In the beautiful choreography that is making a soup– adding this, removing that and calculating boiling temperatures– this one is extraordinarily simple in execution. It’s comforting, gut-warming and feels like home. I learned of this dish from my mother-in-law. If something is bothering you, “Toma ajiaco“. Celebrating something? Ajiaco. Is it a holiday or is it cold out? Ajiaco. You get it. Much like the Jewish cure for everything, the Colombians have an answer to the blues as well. With temperatures continuing to challenge even the bravest of souls–though it did not stop me from attending the hockey Winter Classic at Yankee Stadium (yay NY Rangers!!), talk about coooooooooolllld– this soup was bound to make its debut here. It’s simple kitchen work that keeps your mind on the task at hand.
Ajiaco was the next logical culinary choice to use the stock from the tinga de pollo tacos. For most people ajiaco is all about the potatoes. Traditionally hailing from Bogota, Colombia’s capital, the soup uses three different types of potatoes. As the soup simmers the starchy potatoes break down completely, thickening the soup to a luxuriously creamy consistency. I have never had my ajiaco with potatoes because my husband has an allergy to potatoes. My mother-in-law always substitutes yucca, which I actually like better. However, on short notice I was unable to get uptown to pick up the yucca so my rendition here has the next best thing, green plantains and sweet potato. It was fabulous, but I highly recommend yucca as well. The dish traditionally contains guascas, a native mountain herb with an aroma somewhere in between bay leaf, catnip, and parlsey. It’s only available in Latin markets so I usually just go wild with the cilantro, add a few bay leaves and some parsley.
The soup is served along with a generous amount of extras. I used the shredded (desmenuzado!) chicken breast, substituted Greek yogurt for sour cream, and added tangy capers, which infused the broth with a new flavor. Most importantly, I made an onion and cilantro-base aji (which I then used over a roast the next night, but it’s also great on fish, chicken, whatever). The star player in this dish though, aside from potatoes, is corn. On top of the regular variety, the recipes sometimes call for large-kerneled, starchy South American corn. I skipped this because it takes forever to boil, but it’s so worth it if you have foresight. Top the whole thing with avocado slices and you’re good to go.
Adapted from my mother-in-law’s table with guidance from SeriousEats.com because sometimes (and I’m not saying that it’s on purpose) my lovely mother-in-law will forget to mention certain ingredients, or maybe forget how long to leave it boiling or leave out a key ingredient. I think it’s to keep her son coming home for the good stuff.
For the soup:
- 1-2 lbs. cut-up chicken breast, skin removed, rinsed well
- 1 large white onion, peeled and cut into quarters
- 1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 ears fresh corn, cut crosswise into quarters
- 2 ribs celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 yuccas cut crosswise into quarters
- 1 sweet potato, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 greenish/yellow plaintain, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
- salt to taste
- ground black pepper
For the aji:
- 4 scallions (white and light green parts only)
- 1 medium tomato, peeled and seeded
- 1 small white onion, peeled
- 1 habanero chili, stems and seeds removed (wear gloves, and don’t touch your eyes)
- 3 Tbs. fresh cilantro leaves
- 3 Tbs. white vinegar
- 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
For the garnishes:
- 2 ripe avocados, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 cup Greek yogurt
- 1/2 cup nonpareil or other small capers, rinsed and drained
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Make the soup:
Put the chicken in a large stockpot and add 8 cups water or if you already have broth, use the chicken broth and some water to equal about 8 cups of liquid, enough to cover the new chicken. The extra broth will make it infinitely more flavorful. Bring to a boil over high heat and then reduce the heat to a vigorous simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes, frequently skimming off the foam that floats to the surface.
Add all the vegetables, the garlic and the cilantro to the pot, along with the salt and pepper. Stir a few times to distribute the vegetables and submerge as many of the solids as possible. When the broth returns to a gentle boil, partially cover the pot and simmer, stirring once or twice, for about 30-40 minutes, until the vegetables are soft and the chicken is cooked through. Taste for salt and add more if needed.
Using tongs or a slotted spoon, pick out the chicken pieces and put them in a large bowl. Stir the soup with a large spoon, breaking up some of the starches to thicken the soup slightly. Keep hot if serving soon or let cool and refrigerate.
With two forks, shred the chicken and put the shredded chicken in a serving bowl.
Make the aji:
In a food processor, pulse all the aji ingredients until they’re finely minced. Transfer to a serving bowl.
Serve the ajiaco:
Put the avocados, Greek yogurt, capers and cilantro leaves in small bowls and set them on the table along with the bowls of shredded chicken and the aji. Ladle the soup into large soup bowls, putting a quarter ear of corn in each bowl. Let your guests add the garnishes and the aji as they like.