This story is a product of Heavy Table’s first Listening Session, underwritten and hosted by the Lakewinds Food Co-op. On May 23, we interviewed 15 local food artisans over the course of eight hours, with a goal of taking a snapshot of the vibrant Minnesota food scene.
If you take your cues from the food media, you might think that the way to change your culinary world is through recipes. Learn a new dish, and suddenly a chunk of your day — breakfast, lunch, or dinner — is transformed. Overlooked in the constant churn of entrees and sides is a subtle but often more profound way to shift your culinary horizons: eating new condiments.
On the local front, there is everything from Minnesota-made barbecue sauce to harissa to kimchi and more. Among the noteworthy additions to the landscape are the Colombian picantes of Uncle Simon’s Traditions. On the scene since around 2010, the product line includes mild, medium, and hot varieties, plus a chimichurri sauce.
The beauty of Uncle Simon’s is its versatility. Wherever it’s spooned, its bell and habanero peppers, cilantro, and garlic add heat, acid, and richness. It’s an ideal way to kick up a salad or enhance a mellow, more neutral-tasting protein such as chicken or fish.
As we’ve found by using the stuff over the course of a couple months, the complexity of the picante turns a simple sandwich into a full-fledged entree, and it markedly improves mediocre delivery pizza. Uncle Simon’s picantes have joined our roster of go-to condiments, right up there with spicy German mustard, homemade barbecue sauce, and the caramelized onions with pomegranate molasses that we made from the cookbook Savory Sweet.
That last reference may feel like a curveball, but there’s a throughline between the condiments of Savory Sweet and the story of Uncle Simon’s. It’s a commitment — Danish or Colombian, as the case may be — to hospitality, making even a casual visit into something to be savored by sharing condiments that are rich in flavor and always on hand.
“Picante was part of our celebrations [in Barranquilla, Colombia]. When we got together with family to celebrate holidays and events, we always had picante,” says Uncle Simon’s co-founder Alfonso Chicre. Chicre runs the company with his sister, Claudia Fenn, and the DNA of Uncle Simon’s is very much a recollection of home for the siblings. There is, if you were wondering, a real Uncle Simon back in Colombia, and it’s his picante that inspired the company. “What picante created for us was memories,” says Chicre. “That’s what we wanted to translate back to our customers — that each time that you’re eating our products, it’s about traditions, it’s about celebrations, and it’s about memories.”
Chicre explains that Uncle Simon’s products are not what Americans would think of as salsa, or hot sauce, or pico de gallo. “Our products can be eaten with anything you want — steak, fish, chicken, rice, beans, soup — you can cook with it, or you can just add it at the end. You can add it to anything you want, even eggs in the morning.”
We can vouch for that. The soft, buttery neutrality of soft scrambled eggs is an ideal canvas for the gastronomic picture that Uncle Simon’s paints, and the condiments take a breakfast that is at best two-dimensional and transform it into something considerably more bold and savory.
Uncle Simon’s is available at Lakewinds Co-op and at the Linden Hills Farmers Market. It retails online for $8 for a 6 ounce jar.