Every culture with relatively easy access to water has some variety of stew. Boiling provides an even heat with far less risk of burning food than other cooking methods and can extract additional nutrition from bones and other inedible matter. Stews provide an easy way to create a medley of flavor from many ingredients and to safely and effectively turn mismatched leftovers into a coherent meal. Stews are hearty staples that bring welcome heat to chilled bellies, and Latin America certainly has its share, many of which share the single name sancocho.
Sancocho has many regional variants, found throughout the Spanish-speaking countries surrounding the Caribbean Sea. The particulars and role in the overall gastronomy vary, but what they all have in common is a heterogenous mix of starchy vegetables and whatever meat is most handy. In Puerto Rico, the local sancocho hinges on an abundance of malanga/yautía, potatoes, plantains, and West Indian pumpkin, mostly native and all grown locally, making it a particular fixture of the agricultural interior of the island. This is the background my grandmother brought to my family, and the sancocho she served us remains a frequent, well-liked memory.
I have already introduced malanga/yautía to my readers and most will understand plantains and potatoes already, but West Indian pumpkin is likely less familiar to them. All large gourds are calabaza in Latin American Spanish and most of them are Curcubita moschata to botanists, cultivars of a single shared species native to the Caribbean. The cultivars common in the Caribbean islands themselves are generally round, have orange flesh, and have rinds that range from strongly keeled and green to smooth and orange. Their flavor is somewhere between a butternut squash and a cantaloupe, surprisingly sweet. Their presence in sancocho helps moderate the overtly starchy flavor of the other ingredients.
Dishes like sancocho tend not to have fixed recipes. Although Carmen Aboy Valldejuli’s recipe is often considered authoritative, there are as many sancocho recipes in any given region as there are people preparing sancocho. Mine is a compromise between my memories of my grandmother’s version, Valldejuli’s version, and the availability of ingredients here in Ottawa.
This recipe serves 15 and reheats well. Freeze what you do not consume within a few days just in case. It has a long prep and cooking time and should not be undertaken on short notice.
You will need a large pot, a chef’s knife, a vegetable peeler, your favorite measuring tools, and a stove or other source of bottom-up heat.
- Green bell pepper, 1
- Sweet chili pepper, 1
- Variants: If you are not worried about managing FODMAP risk, add 1 medium onion.
- Malanga/yautía, 3 lbs (about five corms)
- West Indian pumpkin, 1.5 lbs. Substitute American pumpkin or butternut squash.
- Potatoes, 3 large
- Green plantain, 1 large
- Ripe plantain, 1 large
- Water, 3 quarts
- Sazón, 1 tablespoon. Substitute table salt.
- Cuban oregano, fresh, 2 tablespoons
- Frozen spinach, 150 g
- Dried cilantro, 2 tablespoons
- Canned whole-kernel corn, 1 341-mL can. An entire ear of corn cut into four crosswise sections is more traditional.
- Canned whole tomatoes, 1 791-mL can, divided in two
- Stewing beef in cubes, 750 g
- Ground black pepper, to taste
Common Food Restrictions
- Gluten-Free: This recipe is naturally gluten-free.
- Ketogenic / Low-Carb: This recipe is very high in carbohydrates by its nature.
- Low-FODMAP: This recipe is already designed to reduce its potential FODMAP content. However, sources conflict on whether malanga/yautía is itself a high-FODMAP food and my reaction to eating large amounts of it suggests it should be consumed sparingly if one is avoiding FODMAPs.
- Vegetarian/Vegan: Use your preferred meat substitute and adjust cooking times accordingly.
- Dice the green bell pepper and sweet chili pepper and set aside. If using onion, peel, dice, and include with these two.
- Peel and dice the malanga, West Indian pumpkin, potatoes, green plantain, and ripe plantain and set aside. Keep in mind that peeled malanga is very slippery, so it can be useful to begin cutting peeled portions before the whole corm is peeled.
- Add the water, green bell pepper, sweet chili pepper, sazón, Cuban oregano, frozen spinach, onion (if included), cilantro, corn, and half of the canned tomato to the pot and bring rapidly to a boil.
- Add stewing beef to the pot, reduce heat to moderate, cover, and cook for one hour.
- Add the vegetables from Step 2 and the rest of the canned tomato to the pot. Boil uncovered for 90 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure no ingredient dries out.
- Ladle into bowls and serve with ground black pepper to taste.
This recipe is a work in progress as I learn to cook around my difficulty with onion and garlic in particular, but it felt right to share it now. The firm earthiness of the malanga contrasts nicely with the sweetness of the pumpkin and the softness of the potato to give this hearty stew an impressive diversity of flavors. Each bite is a little different and the sum reminds me of my grandmother’s warmth. Enjoy.