Papas rellenas, a Peruvian comfort food
When I was living in Peru I had several jobs that overlapped, not often affording me time enough to eat at home regularly. I ate quick simple meals at home here and there, ceviche and jalea whenever I could get out, periodically meals at my favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant that had the most delicious seafood platters (the BEST thing about living in Peru was the seafood!), and street food quite a bit. One of my favorite go-to street foods was the papa rellena, which translates to "stuffed potato."
While I have always been aware that potatoes are originally from Peru and Bolivia, it had never really occurred to me that the humble papa rellena dish also has its origins in Peru as well. According to Cusco Eats, this dish was invented for soldiers during the conflict between Peru and Chile:
"The history of this delicious treat takes us to 1879 in the height of the War of the Pacific. Peruvian soldiers needed to march long distances ... the soldiers had to carry pre-made food...Using their ingenuity they would cook beef or other meat, prepared in a rough chop or grind, seasoned and cooked. Then they made a kind of dough with previously cooked potatoes. In the potato dough they formed a hollow in which they placed the seasoned meat. They would seal it and form the potato in thick torpedo shapes which they fried to develop a resistant skin. The fried, stuffed potatoes they then wrapped in stretches of cloth, such as kerchiefs" (Cusco Eats 2013).
Potatoes are ubiquitous throughout Peruvian food. They are eaten roasted or baked, skin still on, and steaming hot. They are eaten with boiled eggs, drizzled with spicy, flavorful sauces referred to as "aji," which translates to pepper, or topped with marinated, sliced red onions referred to as "salsa/sarsa criolla." They are added to soups. They are freeze-dried and re-hydrated and added to stews. They are mashed and made smooth and eaten as we do here in the U.S. They are ground into flour/starch to use as a thickener or as a coating for frying. There are literally thousands of variations of potatoes, and other tubers, in Peru. They represent every color of the rainbow and every possible shape you can imagine (click on last link to see a cool pic!).
But, back to my favorite street food. I am not sure that there is a more satisfying combination than that of mashed potatoes and ground meat. We see this in Shepard's Pie (with lamb) and Cottage Pie (with beef). Ground meat and potatoes are also found in casseroles and stews throughout Europe, in various African countries, in India, as far reaching as eastern Asia and, of course, in Central and North America, too. I have yet to try this with other types of meat or meat-substitutes, but I know it would be just as delicious with a veggie filling, bison, lamb, venison, rabbit, tofu, and even poultry! Mashed potatoes are the perfect package to deliver any type of filling. And deep-fried? I mean, come on, no matter how healthy we want to be we know frying makes everything taste better. Or maybe that's just me.
I urge you to try and make this super simple dish. Kids love it, adults love it, babies love it. It's the perfect comfort food AND is also a great way to use up leftovers -- I have definitely used leftover mashed potatoes and chili as the filling before. And when I decided to make this this month for my little brother's birthday party it was honestly because I had too many potatoes to get through and I knew this was the best transformation for them into something that would make people happy.
The recipe I have created below is a simplified version, but I have included some traditional Peruvian ingredients that are often added to the filling as well. Buen provecho, amig@s!! As always, please feel free to comment below. I'd love to hear from you.
Papas rellenas -- 15 servings
5 lbs yellow or red potatoes (or any firm, not mealy, potato)
1-1.5 ground beef
1 onion, finely diced
2-3 garlic cloves, chopped fine
1 tomato, skinned and diced
1 tablespoon aji panca
1 teaspoon aji amarillo
12 botija olives, sliced
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
1/2 cup raisins (optional, not shown)
4 boiled eggs, quartered (optional, not shown)
3 eggs, whisked
2 cups flour
Oil (canola or vegetable) for frying, plus 2 tablespoons for sauteing
Boil potatoes in salted water until tender. Remove skin.
Mash using ricer or masher until mostly smooth. A few lumps are ok. Season as wanted (more salt, garlic powder and/or onion powder).
Place in refrigerator and allow to cool while you prepare the ground meat.
For meat filling:
Add 2 tablespoons oil to pan and saute onion until translucent.
Add garlic, aji amarillo, and aji panca and saute until fragrant.
Add tomato, tomato paste, and olives. Saute for 1 min. Adjust seasoning if need.
Add cilantro and parsley at the end. Turn off heat and allow to cool.
For assembly and frying:
Place eggs and flour in separate bowls.
Using floured hands, take about a 1/2 cup of mashed potato and flatten.
Add about one tablespoon of filling. This is also where you would add a slice of boiled egg if you wanted.
Fold and seal the mashed potato around the filling, forming an oval shape.
Dip first in the egg wash and then in the flour.
For deep frying, fry until golden brown, about 5-6 minutes. Remember that everything is already cooked, so you are just trying to give it color and heat the stuffed potato all the way through.
This should produce about 15 papa rellenas.
Serve with aji (as pictured below) or with salsa criolla.