A year-abroad-romance gets really good.
By Lindsay Sterling
The bus had been bumping over potholes through the night in the Andes mountains of Bolivia. A young couple, Rommy and David, were traveling from her hometown to the capital where she was to have an interview at the U.S. embassy. She wanted nothing more than a visa so she could see where David was from. They’d met in Bolivia three years earlier when he was on his year abroad from Carleton College. Her last attempt at getting a tourist visa failed after a three-minute interview. She doesn’t know why. This time she paid an organization three month’s salary to help her through the process. Now, instead of straightening her hair and looking like a responsible tourist, she was going for a camp-counselor-look. The organization had helped her get a sponsorship from a summer camp to work with special needs kids.
When the bus stopped and turned off its lights and engine in the middle of the mountain road, other travelers pulled on blankets and fell asleep (road blockages were not unusual) but David had a fever and upset stomach. The windows of the bus were all stuck shut, so he walked up to the front. Could you please open the door? As the driver fumbled with the levers, David threw up in his hands. The bus trip lasted fifteen hours. Then David stayed at the station while Rommy went to her interview. A man asked him directions while his accomplice stole David’s backpack. Ladron! Ladron! David yelled. Passersby caught the thief, and David got his backpack back. Meanwhile, Rommy’s cultural exchange visa was granted! They bought their plane tickets. They were on their way! A week before departure, Rommy gets a text message from the organization: Rommy, llamamé, urgente algo con la visa. Turns out, the summer camp decided they didn’t have room for her. On the bus ride back to her hometown, Rommy fell asleep crying in David’s arms.
Some months later, David proposed. He loved her. He loved Bolivia. They would see the U.S. eventually. Five months later, she gambled another month’s salary on applying for a fiancé visa. Oddly, in an institution that felt like a prison with armed guards and interviewers behind bulletproof glass, they had to prove their true love. They submitted original copies of their private love letters from David’s trips to the U.S. (to college and to visit his family). Luckily, he was a convincing writer. Last May Rommy and David arrived in Maine and married in his parents’ backyard, amongst budding red oaks and gardens of promise.
In November, nervous upon heading into her first Maine winter, Rommy showed me how to cook her favorite dish from home: Bolivian Silpancho. Elegant, satisfying and beautiful, this dish might just be the best possible use of ground beef in the world. You roll a little ball of it into breadcrumbs and pepper so that you have a circular shape as thin as a crepe. Then you sear it. On each plate layer: a mound of rice, golden sautéed potato rounds, the seared beef, a fried egg and a colorful salad of sweet peppers, tomatoes, and red onion. Top that with homemade hot sauce and a powerful Bolivian herb (quilquiña) and you have a truly amazing dish. What’s even more amazing is that finally they could eat it together as a new family in Maine: David, Rommy, and her grateful in-laws.
As Rommy Cornejo Holman, from Cochabamba, Bolivia, taught Lindsay Sterling in North Yarmouth, ME, November 2009
2. Massage reasonable amount of salt and pepper into beef with hands. Separate ground beef into 4 balls. Put the breadcrumbs in a pile on cutting board. Flatten each ball and press both sides into ground beef. Roll with a rolling pin on top of breadcrumbs sprinkled with more fresh pepper. Flip over beef patty and roll again. Continue rolling and flipping until the beef is the thinness of a crepe. Make a stack of four of these on a dinner plate.
3. Drain potatoes, cool enough to touch, then slice into 1/4 inch rounds. Heat large saute pan to medium high with 1 Tbsp oil. Brown potatoes (not touching one another) in two batches or use two pans at once. Cool on paper towels.
4. Turn pan(s) up to medium high, and cook beef, one sheet per pan. Flip when brown starts starts to show through raw pink. Stack beef as they’re fully cooked on a fresh plate. At the same time, fry four eggs and leave yolk runny. Make your final topping: cut onion, tomato, green pepper and dress in equal parts oil and vinegar, salted generously.
5. Gather all the components (rice, potatoes, beef, egg, and salad) near a stack of serving plates. On each plate, put a scoop of rice in the center. Decorate the rim with five potatoes spaced evenly. Put the beef on top of the rice - the potatoes should be poking out from underneath. Put egg on top of beef, and the the colorful salad on top of the egg. Put about 4 quilquina leaves on top if you’re graced to have them.
Serve with fresh hot sauce as a condiment. Hers was called llajua: tomato and hot peppers blended in a food mill, ideally with a handful of quilquina. Tobasco or your favorite hot sauce would work, too.
Coat each side with breadcrumbs and roll flat with a rolling pin on top of the breadcrumbs, flipping the meat over whenever it starts to stick. In Bolivia, she wouldn't use a rolling pin, but a stone to do this.
You top the dish with the salad of tomato, red onion, and green pepper. Bright, fresh, and crunchy, it breaks up the richness of the meat, eggs and potatoes. The dressing is equal parts vinegar and oil, plus generous salt.
This is quilquina, a very fragrant herb that tastes like nothing but itself. Rommy grew it from seed indoors in Maine! Cilantro could be substituted, but it's very different. In this dish it's used to top the fresh salad, and also ground into a hot sauce that's served on the side.