Colombian Comfort

Making it out to Harbourfront Centre for the Pan American Food Festival yesterday was a very good idea. Not only did I get to learn about and sample some amazing chocolates made with a wide array of Latin American cacao beans, presented by Maricel Presilla, but I had my first taste of a traditional Colombian soup called ajiaco bogotano.

A favourite dish of Chef Charlie Otero, a native of Cartagena now based in Bogotá, ajiaco bogotano is a hearty chicken and potato soup with a few unique flavourings. I'm a caper fan, but have never had it in a soup. Let me tell you — it works, adding a burst of salty delight to the dish. The whole soup is a beautifully silky array of vegetables, spices and chicken that just makes you feel good and crave more.

The recipe is relatively simple, though it does take time, mainly due to making the chicken stock from scratch. But it's well worth it. There are also three types of potato. The criolla potato from the Andes is specific to the dish, imparting it with it's vibrant yellow colour and buttery flavour and texture. Chef Otero adapted the recipe to incorporate locally available ingredients, so we could make it at home.

He substituted a Yukon Gold potato for the Andean criolla, but a member of the audience said you can find the real deal in town, albeit frozen. The other crucial ingredient — guascas — can be found dried in Kensington Market. If that's not an option, Serious Eats suggests you can replace with two bay leaves plus two tablespoons of fresh chopped parsley leaves. Though most cooks say there really is no substitute for this distinctive herb. It's also important to add the potatoes in stages so some of them thicken the soup by disintegrating completely, some break down partially, and the rest remain mostly intact, adding to the textural variety.

With all that in mind, here is Chef Otero's take on this delicious comfort food. This recipe serves 6-8, but you might just want to eat it all by yourself.

Charlie Otero's Ajiaco Bogotano

  • 3 bone-in skinless chicken breasts
  • 12 C water
  • 3 fresh corn cobs, cleaned and halved
  • 2 chicken bouillon cubes
  • 3 scallions
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 Tbsp chopped cilantro
  • 2 C papa criolla
  • 3 medium white potatoes, peeled and sliced
  • 3 medium red potatoes (i.e. russet), peeled and sliced
  • ⅓ C guascas
  • 1 C heavy cream for serving
  • 1 C capers for serving
  • salt & pepper to taste

In a large pot, place the chicken, corn, chicken bouillon, cilantro, scallions, garlic, salt and pepper. Add the water and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and cook, covered, for 35-40 minutes, until chicken is cooked and tender. Remove chicken and set aside.

Continue cooking the corn for 30 more minutes and remove from cob. Discard green onion and add red potatoes, white potatoes and the guascas. Cook, covered, for 30 more minutes.

Uncover and add the (frozen) papa criolla and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper

Cut the chicken meat into small pieces and return to the pot. Serve the ajiaco hot with capers and heavy cream on the side. (Alternately, put a layer of chicken on the bottom of each bowl, ladle in a serving of soup, topping each with a tablespoon of capers and a splash of cream.)


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