For our episode “How Chefs Holiday at Home,” we asked some of our favorite restaurant chefs what they cook for their family for the holidays. One extremely satisfying dish we heard about and tasted came from Victor Albisu, chef/owner of Taco Bamba and Poca Madre. He showed Francis Lam how to make ajiaca, a Peruvian pepper potato soup. Francis joined Victor in kitchen of Taco Bamboo to learn how to make the dish and talk more about Victor’s holiday feasts past and present. Make the Ajiaco (Peruvian Potato Soup) recipe to add layers of flavor and spice to your family’s holiday gathering.
Francis Lam: You grew up in a family that was part Cuban and part Peruvian.
Victor Albisu: Yes. Lots of flavor, lots of talking and yelling and loving.
FL: [laughs] What was holiday time like at your table?
VA: It's evolved over the years. When I was younger, it was about the classics. The Cubans did the roast pork the best way, so everybody let them do it. The Peruvians did all of the potato dishes, the starches, the sides, the creamy dishes, the ceviches, the stir-fries. All that kind of stuff would find its way onto the table. But the big boys like yucca with garlic or marinated garlic and oregano pork – the classics – were always respected at the table.
FL: That's awesome.
VA: We would do papas a la huancaína or causas, all these potato dishes.
FL: What's papas a la huancaína?
VA: There are 3,000 varieties of potato native to Peru. And papas a la huancaína is a classic dish of steamed or boiled potato with a cheesy aji amarillo sauce that goes over the top of it. Aji amarillo is one of the preeminent chilies or peppers of Peru. It’s in a lot of things; it's actually in the dish that we're going to make today – ajiaco. Peru is has very special soil. In Peru, the things that come out of the ground are unlike any other place in the world. But it is also a place that has struggled with poverty and a lot of different kind of crises. So, you'll see that the use of these products is elevated. It's this beautiful kind of dichotomy of inherent elegance and poverty. You do what you can with what you got.
The dish that we're doing today is a dish that I now serve at the holidays with my family to get started. This is a dish that I ate out of a bucket on the street in Ayacucho, Peru, and I found the flavors to be profound. This reminds me a lot of where the vast majority of Peruvians are still, and how wonderful their food is and how proud they are of it.
FL: And there's a special technique that I've never seen with potatoes done in this dish. Let's talk about this dish.
VA: This is called ajiaco. We just talked about aji amarillo, this is ajiaco. Ajiaco is basically a chile stew with potatoes. I was able to get a hold of actual Peruvian potatoes – from Peru – from my mother's store, Plaza Latina in Falls Church, Virginia. This is olluco, which looks kind of like a potato, but it has this crumbly, almost slimy nature to it. You can eat it raw or you can eat it cooked. I'm going to add it to the ajiaco because it's a Andean tuber that that is relative to what we're doing here today.
FL: It looks like a smooth, waxy potato.
VA: It's actually not one of the varietals of potatoes; it's not a potato at all. But it does add a certain authenticity of flavor to what we're doing.
So, I'm going to chop up some garlic here. These are whole aji amarillos, which up until recently you couldn't really find. We now have farmers in in the U.S. that are growing these. They have this awesome flavor. There's a little heat to them.
FL: You can find these jarred sometimes too, right?
VA: Yeah. We've bought them jarred. You can find them in a puree form as well, which is the way I grew up using it. I definitely had to get used to using the whole fresh ones and controlling the heat a little bit with the seeds. I really like the seeds and I like the heat. I'm really into spicy food. It really makes you feel alive, so I don't hold back.
FL: Pain means you're alive.
VA: I agree with that. [laughs]
Ingredients prepared for ajiaco. Photo: Sally Swift | The Splendid Table
I'm also going to chop an onion. I also have some pork fat that we've rendered. You'll see any sort of fat used in Peru. Whether it’s oil, pork fat, beef fat, or you have fat from a guinea pig, you'd save that fat and use it. You don't waste it.
FL: You have pork fat in a nice sauce pot.
VA: And I'm going to go ahead and add a piece of pork to the pan.
FL: Okay, is that a salt pork or just like a hunk of shoulder?
VA: It’s shoulder, just to add a little –
FL: A little something-something?
VA: Yeah. You know? In Peruvian food, you don't see a whole lot of hard searing that you might see in other cultures if you're trying to make a braise or like a bolognese of some sort. This is a bit of a softer type of thing that happens here. And so, we're going to go right in with the onion.
FL: You don't need to brown that pork super hard. You just let it go.
VA: We're just going to let it be. I'll add the garlic relatively early. Instead of letting it bloom by itself I mix it with the onions, and let it get where it needs to get while the onions get translucent. You already know that when you smell onions and garlic in the pan with a little bit of pork fat that you're on the right track.
FL: Everything's all right.
VA: Everything is good. The world is in the right place. Even though it's not.
FL: Yeah [laughs]. It's the holidays – positive thoughts!
VA: That's right. I'm going to start adding the aji amarillos to it.
FL: I want to talk about the aji amarillos for a second because they have this beautiful orangey-yellow color. They have a little bit of heat, but they're not crazy hot at all. They have a beautiful, very fruity and passion fruit sort of flavor.
VA: Even the hottest peppers in Peru, like the rocotos or the aji limons, they all taste just step away from a passion fruit.
FL: They taste like tropical fruits.
