Peru’s delicious potato dishes

In casual eateries in Lima’s public market building, we found loaf-shaped causas made of potato puree layered with tuna salad and other ingredients.

Causa (photo credit: ED ANDERSON)
(photo credit: ED ANDERSON)
At the launch party of The Fire of Peru, a cookbook written by Lima-born chef Ricardo Zarate and Jenn Garbee, we savored hors d’oeuvre-size servings of popular Peruvian dishes highlighting potatoes, peppers, corn, avocados and fish.
Thanks to Peru’s three regions – the coast, the mountains and the jungle – the country has many kinds of vegetables and fruits, noted Zarate, as well as “thousands of varieties of potatoes.” Potatoes originated in the Andean highlands and were “tamed... by early Andean civilizations some seven thousand years ago.”
Potatoes starred in the first dish we ate when we visited Peru. It was causa, a cake of mashed potatoes, which came topped with chicken salad, tomatoes and hard-boiled egg slices. This Peruvian specialty was so delicious that we wondered how it happened that we had never tasted it before. (See recipe.)
For his book party, Zarate prepared mini causas topped with cucumber and sushi-grade tuna mixed with hot-pepper mayonnaise, and others with chicken salad, avocado and cilantro. In casual eateries in Lima’s public market building, we found loaf-shaped causas made of potato puree layered with tuna salad and other ingredients. At a fancy Lima restaurant, we had tiny causas crowned with caviar.
Zarate finds it surprising that some people refer to the cooking of his homeland as “fusion cuisine.” Unlike fusion cuisine, which he calls “a modern concept” that “centers on... intentionally layering unexpected flavors and textures together,” Peruvian cooking is “rooted in long-standing traditions, the result of dozens of cultures’ cooking styles and ingredients merging together over many years.”
Peru’s cuisine, wrote Zarate, is based on the cooking of the native civilizations, the descendants of the Spanish, and others “who made Peru their new home.”
The African roots of some dishes come from the cooking heritage of the slaves brought by the Spanish. Flavorings like soy sauce and fresh ginger became popular thanks to laborers who arrived from southern China.
One of Zarate’s favorite dishes is carapulcra, a sundried potato dish that we first tasted at his Los Angeles restaurant.
This is one of the oldest Peruvian dishes, wrote Zarate, and is “still made by home cooks everywhere in Peru.” The frugal dish is basically a stew of soaked dried potatoes with browned onions, pureed garlic and chili paste, flavored with a cinnamon stick and finished with peanut butter. Traditionally it’s made with dried meat jerky, but Zarate makes it meatless or serves meat alongside it.
“The stew gets its fair share of European, Asian and...African flavors with garlic, peanuts and different spices,” he says.
Indeed, Zarate feels that stew is a metaphor for Peru’s cuisine. “I often refer to the food of my homeland,” he wrote, “as one big estofado, or stew, that has been simmering for five hundred years and is finally ready to serve.”
Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook, winner of the James Beard Award in 1994 for best book on fruits, vegetables and grains.
“Peruvians have been cooking with native potatoes for thousands of years, so you might say we have our own mashed potato rules,” wrote Ricardo Zarate. “Creamy, not light and fluffy, is the goal with causas.” The key to causas is kneading the mashed-potato mixture so its texture becomes almost silky. Yellow-fleshed potatoes are used in Peru, but red-skinned or other waxy potatoes can be used, too. Mix and match the toppings to your taste. It’s best to add the toppings within an hour or two of serving, so the potato base doesn’t dry out.
Makes about 6 cups
■ 1.6 kg. (3½ lb.) waxy potatoes, scrubbed and peeled
■ 3 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
■ 3 Tbsp. pepper paste, store-bought or homemade, or to taste (see note below)
■ ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for the pan
■ 1 Tbsp. coarse salt, or to taste
Halve potatoes if they are small; roughly chop larger potatoes into 4-cm. (1½- in.) chunks. Place potatoes in a large pot, cover them with water by at least 2.5 cm. (1 in.) and bring water to a low boil over high heat. Boil potatoes until very tender when pierced with a knife, 20 to 25 minutes, depending on size of potatoes. Drain potatoes. While potatoes are still very warm, press them through a ricer or food mill into a large bowl, or put them in a large bowl and mash them with a potato masher or back of a large fork until few lumps remain. Mix in lime juice and pepper paste, and use your palms to knead mixture for a minute or two. Turn mixture out onto a work surface if you prefer.
Make a well in center of mixture, pour in olive oil, and sprinkle salt on top. Keep kneading mixture with your palms, like pasta dough, for about 5 minutes, or until it becomes almost silky. Add a little more pepper paste or salt to taste. The potatoes should be nicely salted.
To shape sushi-style causas, lightly rub bottom and sides of a large-rimmed baking sheet with olive oil. With your hands, press the potatoes into pan, starting at one edge, so you have a 25-cm. x 30-cm. (10-in. x 12-in.) rectangle about 2 cm.(¾ inch) thick. Mixture shouldn’t reach all the way to the opposite side.
Use an offset spatula to make a straight edge on “open” end of potatoes, then smooth top as much as possible. Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or up to 2 days.
Cut mixture into 5-cm. x 2.5-cm. (2-in. x 1-in.) rectangles, or whatever size you like. To remove them, start at the end of the rectangle that is not touching the edges of the pan and use an offset spatula to transfer the rectangles to a serving plate or work surface. Top each causa as you like.
Makes about 5-dozen mini rectangular causas.
To make larger-molded causas, cover and refrigerate causa base in a bowl for at least 6 hours or up to 2 days. Rub inside of a ring mold very lightly with olive oil and place it on a serving plate. Use a 7.5-cm. (3-in.) mold for a main-dish serving or a smaller one for an appetizer.
