The Andes, near the city of Cusco, Peru, rise to barren uplands of 14,000 feet. At 11,000 feet are wide plateaus with fertile river valleys for pasture and farmland. The steep mountain sides are terraced to provide more land for crops. It is here the ancient peoples developed the sweet potato, as well as over a 100 varieties of potatoes in all shapes, sizes (marbles to melons) and colors (tan, gray, red, violet, yellow and black), including "chuño "(choon-yo), the marble-sized ones preserved by the ancient Inca freeze-dried method.
It was from these chilly highlands that the conquistadors transported the potato to Spain. It took more than two centuries to persuade the Europeans that this exotic relative of the nightshade family was good for more than pig food.
In France, to promote the potato's popularity among the working class, fields were intentionally guarded during the daytime, but not at night, allowing opportunity for samples of such a valuable crop to be taken. Once accepted, the potato established itself as an inexpensive food. Whole populations depended on it as portrayed in Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters."
It thrived in the cool climates and poor soils of Ireland and Belgium. Irish farmers were among the first to recognize the potato's worth, and it is the Irish immigrants who are credited with introducing them into North America about 1719.
It's difficult to imagine the Irish diet without the potato or the Brits without chips or French without pommes frites or Germans without potato dumplings and salad. These potato dishes are probably more familiar to us than those from the Andes.
Potato dishes from the Andes are frequently perked up with a wide variety of hot chili peppers. One called "aji "(ah-hee) is a fresh hot yellow pepper and another, "mirasol, "is medium-sized dried hot pepper which may be either red or yellow. The more commonly found fresh serrano or jalapeño may be used in place of these, or the dried Japanese hon-taka is suitable.
All peppers vary a great deal in strength. Tasting and pleasing yourself is a good guide. Potato dishes are also flavored with herb sauces, much the same as the Italian pesto and thick cheese and milk sauces. Some-times the sauces are colored a brilliant yellow with a dried herb called "palillo. "
It's not available here, but a small amount of turmeric will provide a suitable yellow color. The potato combined with milk or cheese makes complementary protein or a whole meal dish.
The type of potatoes used in these dishes depends on whether they are to be boiled and left whole or mashed. New thin-skinned waxy reds or whites, when boiled, will retain their shape.
One can boil or steam any type of potato for mashing, but dry-textured russets will absorb more milk. Unusual purple and fingerling varieties are best steamed and savored with a little butter to enjoy their delicate flavor.
Celebrate St. Patrick's Day with one of today's delicious potato dishes from the Andes.
Papas a la Huancaina
Potatoes with Cheese and Chilies
This whole meal dish is from Huancayo in the Peruvian highlands. Boiled potatoes are covered with a brilliant yellow chili and cheese sauce, surrounded with black olives, corn rounds and hard-boiled eggs, topped with thinly sliced pickled onions.
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons lemon juice
salt and pepper
8 medium boiling potatoes, boiled and peeled
8 oz. feta cheese, crumbled
4 fresh jalapeño peppers, halved and seeded
1 cup evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 hard cooked egg yolks or 2 soda crackers
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 hard-cooked eggs, quartered
12 black olives
2 ears of corn, cooked and cut into rounds
Combine sliced onion, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Set aside. In a food processor; combine cheese, chilies, milk, turmeric, egg yolks or crackers.
In a skillet, heat oil and add cheese mixture. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until the sauce is smooth and creamy. Cut potatoes in half and arrange cut side down on a platter.
Surround with lettuce leaves, top with cheese sauce; arrange eggs, olives, and corn around the outside edge. Top with drained pickled onion slices.
Potatoes with Cheese, Tomato
another 1/3 of the potatoes; the other 1/2 of the meat and end with a layer of potatoes and cheese
Bake in a 375 degree oven for 30 minutes. The top will be lightly browned.
Betty Thompson has taught cooking classes locally since 1974.
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