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Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2006 01:36 am

Spiff up your spuds

Meet the causa, a popular Peruvian appetizer

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Like most patriotic Americans, I love a mountain of mashed potatoes, swimming in a pool of gravy, mingling with the other goodies on my plate. But this year I’m ready to move beyond Norman Rockwell’s continent and travel to the other America where the potato got its start. I’m talking about Peru.

Along with quinoa and corn, the potato is one of the indigenous foods of the Incas, dating to 500 B.C. Moreover, Peruvian cuisine has been influenced by centuries of immigrant communities (of both the indentured and conquering sorts), which means you’ll find African, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and Spanish notes in any one dish. It’s the ultimate fusion cuisine.

Even the basic mashed potato gets creative treatment. Meet the causa, a cold mashed-potato appetizer popular in Lima, where nova andina (New Andean) cooking is all the rage.

The potatoes get mashed with a kicky combination of a lime mayonnaise and aji amarillo, a mildly hot Peruvian chile powder. Typically the filling is a tuna, shrimp, or chicken salad, but in the recipe below, I do a meatless version with an olivey tapenade.

If nothing else, this dish will create stimulating dinner-table conversation, and you, brave potato pioneer, will have widened eyes — and horizons.

Culinary questions? Contact Kim O’Donnel at kim.odonnel@creativeloafing.com.

Vegetarian Causa
(Stuffed Mashed Potatoes)

2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled
and halved
Salt
One egg
1/2 cup olive oil
Juice of one lime; more to taste
3 teaspoons dried yellow aji chile powder
(yellow aji pepper powder, also called aji amarillo, can be found at Latin groceries or online at www.myspicer.com)
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/3 cup of your favorite black olives, pitted
and chopped
Three cloves garlic, minced
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 tablespoon pickled peppers, minced
Juice of one lemon

Make mayonnaise: In a blender or food processor, add egg and lime and process until combined. Slowly drizzle in oil until emulsified. Taste for salt and add accordingly.

Add potatoes to a pot of water and bring up to a boil. Add salt (about 1/4 teaspoon) and allow potatoes to cook until tender. Drain and mash with 2 tablespoons of the mayonnaise, turmeric, and aji chile powder. Taste for salt and lime, and add accordingly. Save extra mayonnaise for another use.

In a skillet, heat olive oil and add garlic, onion, olives, and pickled peppers, then cook until soft. Add lemon juice and salt, if needed.

Line a shallow baking tray with plastic wrap and spray it with cooking oil, ensuring an overhang of a few inches off the edges of the pan.

Scoop half of the mashed-potato mixture and press it into the pan. Place the filling on top of the potatoes and spread until evenly distributed. Add remaining potato mixture on top of filling, covering it as evenly as possible.

Holding onto the edge of the plastic wrap, roll the layered potatoes until you have a log. Seal with plastic wrap on opposite end and keep on baking tray. Place in refrigerator and allow to chill for several hours or overnight.

To serve, you have two options: (1) Slice log, through plastic, into eight pieces. Remove plastic from each slice and, with a pie server, lift carefully and place on individual plates. (2) Unroll log, remove top plastic layer, and, with a serrated knife, cut into slices. Lift with a pie server and serve immediately.

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