I was in Ecuador and, thanks to food poisoning, hadn’t eaten a solid meal for approximately 60 hours. Jello and crackers were all that I’d been able to keep down. When we arrived at Xavier’s dad’s house for lunch, I was toeing the fine line between real hunger and abject fear of eating.
We sat down for the meal, beginning with a primero of ceviche de camaron: shrimp in a mixture of lime juice, tomato, and onion. It’s served with popcorn, which adds just a little bit more crunch. I ate tentatively, enjoying the food but still scared of retribution from the gods of food poisoning. Next came mellocos, tiny potato-like vegetables with a texture that can only be described as slimy at first and slimier still as you chew. They definitely weren’t my favorite. We also tried habas, boiled fava beans that are dipped in salt and squeezed out of their shells with your fingers.
Then came the next course, and all of a sudden my appetite returned with a vengeance. It was soup. But not just any soup. Steaming-hot potato soup and on top, a huge slice of avocado. Within, slivers of queso fresco melted into the creamy mixture of broth and potatoes. Is there a person in existence who can resist a bowl full of potatoes, cheese, and avocado? Avocado is like the bacon of the vegetable world. It makes everything better. And when the flavor of avocado is dancing around your mouth with little bursts of cilantro over a lush background of potatoes and melted cheese? It’s perfection. Locro de papas… a revelation.
I finished my bowl quickly and made a huge dent in a second before I was too full to continue. The soup was so good that I refused to let anyone take it away from me. For the next few hours, I waited impatiently for the feeling of fullness to subside; as soon as it did, I launched myself mouth-first at the remaining soup. It was that good.
Before we left Ecuador, I tried another version of locro at a restaurant in the Cotopaxi region. It was great, but much thicker than homemade soup I’d loved. It was more like loose mashed potatoes. In my opinion, locro de papas is best when its texture is distinctively broth, enriched with potato. When we got back home to Atlanta, I made it my mission to recreate the bowl of my dreams. Using what I learned from Xavier’s stepmom about her recipe and all the recipes I found on Google, I came up with a my own version. And after we had sampled my creation, even my Ecuadorian roommate agreed that it was a taste of home – “better, even.”
It’s not hard to make. Here’s what you’ll need.
There are two ingredients that might be unfamiliar: annatto seeds, and queso fresco. For the annatto seeds, if you don’t see them marketed by Badia brand in the spice section of your grocery store, you can definitely find them at an ethnic grocery. It’s also sold as a powder. Queso fresco, or fresh cheese, seems to be pretty popular these days. It’s in the Mexican section at the Kroger next to my house. But you can likely find it at an ethnic market.
You might also notice that those potatoes are of the ginormous mutant variety. Here’s one next to an iPhone to demonstrate how huge they are. Apparently potatoes are on steroids these days.
Anyway, you’ll make a pretty orange-red base for your soup by heating the annatto seeds in vegetable oil. After you strain the solids out, you’ll saute diced onions in that red oil.
Since the oil is so brightly colored, it can be hard to tell when the onions have changed color and are tender enough to proceed. Just wait until they start bubbling a little bit. That’s usually a good indicator that they’re nice and soft.
You’ll add cumin and salt to the mix, then water and potatoes. Lots of potatoes.
Having misjudged the quantity of soup you’d be preparing, you will find that the mixture threatens to overflow from the saucepan and sabotage your freshly cleaned stovetop, so you’ll have to curse loudly and switch to a huge Dutch oven at this point. Or… not.
The potatoes will simmer until nice and tender, then you’ll mash them against the sides of your pan with a wooden spoon. The idea is to completely pulverize some so that they dissolve into the soup, getting it nice and thick. But you’ll want some pieces to stay chunky, for texture.
Then you’ll add milk and cilantro. The soup will simmer for another ten minutes, thickening into amazingness from the effects of dissolving potato. I may have let mine simmer for about 20 minutes while we walked to the store to swap Redbox selections. The additional time really helped to thicken things. As it wasn’t even close to the loose mashed-potato texture of before, I loved it. But some might prefer their soup to have a clearer delineation between broth and potato. Keep an eye on your pot, and taste throughout so you can stop cooking when you like the texture.
Every recipe I’ve found in my research calls for adding cheese at this point as well. In Ecuador, we were always served cheese on the side so we could add as much as we wished. For your own soup, it depends how gooey you prefer your cheese. If it goes in now, it’ll be nice and melty. If you wait, it won’t be as soft, but there will be fun little nuggets of cheese in your bowl.
We have reached the most important part of the recipe. All of your work until now comes to fruition at this moment. Ladle the locro into bowls. Top with cheese (if you haven’t already) and sliced avocado. Enjoy!
Here’s the recipe.
Locro de papas
serves 4-6 as entree, 8-10 as appetizer
2 tsp annato (achiote) seeds
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 white onion, diced
1/2 tsp cumin
2 1/2 tsp salt
3 1/2 lbs Russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and chopped
6 oz queso fresco, cubed
Small handful cilantro leaves, minced
Avocados to taste, for garnish
In a small saucepan over very low heat, heat the annato seeds and vegetable oil. When the oil turns red and simmers, remove from the heat and let it rest for 10 minutes. Strain out the seeds with a fine-mesh sieve; you can throw them away.
Heat the oil on moderate-high in a large saucepan. Add the onion and cook until tender, stirring frequently – approximately five minutes. Next, add the cumin and salt; cook for about a minute, stirring frequently, then add water. Bring to a boil. Add potatoes, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook until potatoes are tender – about 30 minutes. When tender, mash potatoes into the broth until potatoes are mostly dissolved, but there are still some small chunks; you want the broth to stay thick and creamy, but studded with pieces of whole potato.
Stir in milk, cheese, and cilantro. Raise the heat to medium high, letting it all simmer together for another 5-20 minutes (depending on how thick and puree-like you want it).
Remove from the heat, top with avocado, and enjoy!
And as always, all photos are mine (but a couple were snapped by the ever-supportive and helpful Xavier!).