Use your fingers to press causa base into the bottom of the mold so the mixture comes 2 cm. to 2.5 cm. (¾ in. to 1 in.) up sides of mold. Press down and smooth top of potatoes with your fingers or the back of a small spoon, spread toppings all the way to edges of the mold, and smooth them out nicely.
Remove ring mold. Swipe the inside with a few drops of olive oil before making more causas.
Serves about 18 as light main course or side dish (using 7.5-cm. or 3-in. ring molds)
Note: Pepper paste In Peru the potato mixture is flavored with paste made from a fruity hot yellow- orange pepper called aji amarillo; you can use other pepper paste to taste, or prepare homemade paste by blanching halved seeded hot peppers in hot water for 2 minutes, peeling them and pureeing them with a little olive oil. Another option is to blanch and peel sweet orange peppers and add cayenne pepper to taste.
Causa toppings
These toppings are enough for one 7.5-cm. (3-in.) molded causa or 3 or 4 mini sushi-style causas, depending on their size. Multiply the ingredients according to the number you are preparing.
Second layer: Mash together ½ large avocado with a squeeze of fresh lime juice and a pinch of salt. Stir in ¼ cup finely diced cucumber.
Third layer: Mix together 2 to 3 tablespoons mayonnaise and ½ teaspoon pepper paste or flavored aioli (garlic mayonnaise). Fold in about ¹⁄3 cup shredded cooked chicken breast and season with salt and black pepper.
Garnish: Finely diced cilantro stems
Second layer: 3 or 4 very thin slices cucumber Third layer: Mix together a generous ¼-cup finely diced or scraped trimmings from sushi-grade tuna or canned tuna and 1 to 1½ tablespoons hot-pepper aioli (garlic mayonnaise).
Garnish: Finely diced cilantro stems or tobiko or other fish roe
Second layer: 3 or 4 very thin slices cucumber Third layer: Mash together ½ large avocado with a squeeze of fresh lime juice and a pinch of salt. Stir in ¼ cup finely diced cucumber.
Fourth layer: A chubby slice of burrata cheese or fresh mozzarella Garnish: Chopped cherry tomatoes and red onions with a drizzle of olive oil
Solterito is a specialty of southern Peru, “where high-heat rocoto peppers are king,” wrote Zarate. In the vinaigrette, he uses these large red peppers, which remind him of “very spicy green bell peppers”; use any hot pepper you like.
The salad is traditionally made with leftover boiled potatoes, but Zarate prefers roasted potatoes. If the potatoes were chilled, let them come to room temperature before sautéing them.
Serves 3 or 4 as a main dish or 5 or 6 as an accompaniment.
■ 450 gr. (1 lb.) baby fingerling or other small potatoes, scrubbed
■ 2 to 3 Tbsp. olive oil, plus more as needed
■ ½ teaspoon coarse salt, or to taste
■ 1 cup shelled fresh fava beans (about 450 gr. or 1 lb. in the pod) or peeled shelled frozen fava beans or frozen edamame, thawed
■ ½ cup shelled fresh peas (about 225 gr. or ½ pound unshelled) or ½ cup frozen petite peas, thawed
■ About 25 cherry tomatoes, or 2 ripe medium or large juicy tomatoes, cut into bite-size chunks
■ About 1½ cups blanched corn, drained
■ Hot-pepper vinaigrette (see note below)
■ 110 gr. (4 oz.) feta cheese, cut into 1.25-cm. (½-inch) cubes (about 1 cup)
■ ¼ cup Kalamata olives, pitted and halved
■ Small handful of pea tendrils, or a few tablespoons of coarsely chopped fresh parsley leaves
1. Preheat oven to 200°C (400°F). Halve potatoes, or quarter if large. In a medium bowl, toss potatoes with enough olive oil to coat them and with the salt. Spread potatoes on a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer and roast, stirring occasionally, until tender and golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes, depending on their size. Let cool.
2. Fill a large bowl with ice and water (use plenty of ice). Bring a medium pot of water to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, and blanch the favas (fresh or frozen) for about 2 minutes. Drain and immediately transfer favas to the ice bath. Wait a few seconds, then drain and peel fresh favas by using your fingers to pop beans out of their skins.
If using fresh peas, refresh ice bath and refill pot. Bring water to a boil, add fresh peas (but not the frozen) and boil for 1 minute. Drain, then immediately transfer peas to ice bath. Wait a few seconds, then drain peas. Drain favas and peas in a paper towel–lined bowl.
3. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil to a large sauté pan and heat until hot, a good 2 minutes. Add roasted potatoes and sear them for about 2 minutes, tossing them often. Add favas, peas, tomatoes and corn and fry vegetables until edges color in a few spots and the tomatoes barely begin to soften, about 30 seconds.
4. Pour about ½ cup of hot pepper vinaigrette into the pan. Toss the vegetables in the vinaigrette, taste, and add a little more vinaigrette if you’d like. The flavors should be pretty bold. Remove pan from the stove and gently fold in the feta. Spoon the salad onto a large serving plate or individual plates. Scatter the olives and pea tendrils on top, and serve immediately.
Note: Hot pepper vinaigrette Mix together 4 teaspoons pepper paste or to taste, 1½ teaspoons pureed or finely minced garlic, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 4 teaspoons Banyuls or balsamic vinegar, ½ teaspoon coarse salt, and 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper in a medium bowl.
Slowly whisk in a generous ¹⁄3 cup olive oil so the dressing emulsifies. Season the dressing with more salt, if desired. Use right away or cover and refrigerate up to 3 days. Let vinaigrette come to room temperature and shake or stir it well before using. Makes about ²⁄3 cup.