Ajiaco

Traditional Meat and Vegetable Stew

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Ajiaco is a dish with deep roots in Cuban history. Its origins can be traced back to the Ciboney and Taino people who inhabited the island before the arrival of the Spanish in the late fifteenth century. These Native Americans were fishermen, farmers, and hunters. Among the crops that they grew in mounded beds called conucos were yuca (cassava), maíz (corn), boniato (white sweet potato), calabaza (West Indian pumpkin), and ajies (hot chiles).

The first ajiacos were stews that combined these vegetables with whatever fish or small game—like jutía (a kind of possum)—was available. Over the centuries, the dish evolved as new ingredients were added by different ethnic groups. From the Spanish came pork, beef, olive oil, garlic, cumin, and citrus fruits like bitter Seville oranges and limes. Africans introduced malanga (white- and yellow-fleshed taro root), ñame (African yam), and plantains.

Ajiaco is the kind of dish that is kept continuously simmering on the back of the stove with ingredients added from time to time to replenish the pot. It is considered Cuba’s national dish.

Serve the Ajiaco with Pan de Cazabé (Modern Cassava [Yuca] Bread).

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Ingredients

For the Broth

  • ½ pound tasajo (salt dried beef)
  • 4 quarts Caldo de Res (Beef Broth) or water
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 pound beef skirt steak or flank steak
  • 1 pound pork shoulder
  • 1 pound beef short ribs

For the Sofrito

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 cups (1 large) chopped onion
  • 2 green bell peppers, seeded and chopped
  • tablespoons (5 to 6 cloves) minced garlic
  • 1 (15-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin, or to taste

For the Stew

  • pound (1 medium) white malanga (white-fleshed taro root)
  • pound (1 small) yellow malanga (yellow-fleshed taro root)
  • 1 pound (2 medium) boniatos (white sweet potatoes)
  • pound (½ small) ñame (African yam)
  • ½ pound (1 small) yuca
  • 1 green plantain (skin should be green to yellow)
  • cups peeled, cubed calabaza or butternut squash
  • 3 to 4 ears fresh corn, husked and cut into 1-inch rounds
  • 1 ripe plantain (skin should be black)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • Salt to taste
  • Fresh lime wedges
  • Salsa Picante de Don Justo (Don Justo’s Hot Sauce) or other hot pepper sauce to taste

Method

Soak the tasajo for several hours or overnight in several changes of cold water.

Drain the tasajo and place it in a large soup pot with the broth or water and bay leaves. Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the skirt steak, pork, and short ribs; reduce the heat to low. Cover and simmer for 1 hour, or until the meats are tender, stirring occasionally and skimming off any foam that rises to the surface. Remove the cooked meats from the broth, reserving the broth. Skim off and discard as much fat as possible from the top of the broth. (If you have time, refrigerate the broth until the fat solidifies, then remove it.) When cool enough to handle, remove the rib meat from the bones and trim off any gristle and fat; cut the tasajo, skirt steak, and pork into bite-size chunks. Return the meat to the broth.

Meanwhile, make the sofrito: In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the onion and bell peppers and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the onion is translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the garlic, tomatoes, and cumin and continue to simmer for an additional 10 minutes. Add the sofrito to the soup pot.

While the meats are cooking, peel the malanga, boniatos, and ñame using a vegetable peeler. Cut the yuca in half lengthwise and remove the fibrous core that runs down the center of the tuber. Peel with a vegetable peeler, making sure to remove both the waxed outer peel and the rosy underpeel. This may also be done with a paring knife: Insert the tip of the knife under the peel and underpeel to loosen them, then use your hands to peel them off. Cut up the tubers and place them in a bowl of cold water so they won’t discolor.

Add the tubers to the soup pot and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.

With a sharp knife, make one lengthwise slash in the skin of the green plantain. Cut the plantain in 1-inch pieces, peel the skin from the pieces, and discard. Toss the plantain with the lime juice, then drain the plantain, reserving the lime juice.

Add the green plantain and calabaza to the stew. Continue to simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes.

Add the corn and simmer for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, or until all of the ingredients are tender when pierced with the tip of a knife.

Meanwhile, slice off and discard about 1 inch at each end of the ripe plantain. With a sharp knife, cut a lengthwise slit through the skin, but do not remove the peel. Cut the plantain into ½-inch-thick slices and cook in simmering water to cover until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain the plantain and run under cold water until cool enough to handle. Peel the slices and add them to the stew.

Stir in the lime juice and season the stew with salt. Spoon the Ajiaco into soup plates and serve with lime wedges and Salsa Picante de Don Justo on the side.