Sunday, January 9, 2011

How Arracache Picadillo Turned into Spicy Potato Picadillo Soup

It has been about a year since I visited Costa Rica. While I was there I visited a banana, sugar cane and coffee plantation. Although we got to try sugar cane fudge and coffee, the highlight of the tour was tasting a local dish, arracache picadillo.

Although we had just a taste the arracache picadillo really stuck with me. I vowed to make it when I returned home, buying a recipe book in the gift shop with the proprietor’s own recipe to make it happen.

Over the course of the past year, I’ve returned to the recipe, again and again. Recreating it wasn’t as easy as I hoped. The first problem was the main ingredient, arracache or arracacha. It wasn’t something an American typically came across in the produce section.

Arracache are a root vegetables native to South America. When our tour guide pulled one out of the ground it looked something like a white carrot, wide at the top and narrow and pointed at the bottom. He explained that it tasted something like a cross between celery and a potato. Later when we ate in the picadillo it tasted distinctive and very good, though I couldn’t say what it tasted like.

Even though the vegetables in my CSA box were varied, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t come across arracacha, so I began searching everywhere else I could think of. I tried Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and the Hispanic grocery stores in Madison.

Language was often a barrier on the Latin grocery story. I held up my recipe book and pointed to arracache in the list and most just squinted before shrugging their shoulders. One woman pointed me to the meat counter.

“Arracache?” I asked tentatively.

She nodded and pointed again to the counter.

“It’s a vegetable,” I said, mad at myself for not knowing such a simple Spanish word.

“No,” she said. “Carne.”

I knew that word, but it didn’t seem right, so I said “gracias” and left.

That was sometime at the end of the summer and the last time I thought about making the arracache picadillo until this weekend. I used of the remaining CSA potatoes last weekend for a tortilla española, and noticed it was growing eyes.

With two bags of potatoes left, I decided I needed to use them soon. One would go for fake arracache picadillo. If arracache tasted something like a celery and a potato, potatoes should be a good substitution.

I started by looking again at the recipe and it hadn’t become any less confusing over the past few months. The problem, besides the missing ingredient, was that the recipe had been written in Spanish and translated into English without someone who knew both languages and the recipe proofing it

As such, it included items such as mincemeat and salami, neither of which seemed right. I assumed mincemeat meant ground beef, but hadn’t seen anything like salami anywhere in Costa Rica. Once in the store, I completely changed course and bought chorizo, mainly because it was an item I had meant to try anyway and seemed like a likely combination of both ingredients.

The rest of the ingredients were easy: garlic, onion, bell pepper, coriander, achiote, chicken stock, tomatoes, oil, salt, and pepper. I skipped the coriander because I’m not a big fan. Achiote is a red spice that is typical in Latin American cooking. I was able to get it at one of the Hispanic grocery stores. It looked like chile powder, but didn’t have a spicy flavor, just turned everything a bright red color.

I cut up the potatoes and boiled them until they were just about tender before draining them. I planned to cook them again with the rest of the ingredients and didn’t want them to get too mushy. Meanwhile I sautéed the garlic, pepper and onion until they were tender before adding the chorizo and achiote.

At this point I looked at the remaining ingredients on my countertop. I had a cup of chicken stock and three whole tomatoes that I had taken from my stash in the freezer. In the pan, the chorizo, peppers, garlic and onions looked to be the perfect consistency of picadillo, which is used as filling for tortillas. Adding the stock and tomatoes would make it too runny.

In that moment I realized why it had taken me almost a year to try and reproduce this recipe. I didn’t want to fail and without arracacha I was destined to do so. With this in mind I poured my chorizo mix into a soup pot and added the tomatoes and chicken stock. About a half an hour later I had my own picadillo recipe — spicy potato picadillo soup.

Sometimes cooking is about recreating a recipe. Other times, one dish serves as the beginning of another. Perhaps I’ll have the arracache picadillo again someday, but tonight I’m having an inspiration.


  1. I might have to try this recipe--it sounds delicious. I've been trying to perfect the Gallo Pinto we enjoyed on our trip to Costa Rica last year. Someday I'll get it right.

  2. Send me your secret if you ever get the Gallo Pinto down, I loved that too.