Thursday, May 7, 2015

Highland Specialties

The small Andean country of Ecuador sits right on top of Peru. Historically the region was populated by the Incan Empire and later fell into Spanish hands. Today, Ecuador is a blending of cultures with the majority of the population being mestizo (a mixture of Native American and Spanish). Ecuador’s borders stretch out to incorporate the beautiful Galapagos Islands (one of the few places on earth without a native population) as well as 23 other provinces. Regionalism is a big dividing factor amongst Ecuador’s people. Each geographical region isolates itself from others and prides in keeping the competition between regions. This has impacted the economy and in some cases has led to sabotage during battle just so one region did not see the other win against the enemy.

 
Ecuadorian cuisine shares a lot of similar ingredients as nearby Bolivia and Peru. Corn, potatoes, and rice are the common starches, and they are all eaten in abundance. The three regions of the country all have their own unique dishes and styles. Along the coast, you will find an abundance of fish, churrasco, chocolate, and many other specialties. The Amazon region places a large emphasis on the use of cassava as well as many fresh fruits. The highlands are famous for their cuy (guinea pig) and starches. I based my meal off of the highland region’s cuisine. I made locro soup and llapingachos with two sauces that are generally served with them as an accompaniment. My friend Noemí is and international from Ecuador. I told her today about last night’s Ecuadorian feast, and she was very excited to hear that I had cooked some of her favorite dishes. I wish I had remembered her when I was planning for Ecuador. I should have invited her over to cook with me. Oh well, that just means I’ll have to do it again some other time.

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Aji criollo is a typical Ecuadorian condiment that graces tables all over the country. It allows everyone to add their preferred amount of spiciness to the dishes as well as provides a delicious flavor booster. For those unaccustomed to heat, proceed with caution.

Aji Criollo
3 cloves garlic
½ bunch of cilantro
4 serrano chili peppers
1 Thai bird chili
2 green onions
½ cup water
2 tbsp lime juice
salt, to taste

Combine all the ingredients into a food processor. Process until a chunky paste has formed. Season to taste and serve alongside llapingachos, meats, or stews.


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Salsa de mani is a warm peanut sauce that is served alongside llapingachos. It's both creamy and delicious, and I loved pouring it all over my potato patties.
 
Salsa de Maní
½ onion, finely chopped
1 ½ cups milk
½ cup peanut butter (all-natural and unsweetened)
1 tbsp oil
salt, to taste

Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add the oil and onion to the skillet. Cook for about 8 minutes until the onion is tender, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, mix the milk and peanut butter together. Pour in the milk mixture and bring to a low simmer. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring constantly to make sure the milk does not curdle. Remove from the heat, allow the sauce to cool, and season to taste.

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Llapingachos are fried potato patties served with the abovementioned condiments as well as fresh avocado, fried eggs, meats, and many other additions. Salsa de mani and avocados are a must, but other than that the accompaniments are up to you.
 

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Llapingachos
1 pound potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 tsp achiote
¼ onion, chopped
1 tbsp oil
salt, to taste
1 cup grated queso freso or mozzarella
salsa de maní, to garnish
sliced avocado, to garnish
aji criollo, to garnish
cilantro, to garnish
oil, for frying

Bring the potatoes to a boil in a pot of water. Cook for about 25-30 minutes until the potatoes are tender. (A fork should easily go through them.) Drain the potatoes and set them aside to cool. Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the onions and achiote. Fry until the onions are tender and golden, about 8 minutes. Remove the onions from the pan and mash them together with the potatoes to form a soft dough. Season to taste, cover, and refrigerate for 1 hour. Divide the dough into about 12 golf ball sized balls. Make an indent into each ball with your thumb and fill them with about a tablespoon of the cheese. Seal the top and press the balls flat. Heat enough oil to cover the bottom of a skillet over medium heat. Fry each dough ball until they are golden brown on each side. Serve topped with avocado, salsa de maní, aji criollo, and cilantro. (Fried eggs and fried pork are other common sides.)



 
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Locro is the South American version of cheesy potato soup. It has all the standard ingredients of potatoes, milk, and cheese, but adds an Andean element to the classic with the addition of achiote and queso fresco.




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Locro
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp oil
2 tsp achiote
1 tsp cumin
2 cups water
2 cups chicken broth
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and diced
3 cups milk
1 cup shredded queso fresco or mozzarella cheese, plus more for topping
salt and pepper, to taste
avocado, for topping
cilantro, for topping

Heat the oil in the bottom of a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, achiote, and cumin. Sautee until the onions are tender, about 8 minutes. Add in the water, chicken broth, and potatoes. Bring the soup to a simmer, cover, and cook for 30 minutes. Once the potatoes are super tender (falling apart), mash them up with the back of a fork or spoon. Stir in the milk, bring the soup back to a simmer, and cook for 5 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, stir in the cheese, and serve topped with avocado, cilantro, and additional cheese.



Desserts are often fresh fruit in Ecuador. I saw a red banana at the grocery store this week. Since they are native to Ecuador and I've always wanted to try one, I decided to include it in my Ecuadorian meal. My verdict? It tastes like a super cool looking banana.

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With the amount of achiote, a spice that I have not enjoyed in the past (see Belize and Guam), I thought Ecuador was going to be a flop. Thankfully I was mistaken. The fried potato patties with the peanut sauce and avocado were divine, a must if you are cooking any kind of Ecuadorian meal. The locro was comforting and filling. The aji criollo added the perfect amount of spice to round everything off. My friend Noemi was right. Ecuadorian food is amazing!

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