In the fall of 2001, during my junior year abroad, some girlfriends and I backpacked from northwestern Argentina through Bolivia on our way to Machu Picchu. With a trail of dust whipping up behind us, we traveled by bus on a dirt road that wound around mountains, skirted precipitous drops, and passed by the most desolate country I have ever seen. Later, I would learn that this seemingly uninhabitable area, known as the high Altiplano, is the origin of more kinds of root vegetables than any other place on earth.
The root vegetables, grown in this inhospitable landscape, helped support the rise of the Inca empire and to this day, potatoes and other root vegetables like yuca and maca (now notorious for its supposed aphrodisiac properties favored by the Chinese) continue to shape the economy and define the cuisine of the Andean nations.
It’s no surprise then that the Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP or the International Potato Center) has its home in this part of the world. Located just outside of Lima, CIP supports the use of roots and tubers to improve the lives of the poor through research and outreach. It also houses seeds for more than 150 wild potato species and around 4,000 varieties of 8 species of cultivated potatoes. Our russets, yukon golds, and red potatoes are starting to seem like small potatoes, aren’t they?
While I still regret that I didn’t take advantage of my proximity to so much potato diversity during my trip, I have enjoyed exploring making traditional Andean dishes with the potatoes that we have access to here in the United States. It turns out that russet potatoes, full of the starch that makes them delicious as French fries, are a great substitute for Andean varieties like papas criollas which are used to thicken this traditional Colombian stew known as Ajiaco.
This stew, which uses three different types of potatoes (all common to the United States) in addition to chicken and corn, makes a hearty and satisfying dinner. While the toppings may seem peculiar, don’t omit them. The capers add great acidity. The avocado and potato pair exceptionally well with their creamy textures playing off one another and the cilantro adds a bit of freshness. And the crema? Show me the person who doesn’t like crema.
Do stir this soup often as it cooks. As the russets break down and the soup thickens naturally from the starch, stew near the bottom of the pot has a tendency to burn. Occasional stirring will ease this problem or at least keep messy pans to a minimum. Happy cooking!
Ajiaco – Printer Friendly Recipe
2 ½ lbs bone-in chicken leg quarters
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 large white onion, chopped
1 ½ teaspoons dried oregano
1 ½ lbs russet potatoes
4 cups less-sodium chicken broth
1 cup water
¾ lb Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes (keep submerged in cold water until ready to use if prepping ahead)
¾ lb red potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes (keep submerged in cold water until ready to use if prepping ahead)
3 ears of corn, shucked and cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces
¼ cup sour cream
¼ cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons capers, drained
2 avocados, chopped
½ cup cilantro leaves
Dry the chicken leg quarters with a paper towel and season generously with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a heavy pot or Dutch oven. Add the chicken leg quarters, working in two batches if needed, to the pot skin side down. Brown each side for 10 minutes. Carefully remove the chicken quarters using tongs and set aside.
Reduce the heat to medium and add the onion, oregano, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper to the oil. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 6-8 minutes until the onion is golden brown. While the onion is browning, peel the russet potatoes and coarsely grate them on a box grater.
Add the grated potatoes, chicken broth, and water to the pot. Return the chicken to the pot. Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium low and cover the pot. Cook for 25 minutes. Remove the chicken pieces and let them cool on a plate
Drain the Yukon gold and red cubed potatoes if you prepped them ahead of time and add them to the stew. Simmer the stew for another 20 minutes. Add the corn and cook for another 10 minutes or until the corn is tender.
While the corn is cooking, shred the cooked chicken and return it to the pot. Stir together the sour cream and heavy cream in a small bowl to make crema. Place the capers, chopped avocado, and cilantro leaves in additional bowls.
Season the stew with salt and pepper if needed. Serve with the accompaniments. Individuals can top their stew with the garnish of their choice.