Get ready for Thanksgiving with this recipe from our newest cookbook, Norman Van Aken’s Florida Kitchen! Sian Hunter, UPF senior acquisitions editor, prepared for the holidays by making Ajiaco with Chicken, Potatoes, Squash, Corn, and Spinach.

Here’s why Sian chose this recipe:

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, but at some point during the Weekend of Leftovers, I inevitably start hankering for spicy foods. This recipe seemed promising on the flavor front—with the added plus that it looked like it would welcome any remaining turkey (especially dark meat).

vanak001_500x500Ajiaco with Chicken, Potatoes, Squash, Corn, and Spinach

Recipe from Norman Van Aken’s Florida Kitchen 
By Norman Van Aken

Norman Van Aken says: I first came upon this heart- and soul-warming soup years ago. Beloved by Cubans, Colombians, and now many Floridians, its name may derive from the word aji, which means “chile.” But chiles are not always used. (It is no secret that many Cubans do not enjoy spicy food; our beautiful daughter-in-law, Lourdes, is a notable exception!) As with many soups and sauces, the essential ingredient is a good homemade stock.

Serves 6 to 8

1 butternut squash, halved and seeded
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 Scotch bonnet or other chile, seeded and minced
½ sweet onion, diced
1 tomato, peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped
1 pound Yukon gold potatoes, peeled if you wish, cubed
8 ounces boniato (Cuban sweet potatoes; use regular sweet potatoes if boniato is unavailable), peeled and cubed
1 quart chicken stock
3 ears of corn, kernels cut off the cob
3 cups roughly chopped spinach leaves
1 tablespoon roughly chopped fresh culantro or oregano leaves
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves
3 scallions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons well-drained, rinsed, and minced capers
1 avocado
¼ cup sour cream


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Season the squash with salt and pepper and place it cut side down on a rimmed nonstick baking sheet. Add some water to the pan and bake for about 40 minutes, until somewhat easily pierced with a fork. Turn the squash over and cook for about 12 more minutes. Remove from the oven. When cool enough to handle, peel the squash, cut it into large cubes, and refrigerate for the time being. You will need 2 cups cooked squash here, so save the remainder for another meal.

Increase the oven temperature to 375 degrees.

In a large soup pot set over medium-high heat, heat the oil.Season the chicken with salt and pepper and sear until golden on each side. Remove from the pan. Put the chicken in an ovenproof pan and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until cooked through. Set aside, covered to keep warm.

Lower the stove heat to medium, add the garlic to the pot, and sauté for about 30 seconds. Add the chile and onion and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until translucent. Add the tomato and cook for 3 minutes, seasoning with a little salt and pepper.

Add the potatoes, boniato, and stock and bring to a simmer. Cook until the potatoes are just tender, 20 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a sauté pan, cook the corn in a little butter with salt and pepper until just tender. Add to the soup along with the spinach and culantro and the 2 cups cooked squash. Season again with salt and pepper and turn the heat to low. Cook for 10 minutes.

Dice the chicken into ½-inch cubes and add it to the soup. Add the cilantro, scallions, and capers.

Peel, pit, and dice the avocado. Sprinkle with a bit of the salt. Pepper too, if you wish.

Serve in soup bowls, garnished with the avocado and sour cream as desired.

Serving suggestion: This is also nice garnished with diced hardcooked eggs, more minced chiles, and additional herbs.

Sian’s verdict:

Since the recipe needs only a portion of the baked squash, I roasted it the night before, cubing and refrigerating what I would need for the soup and serving the rest with dinner. On Ajiaco night, I prepped all the vegetables and herbs while browning and baking the chicken. You can see—and smell!—the flavors building at each stage of the recipe. (How can it not with onions, garlic, and chilies to start?) This soup is a kaleidoscope of changing tastes, depending on what lands in your spoon–the sweet corn or boniato, briny capers, bright herbs, smooth avocado—and offering the garnishes allows people to add more as they prefer.

One aspect of Norman Van Aken’s book that I especially love is his frequent encouragement to tweak recipes. So in the spirit of the season, I plan to make ajiaco again this weekend, substituting leftover turkey for chicken, and share a bowl with house guests with a toast to Chef Van Aken!




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