Thursday, June 14, 2012

Papa rellena: Peruvian stuffed potatoes

The potato. Such a humble root, with such vast potential both in cooking and in feeding the planet (see what Charles C. Mann, author of 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created has to say about it in this Smithsonian Magazine article). The summary? The potato fed a lot of people and may have driven some of the world's population explosions and subsequent political restructurings. Ah, the historicopolitical impact of food. 

The potato might be my favorite vegetable (or starch, however you want to view it). I like them mashed, baked, boiled, fried, gussied up, or plain as day. (Always cooked though, of course; raw potatoes contain toxins that can make you sick.) 

I am not alone in loving potatoes. When I was growing up in Sweden, we got lots of potatoes with just about every dish, and, though others were more excited about rice, I was always happy to see those friendly yellow spuds on the dinner table. I once spent an hour with a friend from Ireland, raving about the delights of the potato. (I know, I am a weird geek with weird geek friends.)

In Peru, love of the potato is fundamental. Thousands of potato varieties exist, each one adapted to different microclimates and different storage and nutritional requirements. Some potatoes must be eaten with a specific type of clay to not be poisonous. Some are meant to be frozen and mashed. The variety is so great that Peruvian people who eat only potatoes still get all the nutrients they require. This kind of variety is very different from what we are used to seeing in American markets, even at farmers markets, which are far more likely to showcase oddball varietals of fruits and vegetables (one of the many reasons I love shopping at farmers markets).  

As part of Peru week (read more about the Grand Tour here), I knew dinner was going to feature a lot of potatoes, and the Peruvian dish I decided to try this time was papa relleno. It is a mashed potato ball (more like a football, actually) stuffed with a tasty ground meat filling and deep fried. They are fun to make and, as my son said, "Yummy!" My husband described it as being a little like a mini deep-fried shepherd's pie. 

The ground meat filling I made is somewhat unusual for me. For instance, I used raisins, which I would normally never do because I dislike raisins. But I decided to give it a try and was very pleased with the result. The flavor of raisin didn't come across, only a bit of sweetness that balanced the salt and sour of the other ingredients. So if you don't like raisins and don't like much fruit in savory food, I recommend giving it a try anyway. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised. Other additions I saw in various fillings were chopped hardboiled eggs and chopped black olives. Feel free to mix it up. 

The only trouble I had with this dish was the deep frying, which is a technique I have yet to fully master. I recommend checking out this article to get some tips on deep frying (such as don't skimp on the oil, let the oil get very hot, don't crowd the pan, and cook your food in batches).

  • 3 lbs yellow potatoes, peeled
  • 1 egg
  • 1 onion, chopped finely
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 lb ground beef (or ground pork would also be good)
  • 1/4 cup raisins, chopped
  • 1 16-oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 1-2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro (or you can replace with parsley)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • salt and pepper
  • all-purpose flour
  • vegetable oil (both for making the meat filling and for deep frying, so you will need a lot)
  1. Boil the potatoes in salted water until you can easily poke them with a fork. 
  2. Drain the water and mash the potatoes in a bowl with salt and pepper to taste. (A ricer is a piece of kitchen equipment that you should really invest in if you make a lot of mashed potatoes. Totally worth the cost and space.) Set aside the potatoes until they are really cold. (Overnight would be fine, just cover them with plastic so they don't dry out.)
  3. In a frying pan, heat about 2 Tbsp oil until it shimmers. Add onions and garlic and cook until shiny and a little brown. (Smells good, huh? Frying onions is one of my favorite smells.)
  4. Add the ground meat to the pan and cook until the meat is browned and cooked through. 
  5. Add raisins, crushed tomatoes, cilantro or parsley, cumin, salt, and pepper, and about a cup of water to the pan. Let the mix cook until most of the liquid evaporates and you have a loose mass in the pan. (Don't forget to taste it for salt and pepper, but don't add too much salt early because evaporation will concentrate the salt.) Let the mixture cool. (Once again, you can do this a day ahead.)
  6. When you are ready to start shaping the papa rellena, add 1 egg to the mashed potatoes and mix until completely incorporated and smooth. Put a couple of handfuls of all-purpose flour on a plate for rolling. 
  7. To shape the papa rellena, pick up about 1/4 cup of the mashed potatoes and create a dent in the middle. Place about 1 Tbsp meat filling in the dent and mold the mashed potatoes around the filling. Patch any holes with additional mashed potatoes. Form the mass into a potato shape (the first few won't look great, but you will get the hang of it very quickly.)
  8. Roll the "potato" in flour and set it aside while you shape the rest. You should get about 12-14 papas.
  9. When you have finished rolling them all, deep fry the papas in batches. They will be done when they are golden brown and crispy. Keep them warm in a 200-degree oven until you have finished the remaining batches. 
  10. Eat! Enjoy.

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