It wouldn’t be Hanukkah without papas a la huancaina and causa limena
Peru may be one of the last places people associate with Hanukkah, but when we visited that country a few months ago, the potato lovers’ holiday was very much on our minds. After all, potatoes originated in that part of the world, and more than 4,000 varieties of spuds grow there. With their long experience using the tubers, cooks in Peru have developed delicious potato dishes that happen to be perfect for Hanukkah.
One of the dishes we enjoyed most in Peru was papas a la huancaína, boiled potatoes coated with a creamy sauce made of queso fresco and yellow chiles. When we tasted it, we imagined that the sauce would go well with potato pancakes, and so when we returned home we made latkes a la huancaína.
Another potato appetizer we loved was causa limeña, which we first ate at La Mar Cebichería in Lima, where it was made of patties of mashed yellow potatoes topped with lime-flavored chicken salad and a colorful garnish of avocado, tomato and hard-boiled egg. Causas in different varieties were everywhere, from casual eateries in market halls to delis of supermarkets to elegant restaurants.
They come as patties served with all kinds of toppings and fillings. Often the potato mixture was layered with the filling in a loaf pan and sliced like a terrine. Sometimes it was spread with the filling and rolled up, and occasionally it was shaped in rounds and sandwiched with the filling using individual pastry rings.
Both causa and huancaína sauces are flavored with ají amarillo, which means “yellow chile,” although usually this finger-shaped chile is actually orange. These peppers are sweet, with mild to medium heat. At Los Angeles markets that carry Latin American foods, the peppers can be found frozen whole, in jars as pepper paste or in brine, and as dried chiles labeled “ají mirasol.”
In using these chiles, we found that the degree of heat varies from one pepper to another. Ricardo Zarate, chef-owner of several Peruvian restaurants in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, has a useful tip for getting around this. He removes the seeds and membranes and purées it with a little good olive oil so you can add it to taste. Prepared this way, it will keep in a jar in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.
When we came across a street vendor in Lima skillfully forming and frying picarones, ring-shaped fritters made with sweet potatoes, we decided to make a similar sweet treat for Hanukkah. To make simpler sweet potato fritters, we used a French technique: We mixed sweet potato purée with choux pastry, the quick dough used for making cream puffs. With our fritters, we serve the same clove-scented piloncillo (cone sugar) syrup that is drizzled over picarones.
Somehow our fritters turned out resembling the fried spherical pastries called buñuelos, which Sephardim in several countries serve during Hanukkah.
Levy is the author of “1,000 Jewish Recipes” and “Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.”
Poached chicken breasts
Combine the onion, carrot, bay leaves, thyme, parsley stems, salt, pepper and approximately 1 quart of water in a medium sauté pan (about 9-inch). Bring to a simmer. Add the chicken and more water if needed so the chicken is just covered. Return to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat until the meat is firm and no longer pink inside, and a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the chicken reaches 160 degrees, 20 to 25 minutes.
Remove the pan from heat, cover (with the chicken still inside) and set aside for 10 minutes. Remove the chicken from the cooking liquid. Set the chicken aside to cool.
Remove the skin, bones and any visible fat. Dice the chicken to use for the chicken salad (you will need 2 cups diced chicken for the salad; any extra can be saved for another purpose). If not assembling the salad right away, cover and refrigerate the chicken until needed, up to 2 days.
Mashed potato patties with chicken salad
In a large saucepan, combine the potaotes with enough water to cover by about 1 inch and a pinch of salt. Cover the pan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cook until the potatoes are very tender (test by piercing the thickest potato with a fork), 25 to 30 minutes. Drain and set the potatoes aside until cool enough to handle.
While the potatoes are cooling, assemble the chicken salad. In a small bowl, combine the chopped onion with 1 tablespoon lime juice and set aside for 5 minutes (the lime juice will soften the intensity of the onion). In a medium bowl, toss together the chicken and mayonnaise. Stir in the red onion, along with 1 additional tablespoon lime juice, and mix well. Stir in the cilantro, and season with one-half teaspoon salt and one-eighth teaspoon pepper, or to taste.
Peel the potatoes while they are still fairly hot. Cut them in a few chunks and put them in a large bowl. Mash them thoroughly with a potato masher, not in a food processor, one or two potatoes at a time.
Add the olive oil to the potatoes and mix well. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons lime juice, along with 2 teaspoons pepper paste and one-half teaspoon salt. Taste, and add more pepper paste, lime juice or salt if desired. The dish tastes best when the potato mixture is slightly hot from the pepper paste, to balance the mild chicken salad.
Assemble the appetizers a short time before serving. The potato mixture is best at room temperature. The chicken salad can be served cold or at cool room temperature. The appetizers can be prepared in small or larger servings. For smaller servings, form thick, round potato patties using one-fourth cup mashed potato; for larger patties, use one-half cup.
Top the potato patties with chicken salad (2 tablespoons salad for smaller patties, one-fourth cup for larger). Garnish each portion as desired with quartered grape tomatoes, small pieces of hard-boiled egg, avocado slices, and parsley or cilantro leaves.
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