Every few months, an important shipment from Amelia Vega’s grandmother in the Dominican Republic arrives at the Atlanta home she shares with her husband, Al Horford. Inside the box will be a two-gallon plastic bag filled with a good half pound of fine Dominican oregano — fragrant, tangy, nose prickly. The way it always is over there and never here.
“Sometimes I wonder what would happen if FedEx takes its time,” Vega laughs. “What would they be thinking.”
Horford, the Atlanta Hawks center/power forward, and Vega, a former Miss Universe who juggles singing, television and modeling, both have their hands full with busy careers. The oregano, a taste of home, helps. So does the personal chef.
Horford and Vega were kind enough to invite me into their house for the kind of rib-sticking, home cooked, carb-heavy Dominican meal they both crave now and again even as they fastidiously watch their diets.
“We only eat like this three or four times a month,” says Vega as she loads Horford’s plate with rice, beans and chicken. “Normally I’ll have normal portions,” Horford said, eyes sparkling at the sight of his heaped portion. “But when it’s Dominican food…”
I initially reached out to Horford and asked if he would consider dining in a Dominican restaurant with me. I’m always curious about how foreign-born athletes living in the United States adopt to the American diet.
To my surprise, Horford turned out to have a big-time interest in food and readily assented. But picking the restaurant proved difficult. I only knew of two: Mi Pilon in Norcross, which I found decent rather than craveworthy, and the modest but good Cafe Restaurant Dominicano in Tucker. Horford was a fan of Quisqueya in Lilburn but hadn’t been back since it changed hands and had become Mamajuana. His schedule was complicated by the rehab he was undergoing for the torn pectoral muscle that had kept him out for the season.
Finally Horford let me know that the best Dominican food might be at his home. How would I feel about coming over? I assented in seconds flat.
After shooing their little dogs Mimi and Tiny upstairs, allowing me to gawk at their spectacular Miele kitchen and introducing their personal chef Fred Moree, Horford and Vega ushered me to the table.
Horford explained this particular meal is commonly called “la bandera dominicana,” or “the Dominican flag.” Rice, habichuelas guisadas (stewed red beans), stewed meat (chicken for this meal) and salad. We also had ripe plantains, which were baked rather than traditionally fried to cut down on fat, and chunks of irresistibly overripe avocado.
“This tastes so good,” says Vega, savoring each bite of the rich fruit, a rare caloric treat for lunch.
“Want me to heat you up some quinoa?” Moree calls from the kitchen.
“Not today,” Vega laughs. La bandera is, as far as meals go, sacrosanct. “Fred, this is sooooo good,” she adds.
Moree, who is not Dominican, had to learn the recipes but claims to be a quick culinary study.
“I used to work for an Indian family,” he says. “And, boy, I really had to learn to cook those vegetables a lot longer to make the food taste right for them.” For this household, he studied with the best — hands on with Horford’s and Vega’s mothers.
Horford’s mother makes an exceptionally refined version of sancocho, the iconic Dominican stew of mixed meats and root vegetables, and she has perfected the art of the concón, or burnt rice crust, to serve alongside. Moree’s version is apparently spot on.
Horford’s aunt Magda, whom he calls “my favorite cook ever,” also has shared recipes for her amazing stewed goat and her asopao, a soup made with either chicken or shrimp. “You put rice in the soup, and it grows,” he says, describing a texture halfway between rice soup and risotto.
When the Hawks travel, Horford is often the player who finds the great local restaurant. In Biloxi, Miss., he dragged a lot of tall dudes to Mary Mahoney’s Old French House for fresh seafood. In Atlanta, his teammates know to ask him for the best recommendations. Among Horford’s and Vega’s favorites are Barcelona for healthy tapas, La Tavola Trattoria for Italian food, and Tomo Japanese Restaurant for sushi.
“Tomo: That’s our favorite restaurant,” says Vega. “We’re there all the time.”
The conversation gets briefly away from food — Horford and I both admire Dominican writer Junot Diaz. (“He’s very raw!” Horford says.) But soon someone remarks on that distinctive sweetness of Dominican oregano, and we’re back to the frequent shipments and hand deliveries from visiting relatives that keep the Horford/Vega alive with the flavor of the Dominican Republic. There was honey from a grandmother’s bees, and soon someone is coming with a suitcase filled with pasteles en hoja, or banana-leaf tamales that are nothing like what you can find here. That will be cause for a celebration.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog