Colombian Cuisine — Ajiaco: Chicken, Potato and Corn Stew

As you might expect from a country that has two seacoasts, several mountain ranges and valleys, and the Amazon River system within it borders, Colombian food is highly regionalized, making selection of a national dish difficult if not impossible.  The signature of the Paisa region, the bandeja paisa (“Ron Swanson special” in English), to use one example, features almost entree-sized portions of red beans with pork, white rice, ground meat, fried pork skins, fried egg, fried plantains, chorizo, black pudding, arepa (a cheese-stuffed flatbread), and avocado, and is shockingly intended to serve just one single adult human.  Since this isn’t Man Vs. Food, we passed on bandeja paisa for the time being (Chris is becoming more and more convinced this is a good idea with each passing second, though).  Another dish, popular in the capital Bogota and its surrounds, is ajiaco (recipe follows).  It’s relatively simple — a stew of three kinds of potatoes, chicken, corn, and a local herb called guascas, and garnished with sour cream, avocado, capers, and/or any of a variety of local hot sauces.  We couldn’t get guascas locally so we used a bit of oregano (endorsed in various sources as a substitute), accepting that our result would be lacking some of the original Colombian flavor but confident that the stew would be nonetheless delicious.

Colombia quick facts:

  • Capital: Bogota
  • Population: 47,072,915 (2012 estimate)
  • Notable Colombians: Pablo Escobar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Edgar Renteria, Falcao, Juan Valdez

Ajiaco Bogotano

(adapted from Secrets of Colombian Cooking by Patricia McCausland-Gallo and Melissa Clark’s New York Times article “From Colombia, the Ultimate One-Pot Meal“)

SERVES 2 TO 4

  • 1 largish boneless, skinless chicken breast
  • 1 ear corn, shucked
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • 2 green onions, cut into about 1- to 2-inch lengths
  • 1 handful cilantro leaves and stems
  • 1 medium russet potato, peeled and cut into a 3/4″ dice and held separately from the other two potatoes
  • 1 medium Yukon Gold potato, peeled and cut into a 3/4″ dice
  • 1 large red potato, peeled and cut into a 3/4″ dice
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • salt and pepper

First, we put a quart of water in a saucepan to boil and cut the corn into four pieces, which will later serve as a garnish for the finished stew:

cornprepped

Once the water was boiling, we reduced the heat to low and added the corn to slowly simmer while we fixed the rest of the stew:

cornsimmering

Next the stock, green onions, cilantro, and about half a tablespoon of salt (it may seem like a lot but we don’t add any salt at all when we make the homemade stock; if you use a salted stock or broth adjust accordingly) were brought to a simmer, and the chicken breast was added and poached for about fifteen minutes:

The chicken will be another garnish.
The chicken will be another garnish.

After the chicken was done it was removed and set aside.  The green onions and cilantro, having given us all they had to offer flavor-wise, were removed and discarded.  Now we were ready for the russet potatoes, and only the russet potatoes.  The starchiest of the three potatoes used for this dish, the russets will be cooked for twice as long as the other potatoes so they can disintegrate and thicken the stew.  The oregano was also added at this point:

potatoesadded

The potatoes were brought back up to a simmer and cooked over medium-low heat for half an hour.  At that time, the rest of the potatoes were added:

otherpotatoesadded

…and cooked for another thirty minutes.  The result was a rich stew thickened by the liquefied russet potatoes with intact chunks of the red and Yukon Gold potatoes:

potatoescooked

To garnish, ajiaco is traditionally served with sour cream, corn, avocado pieces, capers, and shredded chicken.  We erroneously assumed that we already possessed capers when shopping for this dish, and forgot to cut up an avocado until it was too late, so we just used sour cream, corm, and chicken:

ajiacofinished

By the time it was served the chicken stock had reduced considerably, making the ajiaco rich and satisfying.  Everything went together perfectly.   The stock retained some green onion and cilantro flavor from the chicken poaching step that imparted itself, with the oregano, into each potato piece.  Tangy sour cream and sweet corn topped it all off.  Ajiaco has represented Colombia well and has definitely earned “Will Make Again” status in our household.

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