style their food, for their book project, I mean, I know how intimate and personal it is, and it must be hard to have someone else make your food for images that will remain forever. It’s always kind of like getting, getting to see how they put the recipes together, reading their head notes and plating that food to really honor what they envisioned.

Suzy Chase: It’s a lovely cookbook and Karen Adler, she’s a real trailblazer.

Mariana Velásquez: Oh, wow.

Suzy Chase: Before we wrap up, I’d love to hear a little bit about your aprons and your podcasts.

Mariana Velásquez: So our aprons, you know, I designed them because I wanted to wear something in the kitchen that was utilitarian and appropriate, but also something that made me feel put together and well dressed on set. You know, when you’re in photo sets, you’re with creatives, you’re with the agencies, you’re with clients. And so even though you’re cooking and, and it’s all very real cooking, I wanted something to make me feel organized. And so I designed these aprons many years ago and people always ask, is that an apron? Is that a dress? It’s so pretty. It’s just like a layer. And you know, it’s across back apron that has a longer tail. My husband said, Marie, we should make these aprons. We should sell them. They’re beautiful. And everybody always asks. So we started the company about seven years ago, it’s called Lumanarium. And it’s all about luxury for the kitchen. You know, something special that you wear when you’re cooking, when you’re working on your florals, when you’re gardening. And it’s a project that I, that is really dear to my heart. I really enjoy doing them.

Suzy Chase: They’re really pretty and super feminine.

Mariana Velásquez: Yeah.

Suzy Chase: And so tell me about your podcast?

Mariana Velásquez: So our podcast is called Buenlimon Radio and we do it with heritage radio network. It’s their first podcast in Spanish. And our idea was to really tell the stories of the backbone of the kitchens in the U.S you know, the cooks, the dishwashers, you know, the arepa lady, people who really do really hard work and don’t really have a voice. Yeah. So when we recorded our podcast in the studio, we would have musical guests over and it was really, really fun, but this is a project that Diego and I have been doing for the last five years now. And we’re taking a little break now through the book tour and everything this summer, and maybe we’ll start over in the fall.

Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?

Mariana Velásquez: So, my Instagram is MarianaVelazquezV and lumanarium_ is my apron on Instagram. And through there, you’ll find the links to my website, and our aprons

Suzy Chase: This cookbook teaches us creative challenges can bring unexpected results. Thank you so much Mariana for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.

Mariana Velásquez: Suzy, thank you so much. It was an honor.

Outro: Follow Cookery by the Book on Instagram. And thanks for listening to the number one cookbook podcast, Cookery by the Book.




Cookery by the Book is the #1 Cookbook Podcast hosted by Suzy Chase.

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Suzy Chase

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Cookery by the Book is the #1 Cookbook Podcast hosted by Suzy Chase.

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