One of the best meals we had in Nicaragua was the evening after the epic/tragic hike up the volcano Maderas on Ometepe. We were too tired to be hungry, so Simon ordered something small and I asked for the sopa de pollo. (Basically you can’t go wrong ordering any kind of chicken in Central America. The fried chicken on the street is better than your grandma’s. I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but there it is). The soup was amazing and simple, with vegetables we by then recognized as chayote and yucca but an herb we couldn’t place and a definite citrus undertone.
Behold, the chayote.
A week later we came across the fabled herb at a Saturday market in Guapiles (Costa Rica) and were told it was culantro. Culantro! I’ve actually grown it before but couldn’t figure out what to do with it. I asked if it was “para sopas,” and got an enthusiastic affirmative, and then they tried to get me to buy it. When I replied “no cocinar aqui!” (which by the way, is terrible Spanish) they all giggled and we bought some tiny bananas from them instead.
Where was I? Oh, right. With the culantro mystery solved, I decided that I would try to mimic the soup when we got home. The only recipe I found online that seemed to replicate most of what we tasted came from this blog, which you might notice is entirely in Spanish. I can do well enough reading Spanish, but some of the instructions were a little unclear, even when translated.
3. While developing the points 1 and 2 is prepared chicken with salt, lemon and black pepper and set aside.
4. Point 2 is finished add the chicken vegetable broth, onion and garlic cloves. Boil for 15 minutes. Complete water to thicken not both. Check salt and sour to taste.
I figured if I could get married while not understanding anything that was being said around me, chicken soup should be a snap. We managed to find chayote(!), yucca, and culantro at the store, but I’ve given up on ever finding malanga or quequisque, which seem to just be root vegetables anyhow. Chayote is in the squash/melon/gord family (Cucurbitaceae if you’re nasty), and has a similar texture to yellow squash when cooked, despite it’s appearance. It’s also mild in flavor, which makes it great for soups or whatever you normally use summer squash for. If you haven’t had yucca, it’s a bit like a potato but, I guess “stickier” would be the word for it, and with less distinctive flavor. It’s commonly boiled and served with garlic or a mojo sauce as the starch element of a dish in Latin American cooking.
Anyhow, yesterday I made the soup and it was so good! The flavor was really similar to the soup we remembered, and is actually really easy to make after you deal with the yucca. It would also be good with just plain old potatoes and carrots, but the yucca acts as a thickener and makes the soup velvety, and chayote takes on a neat citrus-y flavor. I broke down a whole chicken and just used the thighs and wings in the soup (used the rest of the chicken for other things), but you could just buy some thighs and be done with it. So. Here is my version, with notes for those not familiar with some of the ingredients.
Sopa de pollo con verduras (serves 4, or 2.5 Simons)
Two whole chicken thighs, plus wings, etc if you’re working from a whole chicken
2-ish liters of water, plus more if your yucca absorbs it all
1 tbsp oil
1 onion, sliced or diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
One giant yucca, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes (see notes below for how to tackle yucca)
5-6 small red potatoes, quartered
1-2 large carrots, cut in whatever size suits you
1 chayote, cut in half, seed removed, then cut into strips
2 small tomatoes, chopped (I forgot these, will have to remember for next time)
2-3 limes, juiced
2-3 tablespoons of culantro, roughly chopped. You can use cilantro if your supermarket isn’t hip enough to carry culantro. I’m looking at you, Winn Dixie.
Salt and pepper, of course
Ok, so yucca is kind of a pain in the ass, but really not as intimidating as it looks in the store once you know what to do. You can get the waxy skin off with a good vegetable peeler, but if you have a cheap peeler and are afraid it will break, you can use a knife (see video). Once you have it peeled, use a large sharp knife to take off both ends. This will be difficult for large yucca, but it’s actually pretty fragile so once you get a foothold, it will just kind of split. Rinse to remove any waxy bits, then cut in half and quarter each half down the middle to make spears. The most important thing about yucca preparation is to remove the “fibrous center,” which is inedible and generally unpleasant. You can do this by just cutting out the middle bit of your spears. For whatever reason, the worst fibrousy parts are closer to the small end of the yucca. This is a really long explanation, but it really didn’t take too much time in the end. Here’s a shirtless guy that’ll show you what I’m talking about (but ignore his cooking time).
Chop your yucca spears into a size that easily fits in your mouth. Go ahead and chop up all of your other vegetables at this point because the soup doesn’t really need to cook for too long and yucca will go seriously mushy if it’s overdone while you’re chopping potatoes.
Heat a tablespoon or so of whatever oil you cook with in a large soup pot/dutch oven/receptacle and sautee your onions and garlic with salt and pepper until they’re soft. Add 2 liters-ish of water, the yucca, and some more salt. I don’t really measure salt, but I’m guessing I added at least 2 tbsp by the end; yucca and potatoes really soak it up. Boil for 10-20 minutes or until the yucca starts to soften, then add the chicken and reduce the heat (add more water if necessary, to make it “soup” and not “yucca mush”).
*Side note: if making this veggie, use vegetable broth instead of water, and I’m sure it will still be really good. And omit the chicken, duh.*
Simmer until the chicken is mostly done (15 minutes, maybe?), then add in the last of the vegetables and cook until the potatoes are just tender but not mushy. When cooked longer, the soup is easily overtaken by the potato flavor, so of any of the vegetables I would omit them first. Add the tomatoes, culantro, and the juice of 2 limes, and simmer for another 10 minutes. Taste and add more lime, culantro, salt, and/or black pepper as needed.
Eat immediately. It can be served over rice if you’re that kind of person.
(I would have posted a picture, but we ate it all).