Back Yard Sancocho

Sometimes in my fiddling with recipes I stretch a dish until it breaks, too far removed from the original flavors or technique to be covered by that name any more. I thought maybe I had done that with this dish, but after doing a bit of research on sancocho (and its culinary brethren, ajiaco) I think I’m still well within the boundaries. Sancocho is a thick, slow-simmered stew filled with tropical root vegetables. The base is always some variation of sofrito and whatever meats are available, usually more than one kind. There are fish versions, too! This is a dish with many regional and seasonal variations, and I think my “Floribbean” version fits just fine.
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These are all subtropical/tropical root vegetables. From the top left: ube yam, boniato, yellow yam (called in our local grocery store nyame to not confuse it with sweet potatoes, which some people around here call yams), yautia/white malanga, sweet potato (in Spanish speaking countries also called camote and batata), and cassava/yuca. The cassava and sweet potato I harvested out of my back yard. The yautia I am also growing in my back yard but it’s not ready for harvesting. The yellow yam, boniato, and purple yam I am going to be growing in the coming year and are grown all around me. I bought extra roots for sprouting.
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While I am disappointed with the size of my cassava harvest this year, I am pleased with the way the roots taste. See the pure white color? That’s because these were dug up and processed for cooking on the same day. I found out the hard way this year just how perishable these roots are. When you buy cassava in the grocery store they are dipped in wax to help preserve them and even then often have gray streaks and soft moldy spots. Let me tell you, fresh cassava really tastes different than the dessicated moldy wax-covered roots you buy in the grocery store. The frozen is much better if you must choose the grocery store.
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Maricel Presilla says that “In the Americas, sancochar came to mean cooking by slow simmering until the meat comes off the bones and the vegetables practically melt into the broth”. That’s definitely what you want here. This stew is wonderfully flexible. Use whatever tropical roots you have. You can add chunks of calabaza/pumpkin, green bananas (guineos verdes) or green-to-yellow plantains. You could even add potatoes and carrots if you like. In summer slices of corn on the cob are traditional. You can definitely make a more traditional sofrito than mine- my hubby can’t eat onions so the sofrito used here definitely isn’t traditional. If you can’t find aji dulce or aji cachucha then you can use a mixture of sweet red peppers and cubanelle peppers, but whatever you do, don’t buy the recaito in a jar- it’s terrible.
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Back Yard Sancocho

1 cup Caribbean soup base
2 tbl lard, infused with achiote if you have it
4-5 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp dried oregano
salt & pepper
1 lb chicken legs and thighs, or boneless thighs
1 lb smoked pork ribs, or any smoked pork cut that’s not too fatty
6-8 c water or chicken broth
1-lb cassava root
1 yautia/malanga
1 sweet potato
1 boniato
1 yellow yam
Extra fresh culantro/recao or cilantro for serving

Melt the lard over medium heat in a large heavy-bottomed soup pot. When the lard is hot, add the soup base, chopped garlic, and cumin. While the sofrito is cooking, you can start to get the roots ready. Tropical roots oxidize very quickly. Get a large bowl of cold water ready. Peel the yautia, sweet potato, boniato, and yellow yam. Immediately put each peeled root into the water. Once they’re all peeled, take each out of the water and cut it into chunks and put it back into the water immediately. Now cut the cassava into narrow pieces, peel each piece, remove the vein, and cut into smaller pieces. (If you’ve never processed whole cassava roots, instructions and photos are here) Cassava cooks slower than most of the other roots, so cut the cassava smaller. Fry the soup base until it starts to dry out and sizzle. Add the meats, roots, oregano, about a teaspoon of salt, and enough chicken broth or water to almost cover the roots. Bring to a boil, cover tightly, turn down to low and simmer for an hour. Lift the lid, stir, and continue simmering until all of the roots are cooked through. Pull the chicken and pork out, remove the meat, shred it and add it back to the pot. Taste the broth and add salt, pepper, oregano to taste.

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