By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist
I’ve just returned from my much-anticipated annual summer sojourn to Montana, where our clan of family and like-family gather from near (Helena) and far (including one who was returning from a business trip to Bogota, Colombia) to eat, drink, laugh, sleep and repeat. One of my favorite pastimes when we gather is to prepare traditional and family favored recipes, requested by my kids (and theirs), as well as throwing a new recipe or two into the mix. With more than a dozen people and nearly two dozen meals to prepare, there’s always something cooking in the rustic kitchen at our beloved mountain retreat. This year it was serendipitous that one of the featured dishes I planned to prepare was indigenous to Bogota.
Thanks to an article I chanced upon only a couple of months ago, I was finally able to prepare a simple potato recipe that I’ve tried recreating many times since my own first visit to Bogota. The article caught my eye as it was a story about the salt potatoes that are popular around Syracuse, New York. The original salt mine laborers were Irish immigrants (it’s no wonder that a story related to some Irishmen caught my eye) who’d bring along a pail of small potatoes, boil them in intensely salty brine and eat them for lunch. A picture that accompanied the article stirred a deeply rooted food memory. As I continued to read, I realized I’d found my old friend, papa salado.
I first tasted these salty little gems at a rest stop on a six-hour mountainous bus ride between Medellin and Pereira. It was not my transportation of choice, but after waiting several days for the fog to lift for a return flight to Bogota, my money was running as low as my options. Against my better judgment, I joined a group who’d arranged for a rickety bus ride to Pereira, where we’d catch a flight to Bogota.
The bus ride was every bit as terrifying as I had imagined it would be, so I handed my camera to a new, sympathetic friend who promised pictures, and spent most of the trip huddled against my seat, eyes closed to ward off the butterflies in my stomach and the final glimpse of my life, for surely at any given moment the bus would careen off the narrow dirt road and plunge down the steep mountainside. Finally, about half way through our perilous journey, we came to a wide spot in the road and pulled over for respite (like it was yesterday, I still recall how happy I was to step off that dusty and fuel scented bus to breath some fresh mountain air and shake the forebodings of the looming, deadly bus crash from my mind).
Though it looked like nothing more than a pullout out on the road, this was a scheduled station stop and commerce hub for those traversing the road by car, bus or animal. A large, sagging umbrella covered a small food stand operated by two women and twice as many children. The offerings were sparse, and other than the (warm) Coca Cola, completely unfamiliar to me. A fish aquarium was used as a makeshift chafer and loaded to the brim with small potatoes, coated in fine white powder, and burlap bags rolled halfway down were filled with golden hued, lemon-sized fruit.
In my best Spanish, I exchanged a few pesos for a small bag of potatoes and a couple pieces of the fruit before retreating to the death trap to partake in my last meal. Even in perilous times, my interest in food never wanes, and as it turned out, those salty little potatoes were one of the tastiest morsels I had ever eaten. Combined with the granadilla (a hard-skinned fruit encasing a membrane filled with black, seedy pulp), it was a perfect combination of sweet and savory. And best of all, I lived to tell about it.
For years, I tried making those salt-dusted potatoes, with decidedly disappointing results. I finally gave up, though, stored in my food memory bank, I thought of them every now and then. After reading about the Syracuse potatoes, I began to do some research and learned that there are many halite-rock salt mines in Colombia, too (including the famous salt cathedral of Zipaquira), hence the potatoes’ popularity in that region.
Whether serving them Syracuse-style at a week-end barbecue, or cooking them over a wood fired stove served with roasted goat or chicken (and a side of spicy aji), as the Colombians do, give these salty little spuds a try.
Colombian Salt Potatoes (Papa Saluda)
These potatoes are for salt lovers. They’re good hot or cold (and delicious on Salade Niçoise). Use a good quality salt, such as sea salt or flaked salt for best results. The residual salt crusts onto the potatoes, so chose something tasty! For larger batches of potatoes, increase salt.
•2 pounds small new or red
•1/2 cup kosher salt
Place potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with water. Add salt and stir to dissolve. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid has completely evaporated and potatoes are covered with coating of salt, approx. 40 minutes. Swirl potatoes in pan to pick up residual salt.
Remove from heat and let potatoes rest for 5 minutes in pan. Toss again, then transfer to a serving bowl. Serve with roasted meat and spicy aji.
•4 green onions, coarsely chopped
•1 ripe tomato, quartered
•1 habanero pepper, stem removed
•1 cup cilantro, stems removed
•2 tbs water
•2 tbs white vinegar
Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. Refrigerate. Spoon over meat and potatoes, or for finger food, dip small potatoes in aji.