Many years ago, I had a memorably boisterous dinner in the upstate home of a Colombian woman, surrounded by snow and filled with light. It was a blustery winter night and she served a huge clay pot of Ajiaco, a traditional Colombian chicken soup. There was something different about this soup, so I asked if there was a secret ingredient. Indeed, there was one flourish: an herb called guascas that imparts a deep grassy flavor essential to an authentic bowl of Ajiaco.
I asked a Colombian friend of mine about Ajiaco and she said it's her favorite dish, though she makes it without chicken since she's vegetarian. Maria said it's a staple dish in the region where she's from, near Bogota. She remembers having it for family Sunday lunch, passing around the toppings. She says, "It was a kind of ritual."
You'll find guascas in most Andean cultures, though it is most common in the Colombian kitchen and is considered essential to a good pot of Ajiaco. Turns out it's also a very common weed in the United States, known as quickweed or galinsoga, and it grows abundantly in vegetable gardens.
The broth for this soup grows deep in flavor first by cooking the chicken, then the potatoes, then simmering the broth with corn and a bunch of cilantro and green onions tied up like aromatics. Between the guascas, corn (on the cob when possible) and a trio of potatoes and you have a veritable celebration of the Andes in one warm bowl.
Colombian Ajiaco (Chicken and Potato Soup)
Serves 6 to 8
2 large chicken breasts, bone-in and skin on (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
5 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 pounds mixed potatoes (red, yukon gold, and russets), peeled and cut into bite-size chunks
2-3 ears fresh corn, cut crosswise into quarters, or 1 1/2 cups frozen corn kernels
1 bunch cilantro, with stems, washed very well and tied with twine
1 bunch green onions, washed and tied with twine
2 tablespoons dried guascas
2 avocados, pitted, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup Crema Mexicana, sour cream or crème fraîche
1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons drained capers, chopped
Place the chicken in a glass or ceramic dish. Top with the onion, garlic, salt and pepper. Cover, and refrigerate for 8 to 24 hours.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy 4-quart lidded pot, like the Chambaware pot or a Dutch oven, over medium-high heat. Add the chicken with its marinating bits and brown each side, about 6 minutes total. Pour in the stock and raise the heat to high. When the mixture boils, lower the heat to medium-low, then cover and simmer. Cook until the chicken is tender, about 30 minutes.
Transfer the chicken to a platter, reserving the cooking liquid in the pot. When cool enough to handle, remove the skin from the chicken and discard. Cut or tear the chicken breasts into bite-size strips and discard the bones.
Place the potatoes in the pot with the leftover cooking liquid and set over medium heat. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes.
Add the corn, the bunch of scallions, the bunch of cilantro, and the guascas. Simmer with the lid on for 20 minutes, or until potatoes are tender but not overcooked. Remove the cilantro and scallions and return the chicken to the pot. Simmer another few minutes until the chicken is warmed through.
Ladle the soup into individual bowls and place the toppings on the table to be passed around.
Most Latin-American markets carry guascas, under the Kiska or El Rey brand. You can also find it online at stores like Amigo Foods, TIFCO and even Amazon. If you can't track down guascas, substitute dried oregano.