Peruvian Potatoes with Chile-Cheese Sauce
When the Soup Lady was a still-blossoming young sophisticate living in Manhattan but still relatively unexposed to the whole wide world, there was an informal gathering of co-workers. The term "pot-luck" might be applied here, but since this important event became the benchmark by which all cocktail party/dinner party/hostessing events was judged for the next 10 years, I hesitate to apply that common term.
All invited guests were to bring something to eat. We were all single young nurses who worked in the same NYC hospital - transplants from other states who couldn't resist the lure of the Big City. The hostess was the only native New Yorker - she herself was an exotic and unfamiliar creature to me. She lived with her father, who was recently widowed and needed the kind and caring ministrations of a loving family member (because he was a whiskey-soaked reclusive alcoholic) in an antique filled pre-war apartment in the East 70s. They didn't always eat dinner, but they made sure they had cocktails together every evening - a lifestyle unimagined by the limited and sheltered Soup Lady, whose entire reference to paternal imbibing was encompassed by her own dear father bending an elbow at local AmVets Hall to lift a shot and a beer.
Everything about that place was a look into another life-style. The cocktail nuts they set out were served in the monogrammed silver porringer that she used as a toddler! There was an oil painting on the wall of her as a child! Mummy's family silver was brandished about! The place was 10 rooms and had woodwork, fireplaces and maid's quarters - so unlike the white-walled studios that the young nurses rented. It was all surreall and made a damn big impression on the Soup Lady, I'll tell you that. I am becoming breathless just trying to recall it all.
Back to the party: one girl brought a fresh pineapple wrapped in a pineapple-patterned dish towel and tied with a real ribbon. Such creative elegance was never seen by the Soup Lady before. All the other girls nodded approvingly and she had to explain to me that the pineapple was the colonial symbol of hospitality. You had better believe that the Soup Lady made sure she showed up with a pineapple any place she went for the next 10 years.
Okay, we're getting way far off the subject here. Back to the food: one girl (where did she come from? She wasn't a nurse - she must have been someone's friend) who was a native of South America brought an appetizer made of cold potato slices with a spicy cream sauce on top. Eveyone oohed over it and pronounced it devine, but the Soup Lady took that opportunity to paw through the porringer to sneak a few extra macadamia nuts while everyone else was distracted. By the time the dust cleared, there was just one small bit of unclaimed potato left.
It was divine. And spicy. There was no time to chat up the cook, as she was off to another engagement. All that could be determined at that time was that the dish was famous in Peru.
And with only that to go on, the Soup Lady has been trying to deduce what it could have been all these long years. How many suburban parties and potlucks could have been turned around if only I had the recipe that made that one night long ago so memorable? And, Lord luv the internet, here it is:
Papas a la Huancaína
Cover 8 whole potatoes with salted water and boil until cooked through. Remove from heat, drain and cool. Peel potatoes when cool and cut into 1/2" slices.
Puree the 1 cup of grated cheese (mozzarella, feta or muenster) and 1 cup of half and half in a blender till smooth.
Heat 1/4 cup of oil in a skillet over medium flame. Sauté 2 finely diced jalapeño peppers for 1-2 minutes. Add cheese-cream mixture and heat through till smooth and thickened. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Line serving plate with lettuce leaves. Place slices of potatoes on top of the lettuce leaves. Spoon chile-cheese sauce on top of the potatoes. Garnish serving plate with hard-boiled egg quarters and tomato wedges. Sprinkle chopped black olives over the potatoes and serve. Papas a la Huancaína is best served at room temperature.
recipe from Whats4Eats.com
The memory of a slightly pink cast to the sauce leads me to believe there must have been some cayenne pepper or hot sauce in there as well.
And so eventually, the Soup Lady got over her painful and limited past and escaped the bonds of pineapple giving, although any scan of a Tiffany's catalog where a silver porringer is sighted does make the heart beat faster. And you can bet your ass that anyone who sets foot into La Casa de la Sopa this summer is going to get a face full of spicy papas and a few casually tossed-off references to pre-war apartments and silver porringers.