Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Oda a la papa/Ode to the potato

Chile was devastated last week.  The trembling earth ripped through towns large and small, tearing down buildings, separating roads, and crumbling bridges.  Many lives were taken, and infrastructure was destroyed.

I lived in Santiago, Chile for a year.  I originally went for a semester in college and then returned for six months on my own before I started medical school.   My friends tease me for obsessing over my experiences there, but there is a reason that I am in love. 

When I went for the first time, I made a pact to myself to meet Chilean people and assimilate.  I decided to take music classes. There, in the facultad de artes at the University of Chile, did I meet some of the most energetic, spontaneous, creative, life-loving people I have ever known. 

We would go to the beach and sing Chilean, Cuban, Argentine, and Brazilian folk music with a band of accordions, flutes, guitars, charangas, drums and voices until the sun came up.  We went to soccer games together, where I employed the most vulgar and colloquial of Chilean Spanish vocabularies taught only by the best of friends, swearing my head off, avoiding the riot control police that paced the area with batons, and screaming for the U to win.  I even learned how to make sushi there from my crazy, 80s loving, left-handed, mullet embracing, sweaty, guitar swinging, rockstar pal Alvaro, who was also a culinary buff in his own right.

When I woke up last Saturday to find that this place that had been my home, my playground, and my safety net had been shook up so significantly, I felt panicked.  I spent all day trying to call my best friend to make sure she was safe.  I finally reached her and my other friends; they are fine.  They said though that when the quake hit, it felt as though the ground was a ship in a storm, rocking and jerking heavily.  It was terrifying.

I think the best way for me to cope with this tragedy is to honor what is truly Chilean.  There is nothing more Chilean than the potato.  This nourishing, simple, rudimentary vegetable has supported the world’s hunger for hundreds of years.  The origin of the European potato, however, has been a widely disputed topic, especially between rival countries Peru and Chile. 

The two major potato strains originate from the Andean regions of Peru and Bolivia, and from southern Chile, from the island of Chiloe.  The potato was discovered by Europeans in these regions in the 1550s and was exported widely.  Genetic analysis of potatoes on the Canary Islands, which were some of the original export sites of potatoes from South America, gives some clues [1].  This research suggests that potatoes were exported from both the Andes and Chile, however, the Chilean potato was better adapted to the climate of Europe and became the dominant species, long before the potato blight of the 1800s.  (I am unbiased in this research, as it is highly contended.  I like Peru and Chile; they can both be the birthplace of the potato!)

The recipe today is for a pastel de papa, or a potato pie.  Pastel de papa is the ultimate Chilean comfort food, made of pino topped with mashed potatoes and baked.  Pino is a staple of many Chilean dishes made of ground beef, olives, raisins, onions and hard-boiled eggs.  Although pino might seem a bit strange, it is complex and rewarding to the tongue.  To me this dish tastes like home.  And, in this recipe, you only need ONE pot and ONE pan to make the whole thing!

Pastel de Papa

5 medium potatoes
3 eggs
¾ cups half and half
1 ¼ lbs ground beef
1 medium onion chopped
½ cup raisins soaked in ½ cup white wine
½ cup kalamata or nicoise olives rinsed and roughly chopped
½ tbsp oregano
½ tbsp ground cumin
1/2 tbsp salt (plus more to taste)
Sprinkle red pepper flakes

For topping
¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter melted
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
Pinch of cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375.  Combine topping ingredients.  Peel and quarter potatoes.  Boil until fork tender about 15-20 minutes.  When potatoes have about 7 minutes left, add eggs to pot to boil.  In cast iron skillet or other oven safe pan, over medium-high heat, heat a splash of olive oil and brown ground beef.  Drain beef on paper towels, leaving a bit of fat to sauté onions.  Saute onions until soft, add oregano, cumin, red pepper.  Add raisins and wine, add olives, add beef, stir together.  Remove eggs and peel, they should be soft-boiled.  Cut into wedges and place on top of beef mixture.  In pot with potatoes, mash potatoes and add half and half.  Salt to taste.  Gently cover beef mixture with mashed potatoes.

On top of beef mixture, add butter/paprika mixture.  Bake pastel until golden brown and bubbly, about 30 minutes.  

Rios D et al.  2007.  What is the origin of the European Potato? Crop Science.  47.  May-June.  1271-1280


  1. oh great recipe so sad about Chile my hubby is a Dr.

  2. It's like a Chilean Shepherd's Pie!

  3. what is the deeper meaning to this poem?