A couple of years ago my daughter and I went on a birdwatching ecotour of the cloud forests in Ecuador, and then to the Galapagos islands.
The flights ended and began in Quito, the capital city, which holds about 75% of the entire population of Ecuador. Eating wasn’t as much a challenge as we had anticipated; often in lower economic areas there are better non-meat choices. We stayed at a hotel in Quito at the beginning, middle and end of our journey. Room service was the same price as eating in the restaurant, so we indulged in our room for most meals because we were exhausted. One of the three separate nights we stayed there we watched Lord of the Rings in Spanish. Neither of us really speaks Spanish, but I understand enough to get the gist of what is being said. On our last day the streets were blocked off because the president of Ecuador came to stay in the adjacent hotel and we saw his party board a plane as ours was taking off the next day.
The hotel menu offered interesting side dishes made with interesting ingredients such as yucca and plantain. Our absolute favorite, though, was Locro de Papas. Literally this translates as Potato Stew, but it wasn’t a stew. Locro de Papas is one of the most popular dishes in Ecuador and the Andes. It is wholesome peasant food that has as many variations as Americans have chili recipes. At home I managed to reproduce the version that we fell in love with as best as I could. A few ingredients make the soup special. One ingredient which you may not have on your pantry shelves, but is easily obtained in the Mexican food isle, is annatto, also called ground anchiote. It has a slight flavor and is used to color foods. It is not essential for the success of this soup, but it is a nice addition. They use an oil that is colored with the anchiote seeds, but using the ground spice with olive oil works just fine.
What is essential is ground cumin. Some people can’t stand the smell of cumin, which is slightly reminiscent of dirty socks. However the flavor carries this soup perfectly. Another addition is sliced avocado. Warm avocado is melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Living in Fallbrook, the Avocado Capital of the United States, I have ready access to the many forms avocados can take. Avocado fudge, ice cream and fried avocado slices are all standards of the yearly Avocado Festival. Another addition to this soup which creates a wonderful texture as well as adding protein and calcium, is cubed non-melty cheese. If you are non-dairy, then substitute with cubed firm tofu (which can be added even with the cheese). The textures of the potatoes, cheese and avocado are heavenly.
One of the standards of an Ecuadorian lunch or dinner is an introductory soup, usually vegetarian. We ate some fantastic soups. Instead of bread on one occasion, we were given a bowl of popcorn to sprinkle on our soup. It was great! I’ve included it here.
Be sure to slice the potatoes no less than 1/4 inch thick; if any thinner they will fall apart when cooking.
The version in the hotel had lots of butter in it; I’ve replaced half of it with olive oil, but if you don’t do butter then use all olive oil. The butter’s fat content makes the soup satisfying to the palate.
This is a quick and easy soup. Don’t cheat yourself out of a great meal by not making Locro de Papas!
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 shallot, diced
- 1 pound potatoes, peeled and sliced no less than ¼ inch thick
- ½ tablespoon ground cumin
- ½ tablespoon ground annatto
- 6 cups vegetable broth
- 1 avocado
- 1 cup cubed non-melty mild cheese, such as Queso Fresco
- 1 block firm tofu, cubed (optional)
- Cilantro leaves for garnish (optional)
- 1 cup freshly popped popcorn (optional)
- In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil and butter over medium-high heat.
- Add diced shallots and cook until translucent, about three minutes.
- Cut potato slices in half and add to pot.
- Stir in cumin and annatto.
- Pour in vegetable broth.
- Bring soup to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for about twenty minutes, until potatoes are just tender enough to part when pressed. Don’t overcook!
- Ladle soup into wide shallow soup bowls.
- Add chunks of cheese and tofu (if using).
- Top with sliced avocado.
- Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve immediately.
- Provide bowls of popcorn alongside soup to add as topping (don’t add it ahead of time, they become soggy instantly).