Papas Rellenas, Alyssa Style

The papa rellena, or “filled potato,” is some of Latin America’s finest party food. A papa rellena is mashed potato made into a meat-filled dumpling/fritter, breaded, and deep-fried. They emerge from the fryer looking like small loaves of golden-brown joy, and provide a deeply engaging combination of textures when bitten. I’m a big fan, and I challenged myself recently with learning how to make them, as part of a foray into more technically challenging Hispanic recipes.

First things first: It’s hard for many to imagine, but the potato is a Latin American staple. Europe may have made the potato the center of several of its cuisines, but it is indigenous to southern Perú, where it was domesticated and grown in large quantities for thousands of years before the Spanish began spreading it around the world. To this day, Perú has the largest diversity of potato varieties, including additional species not grown elsewhere, and this shows in Perú’s rightly award-winning gastronomy. The potato may today be Irish, Russian, and more, but before all of that, it was Incan, and its Spanish name papa comes from this heritage.

The papa rellena, in turn, owes its particular origin to contact between France and Latin America in the 19th century. Much of Latin America fell in love with the French croquette, a side dish consisting of a meaty filling, a middle layer that was often potato, and a bread crust. Different parts of Latin America produced numerous variations. The papa rellena apocryphally owes its origin to Peruvian soldiers’ implementation of the croquette concept using their trail rations during the War of the Pacific, later refined. Once born, the papa rellena itself became widespread, spawning Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, and other descendants.

What I present here is my take on this venerable classic, drawing on the Puerto Rican and Cuban styles and my own sensibilities to make something distinctive.

Papas rellenas are not a dish to make on short notice. Like all dumplings, their preparation is fairly involved, and these additionally require a few hours of chilling between certain steps for best results. This is something to make at least a day in advance, or for special occasions. As given here, this recipe makes about six papas rellenas, which is a meal for three or an appetizer for more.

Equipment

You will need a large pot in which to boil the potatoes, and something for straining and mashing them. You will also need something for finely chopping or blending seasonings, a large skillet, a mixing bowl, a bowl for beating eggs, and a plate for breading. Finally, you will need a deep fryer or a large pot filled with hot oil.

Ingredients

Potatoes

  • Potatoes, 5, medium
  • Green pepper, ½, small, chopped
  • Salt, in various quantities (see below)
  • Onion, ¼ cup, chopped, or a comparable quantity of dried onion
  • Ground cumin, 2 teaspoons
  • Ground pepper, 1 teaspoon
  • Tomato paste, 4 teaspoons
  • Sazón, 1 teaspoon. I prefer Badía.
  • Garlic, to taste

Filling

  • Vegetable oil, 1 tablespoon
  • Ground beef, ½ lb
  • Onion, ¼ cup, chopped, or a comparable quantity of dried onion
  • Green pepper, ½, small, chopped
  • Salt, 1 teaspoon
  • Ground cumin, 2 teaspoons
  • Ground pepper, 1 teaspoon
  • Tomato paste, 4 teaspoons
  • White vinegar, 1 tablespoon
  • Sazón, 1 teaspoon
  • Garlic, to taste
  • Variations: For a more Cuban papa rellena, add a teaspoon of oregano and some Manzanilla olives to the filling. For a more Puerto Rican papa rellena, add chunks of mozzarella cheese.

Breading

  • Eggs, 2
  • Bread crumbs, 1 cup. For extra flavor, use Italian-seasoned bread crumbs
  • Oil for frying

Preparation

  1. Blend the seasonings for the potatoes (onion, cumin, pepper, tomato paste, garlic, sazón)) and ½ teaspoon of salt.
  2. Peel the potatoes and chop them into chunks. Boil in salted water for about 20-30 minutes minutes, until fork-tender.
  3. Drain the potatoes. Add the potato seasonings from step 1 and mash until uniformly mixed and no lumps remain. Allow to cool to room temperature.
  4. Meanwhile, heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook and stir the onion, green pepper, and garlic in the hot skillet until the onion has softened and turned translucent. (If using dried onion, stir for about 5 minutes).
  5. Stir in the ground beef, increase heat to medium-high, and cook until beef is no longer pink. Add the salt, cumin, pepper, tomato paste, white vinegar, and sazón and stir until the lot is uniformly mixed. (If using olives and oregano, add here.). Scrape into a mixing bowl and allow to cool to room temperature.
  6. Line a baking sheet or casserole dish with plastic wrap, waxed paper, or greased aluminum foil and set aside. Leave enough for a crude lid. Pour the bread crumbs onto a plate and set aside. Crack the eggs into a bowl and beat until uniformly mixed.
  7. Once the potatoes and beef have cooled, take a handful of potato and flatten into a bowl, place a tablespoon or more of beef in the bowl, and place more potato atop. (If using mozzarella, add a bit to each papa rellena as you form it here.) Seal the edges so that the beef is not exposed, roll into a ball, and roll gently in the egg. Retrieve and roll gently in the bread crumbs until no more wet egg is visible. Place in the baking sheet / casserole dish. Repeat until all of the potato and beef is spent.
  8. Balls of breaded potato on aluminum foil, waiting for the fryer.
    Ready for frying.

    Refrigerate for two to four hours, or freeze for later use. This helps the potato and egg hold together during frying.

  9. Heat the fryer oil to 175°C / 350 °F .
  10. Papas rellenas, fried and ready.
    Delicious.

    Fry each papa rellena for three minutes, turning the papas if necessary. Do not overload your fryer or the temperature will drop, impeding frying.

  11. Drain on a paper towel and allow to cool before serving.

From Perú to Cuba to Canada, from classics across Latin America to restaurant specialties loudly desired across the US, papas rellenas are well worth the effort they entail. May this flavorful blend of mashed potatoes, beef, and breading lead your guests to reconsider the potential of the humble potato.

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Papas Rellenas, Alyssa Style
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