(Ecuadorian Cheese Stuffed Potato Patties)
December — this month in (my) history:
In December of 1997, I had the good fortune to visit friends who were spending a year in Quito, Ecuador. I had long been interested in Ecuador, but found that it exceeded my expectations — I fell in love with the place.
Quitos climate is perfect. The combination of a spot on the equator and an altitude of 9,000 feet means that the temperature is about 70°F year round. It is an odd, wonderful city that is in some ways growing too fast, yet in other ways moving at a leisurely pace. Quito Coloniale, the old part of the city, is a beautifully-preserved quarter of narrow streets, glorious cathedrals, government offices, elegant restaurants, and most of Quitos hustlers, since they know this is where the tourists are likely to be (so watch your wallet).
Though I liked Quito, it was outside the city that I found the greatest delight. Heading north, moving from lush greenery to the sparse scrub of the Andean Highlands, then down into verdant farm land, a rickety, old bus carried us to Otavalo. This wonderful town, heart of the region traditionally occupied by the Otavalan Indians, is the site of a vast market where you can buy spectacular crafts, from beautiful blankets and sweaters to Panama hats (all of which are, by the way, made in Ecuador) to jewelry.
We spent a few days near the foot of the volcano Imbabura, visiting villages, each of which features a different craft: Otavalo for weaving, San Antonio de Ibarra for wood carving and painting, Cotacachi for leatherwork. Each town was more charming than the previous one. The populace is multi-ethnic, but the Otavalaños outnumber the Hispanics and Africans who share this region with them. (Ecuador has the highest indigenous Indian population of any country in South America.) Otavalaños are easily identified: the women wear long, black skirts, embroidered, white blouses, and layers of golden necklaces and coral-colored bracelets, while the men wear white pants, blue serapes, and Panama hats. Men and women wear their spectacularly luxuriant, black hair quite long, usually in great braids down their backs.
A totally different adventure was taking a bus over the Andes, through the cloud forest (llamas, lush greenery, sheer cliffs, and long, slender waterfalls), and down the other side to the Rio Napo in the Amazon basin. Paradise! I was almost delirious with joy. From the flower-drenched cabaña we had on the river, to touring in a dug-out canoe, to the monkeys and macaws, to the splendid beaches and smiling children, also in dugouts, who waved as we passed, the wonder and richness were almost overwhelming. I learned how to fire blow darts and how Quichua Indians make pottery, and actually saw leaf-cutter ants cutting and carrying leaves. Tidal waves of greenery surrounded us. We saw heliconias and cacao growing wild, phosphorescent plants and plants that cringe when touched, spectacular butterflies (including a Morpho, which is so vividly blue that it seems impossible) and masses of caterpillars. Even the giant bugs (like the 6-inch, armored grasshopper that the locals call "jumps the mountain") were fascinating. Wonderful.
In Ecuador, Chinese food and pizza are widely available, but dining on local delicacies is more fun. Ecuador has abundant seafood and beef, bananas and avocados, potatoes and peanuts, and delightful, strange fruits like guanabana, cheramoya, and at least a dozen things for which I never learned the name (including one peculiar "fruit" that our guide showed us in the rainforest — a long pod full of large seeds surrounded by a moist, cottony substance that tastes like a cross between banana and jasmine — a favorite of the monkeys, we were told).
The food I saw most often, from Otavalos street markets (where I first tried one) to the restaurants of Quito, was the llapingacho (yop-in-GAH-cho), a potato and cheese cake with as many variations as there are people making them. It was common to see llapingachos on griddles next to fried eggs, a popular accompaniment, or offered with fried platanos or peanut sauce. I also had them as a side dish, along with highly-spiced roast pork and buttery, white hominy.
The Andes are where potatoes originated, so it is not surprising that Ecuador has them, but the variety and flavor were impressive. Of the varieties we have here, your best choice for this recipe is new (red skinned) potatoes, since they have more protein and moisture, and hold together better. Russets or baking potatoes, which are dry and crumbly, wouldnt work well.
2 lb. new (red skinned) potatoes
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 cup grated white cheese (Chihuahua, Monterey Jack, Muenster, or the like)
Peel the potatoes and cut into chunks. Put in a large saucepan with cold water to cover, add a pinch of salt, and bring to the boil. Cook until tender when pricked with a fork (about 20 minutes). Run under cold water, drain, and place in a large mixing bowl. Mash with a potato masher until smooth.
Put a tablespoon of oil in a skillet and sauté the onion over medium heat until golden brown (about 10 minutes). Remove onions to a small bowl.
Shape the mashed potatoes into 12 balls. With each ball, make a hole using your thumbs, then stuff the ball with some of the onion and a tablespoon of grated cheese and close the hole back up. Flatten the ball into a patty about 3 inches in diameter.
Heat one tablespoon of oil in a large, non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté the potato patties in batches of 3 or 4, turning them once, until they are golden brown on both sides (about 3 minutes per side). Add oil to pan as needed for each new batch.
When cooked, you can sprinkle the llapingachos with a little salt to taste.