Once in a while, when my kids begin to whine about having to finish an adequate portion of the healthy and balanced meal they are served before they can even contemplate the idea of having dessert, I tell them it could be worse. They could have been born in Latin America, where they would be asked to finish both their sopa and their seco (the main dish, described in opposition to the wet soup as “dry”), to finally qualify for a postre. Not buying what I’m selling, they are content to explain to me the various reasons that is absurd, an exaggeration and an imposition, and include the fact that we live in South Florida where, they insist, it is way too hot to eat soup.
But we have air conditioning, and I can crank it up, is my usual retort to my guys, who much like my childhood heroine from the 1970s comic strip, the precocious pacifist Mafalda, have strong opinions on politics and the economy but not much taste for soup. I’m not sure why they reject this warm, nourishing, semi-liquid meal that is a staple throughout cultures and the best repository for all the random veggie odds and ends in the bottom of your crisper, but I suspect it’s because they’ve never suffered a bone-chilling morning in Bogotá, just to tuck into a bowl of steaming hot ajiaco for lunch.
Also known as ajiaco bogotano o santafereño, this bowl of heaven is best cooked in the biggest heavy-duty pot you can find. Locally prepared in hand-thrown ceramic pots, this chicken-potato-corn chowder is a tribute to the Andean bounty. In Colombia, it includes three types of potatoes — sabanera, pastusa, and the yolk-yellow, rich criolla — plus multiple whole ears of the local starchy, toothsome corn that is more like hominy than North American sweet corn. When recreating it in the U.S., a mixture of yellow and red potatoes will give you a close enough match, but try to find papa criolla either jarred or frozen in your local Latin American market. The other key ingredient is an herb called guasca, which you can order freeze dried from online dry goods stores.
Once the stew is cooked together in a specific order so that some of the potatoes melt away and some remain softened but discernible, the dish is served in a deep bowl made of the same baked mud as the cooking pot. It is always a good idea to serve ajiaco with a small side plate, onto which each diner can lift out their piece of corn still on the cob (mazorca) and their portion of chicken (if it’s left whole, rather than shredded into the stew after cooking), which get eaten with one’s hands. A big chunk of avocado gets sliced and added to the soup, along with crema de leche and alcaparras (capers) to taste. In my husband’s family, they add hot sauce, too.
Black Bean Soup
This fall/winter bowl of comfort, ever-present in any soup selection situation, from the hot bar at Whole Foods to the offerings at your favorite cafe, the standard black bean soup is an adaptation of a classic Latin American preparation. A flavorful black bean soup begins with a good sofrito, which is the basic mirepoix or flavor base of Latino cooking. Sofrito is an umami cook-down of aromatics like onions and garlic, peppers that can be sweet or hot, tomato paste and, depending on the country of origin, different herbs and spices.
Beans are staples in the cuisine of most of Latin America. Affordable and rich in protein, they can take the place of meat in a meal or make a small amount of if go a longer way. Bean soup is one of the clearest examples of the thin line between a stew and a soup, equally delicious off a plate mixed with rice or ladled directly from the bowl into the mouth. A Cuban version might have oregano and cumin; a Puerto Rican version might throw in some olives; Brazilian feijoada adds all kinds of odds and ends of meat; a Colombian version might substitute kidney beans for the black ones.