VA: There's just a little something in there that makes you feel good about yourself when you have it. I love that about it. It's not all-out warfare; it's a really beautiful thing. And since we're going to finish the dish with some olives, I'll add a little bit of olive oil if I feel like the pan needs it. In my culture, and when I was growing, you would never use olive oil for cooking. That was the finishing oil; it was the sacred stuff. Now it's almost all I use. I'm going to go in with the potatoes.
Smashing potatoes in the spicy, starchy broth. Photo: Sally Swift | The Splendid Table
FL: Are these pre-cooked?
VA: We blanch them. You don't need to blanch them, but we do. We have that blanching liquid that I'm going to re-add here. I’m going to cook these down, and I want to add the olluco as well.
FL: Olluco is cool. I snuck a bite of that earlier, raw. It's potato-ish, but it has a water chestnut flavor or a corn flavor.
VA: It does; that's exactly right. I just added some bay leaf to the pot. Here I like to start taking this and breaking it up.
FL: You're taking these potatoes in the pan – with the onions and garlic and pepper – and with a fork you're sort of mashing them and crushing them while they cook.
VA: Right, it's almost like a risotto-style, where you don't really want to stop too much, you want to just keep accentuating and building the starch up in the dish. I'm going to add a bit of paprika here and start adding the potato stock that I blanched the potatoes in.
FL: And this could just be water?
VA: It could be water or it could be chicken stock. Now this starts to pick up some of flavors off the bottom there.
FL: This is what you're talking about – risotto style with the potatoes.
VA: Yeah, you see? Starts to break it all up.
FL: You're leaving some of these potatoes like golf-ball size, some of them are mashed up.
VA: I'm going to let them fall apart and change in texture on their own. Some of it's going to be more raw and some of it's going to be a little more cooked. But we like that, we don't fight that idea.
FL: What do you use if you’re not using Peruvian potatoes?
VA: I would use a good Yukon Gold potato.
FL: Sort of waxy, but not a totally waxy potato.
VA: This would be a great thing to do with fingerling potatoes because those are a lot more even and they have a beautiful sweetness to them that would go nicely with the aji amarillo.
Francis Lam and chef Victor Albisu enjoy ajiaco at Taco Bamba. Photo: Sally Swift | The Splendid Table
FL: Man, that smell is awesome. It went from that sautéed garlic and onion smell, which everyone knows and loves. Now it's the potato stock and it's starchy. The color is great. It looks like this beautiful yellow lentil kind of color.
VA: It’s got this porridge-y – but like vibrant porridge-y – looking vibe to it. And in a minute here when I get more of this stuff broken up, I'm going to add the evaporated milk. Evaporated milk is something that is uber-used in Peru.
FL: It's almost like a caramelized milk flavor.
FL: It's not that sweet, but it has like nuttiness.
VA: Almost like a concentrate. We continue to stir until the potatoes are all broken and done. I like to finish with a little bit more pork fat in here. Stirring it to help it out a little bit. And I like to see a little bit of the beads and the brokenness in there.
Before we finish it, I have some Peruvian purple potatoes and queso fresco. I'm going to toss that fresh mild cheese in here with that with cilantro as well. I take some cilantro stems – this is one of my favorite ingredients right now – and I use them like little chives. Peruvian olives. And I’m going to take a little bit of lime zest. Maybe this isn't how they would serve it in Peru on the street of Ayacucho, but I love it like this.
FL: This is like a little garnish for you? A beautiful potato, cheese, and olive salad.
VA: This is our garnish. Going to toss that up really pretty. Let's season it up a bit. Alright. And I also have this little secret that I like to do where I take some Peruvian olives and I dehydrate them – obviously Peruvian grandmothers are not doing this. [laughs] But it turns this into this pretty, almost like black olive puree, oil type of thing.
FL: Just dehydrate them and blend them?
VA: Yes, with olive oil.
FL: So, you’ve put this beautiful pale orange potato soup into the bowl – it’s almost like a chowder – and put on a few spoonfuls of this potato, cheese, lime and cilantro salad. And then a few drops of this black olive puree with olive oil.
VA: A little more cilantro stem, a little bit more lime zest, and I'm going chop a little piece of lime, in case you want to put a little bit of that in there.
FL: All of this stuff you're doing at the end, this is your own addition?
FL: Traditionally it could just be the soup.
VA: Absolutely. But, I'm the kind of guy that keeps adding. [laughs]. And then you can also add some really nice pieces of fresh aji amarillo also. Now you get to taste it.
FL: This is the moment. I wanted to try the soup on its own without all the garnishes. If you said, “Oh, it's just a simple potato soup,” I would never believe you. There's so much flavor from the onions, garlic, and the aji amarillo – those chilies are so crazy! Raw they taste almost like passion fruit, but then cooked –
VA: When cooked it has what I like to describe as a rounder heat that permeates in a beautiful and subtle way. You can tell that potatoes and aji amarillos are meant to be together.
FL: They were destined.
VA: And, of course, everybody has their own take on ajiaco. It could be a little bit looser as a more broth-y soup. I like it like this. It packs a punch. It’s a great way to introduce people into the holidays, into a beautiful meal, and when people appreciate it, it's all the more humbling, because it comes from such a humble place.
Make Victor Albisu's recipe for Ajiaco (Peruvian Potato Soup) a new part of your family's holiday food traditions. Photo: Sally Swift | The Splendid Table
FL: It's literally chunks of potato stirred with water and it's one of the most delicious things I've eaten all year.
VA: I'm glad to hear that.
FL: Happy holidays. Thank you so much.
VA: Thank you so much for having me. We're really grateful to be able to do this with you guys.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.