Of course two of the things I was most excited about in Ecuador were eating and talking with people about food. I loved the traditional foods of the high Andean areas of Ecuador. In general, the food was hearty, hot, creamy, and delicious. I did not sample the cuy, whole roasted guinea pig with teeth and all, so some would say my Ecuadorian culinary experience was incomplete, but I did eat Locro de Papas as often as possible.
Left, above: I ate my first bowl of Locro in this plaza in Quito, the capital of Equador. It was our first evening in the capital, and I savored my Locro with a hot mug of coca leaf tea. Mmmm!
Left, below: the view from the cafe.
Locro de Papas, often just referred to as Locro, is a creamy potato soup that varies from region to region, town to town, and probably household to household in Ecuador. And it is delicious. The Andean region is the ancestral potato homeland, and potatoes and quinoa are still the staple crops in the high mountains of Ecuador. Ecuadorians have had thousands of years of practice in preparing potatoes, and have perfected potato cookery as far as I am concerned. Every menu I saw in Ecuador included potatoes in one form or another, and Locro was almost always offered.
Lorco, a traditional dish tracing back to ancient times, is a great example of a food tradition that evolved to suit precise regional conditions. When you are high up in the Andes, there is no more perfect food than a hot, creamy, stick-to-your-ribs potato soup. In every spoonful, I felt like I could taste the flavors of generations of Locro spooned out of big ceramic kettles by thousands of grandmothers. What all of the Locro variations had in common were potatoes and salt. From that base, there were lots of variations.
My favorite Locro, eaten at around 11,000 feet in elevation, included homestead cheese from the town we were in, local potatoes, and Andean quinoa. It was served with fresh greens from a kitchen garden out back.
We took these photos of the mountains around the town where I ate my favorite bowl of Locro. There were thermal springs bubbling out of the ground, snow- capped volcanoes towering above us, and Andean Condors soaring overhead. I savored a perfect bowl of soup while Christopher feasted on local trout caught about 1/4 mile from our table. Definitely a peak food experience.
I've been working on a Locro recipe, and finally have one to share. This is definitely the time of year for Locro here, with local potatoes widely available and cold, wet weather driving us inside in search of hot soup. Here goes:
Locro de Papas with Quinoa
- 8 cups of water
- 4 pounds potatoes, peeled and “cracked” – see below
- ¼ cup butter
- Salt to taste – at least 1 tsp
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp paprika
- 1 head of garlic
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1-2 finely chopped yellow chili peppers or yellow sweet peppers
- Fresh ground pepper to taste
- 1/2 pound Muenster or other very melty and mild cheese, grated
- Cook the quinoa ahead of time. I like to cook up a big batch and use some of it for this and the rest for other meals throughout the week. I have been using heirloom red quinoa lately, but you can use any variety.
- Prepare the potatoes: rather than cutting them up, “crack” them like so: push the tip of a knife into the raw potato and then twisting it so that the potato breaks. This preparation supposedly releases more starch from the potatoes for a creamier texture.
- In a large, heavy pot, heat the butter and stir in the salt, paprika, and cumin.
- Add the onion and cook over moderate heat until the onions are soft. Add the chili peppers or sweet peppers and cook for a few more minutes.
- Add the water and the cracked potatoes and bring to a boil. Simmer until tender, about 30-40 minutes.
- Mash up the potatoes with the back of your spoon or a potato masher as you stir. Once the potatoes have released their starch and the soup has taken on a creamy texture, reduce the heat to low and continue to cook, stirring from time to time, until the potatoes disintegrate completely.
- While you are cooking the soup, roast the whole head of garlic, peel, and then mash the soft, roasted cloves into the soup pot.
- Continue cooking on low as long as you like. About 10 minutes before serving add grated cheese and cooked quinoa, and turn off the heat. The residual heat of the pot and soup should be enough to melt the cheese without overcooking it. You can also add a bit of milk, half-and-half, or cream at this stage if you like.
- Stir a few last times and season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Serve topped with generous slabs of fresh avocado.
~ I recommend cooking Locro in a cast iron Dutch oven. Any big, heavy pot will do, but a seasoned cast iron Dutch oven is the best.
~ The peppers are optional. I have been using the last of the “Golden Treasure” peppers left over from our late summer garden.
~ I used Muenster cheese because it’s the right texture since I can’t get Ecuadorian cheeses here. You could also use mozzarella or queso fresco.
~ The roasted garlic is a departure from traditional recipes - you can leave it out if you like.
So Alan and Christopher and I shared big bowls of Locro de Papas here in our own mountains last eve--we had ours with chunky bread, a salad from the garden topped with radish relish, pumpkin seeds, and dried pears from Hans.
It was in the low twenties outside as we sat snug around the kitchen table with our soup bowls. It had flurried all day and low clouds were settling in the valley around us. The creamy sensation of spoonfuls of Locro de Papas in our mouths and the warm satisfied feeling of bellies full of hearty soup created a perfect comfort-food experience on a cold, wet night in the mountains.