Apart from packaged supermarket ‘Mexican’ meals and the odd dodgy backpacker’s tale of unwittingly consumed guinea pig, Latin American food is largely unexplored territory in Australia. When Susan posted a recipe for Locro de Papas in March of this year during a scorching Australian summer, a deep mid-winter potato stew was furthest from my mind. But lured by the thrill of a new spice (surely I’m not the only one who salivates over spice catalogues), the stew was duly noted and relegated to a more seasonally appropriate time.
With a deluge of rain and some seriously cold evenings, a bowl of this stew, heavy on the carbs yes, but light on effort, is deeply nourishing. The sort of meal that begs to be eaten unceremoniously on your lap, the hot bowl thawing fingers numbed by the cold.
Tiny, dull brick-red annatto seeds are the saffron of the Mayans. Their taste is subtle, warm and earthy but it’s the colour that is so revered and so very surprising. Mayan priests painted their robes and bodies with a bright orange paste made of annatto. The seeds were even used as a form of currency. Paired with potatoes, yet another New World gift to Old World cooking, this stew has it all. Warming, fragrant and reviving.
Locro de Papas – or Andean potato stew - serves 4
I have veered a little from Susan’s version in a few ways. I added another onion, some garlic and upped the quantity of cumin. Feta was what we had in the fridge, but if you can find Ricotta Salata (a hard ricotta cheese), by all means use that. Next time I’ll add a scattering of perfectly cooked bobbles of quinoa over at the end, another traditional and ceremonial food of the Mayans.
2 teaspoons of annatto seeds
2 tablespoons of olive oil
900g of waxy potatoes
2 onions, chopped
1 scant tablespoon of freshly ground cumin
2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1.25 litres of water
½ cup of full fat milk (soy works admirably well)
125g of goat’s feta, (or more to taste)
1 large avocado, firm but ripe
Parsley or coriander leaves, to serve
Tip the annatto seeds and oil into a pan (preferably an enamel one – you’ll want to see the colour that the seeds stain the oil). Gently bubble over a low heat, swirling the pan about from time to time, until the oil has become orange-red. This should take no longer than 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for at least 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, peel the potatoes and cut into 2cm (3/4 inch) chunks.
Strain the oil through a sieve into a heavy-based soup pot. Discard the seeds. Warm the coloured oil over a medium heat, add the onions, half of the potatoes and cook, stirring often, for 5-7 minutes until the onions are well softened. Add the cumin, the garlic and 1 teaspoon of sea salt and cook for 1 minute longer. Add the water, scraping the bottom of the pan as you go. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and leave to simmer for 30 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat, mash the potatoes with a masher right in the pot (don’t bother going to too much effort here – there’s more cooking to do). Add the remaining potatoes to the pot. Return to the heat, bring back to the simmer and cook, partially covered with a lid, until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.
Season to taste, tip in the milk and crumble the feta over the pot. Cook until warmed through (2-3 minutes).
Peel and dice the avocado flesh. Serve the hot stew in deep bowls, add a little diced avocado and sprinkle over the herbs.
And that's something worth celebrating.