When I began developing a recipe for sancocho, I traveled back to my home country of Colombia with a mission: to see how many expressions of the hearty, one-pot stew—an iconic recipe with countless variations—existed within my own family.
My three sisters each volunteered to cook sancocho for me, and sure enough, each was unique. My sister-in-law’s version, meaty and savory, included tasajo (dried, salted beef)—an ingredient her mother always used, she explained. Another sister, I learned, now includes potatoes in her recipe because her husband grew up eating them in sancocho and loves them.
And my third sister? When I stopped by her house in Barranquilla, the city where we grew up, she served me a hearty stew of chicken, beef, and pork studded with corn and chunky root vegetables, lightly sweetened by yellow plantains and accompanied by a generous side plate of cilantro—a recipe that, from my first spoonful, I knew was the one our grandmother used to make every weekend at our family farm. For years, this was the fortifying meal we enjoyed between horseback riding and long naps in our hamacas (hammocks).
This recipe stars two root vegetables beloved in Colombia: white ñame and yuca. Yuca, also known as cassava, is the root of a shrub native to South America. White ñame is a cylindrical-shaped tuber that looks like a potato. These two starches are often incorporated into soups and stews, boiled, mashed, or fried, needing little more than salt to enhance their flavor.
Among Colombia’s manifold sancochos, this is the common thread: Every recipe is a family heirloom, shaped over generations of Sunday lunches. For many Colombians, it’s the ultimate cure for what ails you—be that homesickness or a hangover. It’s also the default dish of choice when company is coming, according to Mariana Velasquez, author of the Colombian cookbook Colombiana (2021). “When you’re invited to someone’s house, they don’t say ‘come over for lunch,’” she said in a phone interview about the dish. “They say ‘come over for sancocho.’”
Sancocho is optimal for gatherings—it’s always made in large batches and served family style, allowing each diner to portion proteins, vegetables, broth, and a festive array of toppings (when I make it, avocado; cilantro; lime; and the punchy Colombian tomato salsa ají picante) into their own bowl. “It’s a design-your-own way of eating,” Velasquez said. “I love it.”
Buying and Peeling Green Plantains
The green plantains in this recipe should be intensely green and feel firm and full in their skins, and they should taste mildly nutty with no hint of sweetness. The skins of green plantains are tougher than those of other bananas, and they can be hard to remove. This method can help.
1. Cut off both ends of plantain. With tip of paring knife, make 1 cut lengthwise through skin, taking care not to cut through to fruit.
2. Pull away skin from side versus lengthwise. You may need to use a spoon to help lift skin from fruit.
In my house, we’re partial to sancocho trifasico, a hearty version that centers beef, chicken, and pork. For my recipe, I opted for chicken parts and beef short ribs, two cuts with bones to contribute plenty of deep, meaty flavor to the broth. I rounded out the meats with pork butt roast. I sliced the meats into pieces and then showered them with salt, pepper, and sazón (a spice blend of dried alliums, spices, and orange-tinged achiote) and set them aside.
One of the most delightful elements of sancocho is its wide variety of hearty vegetables, which soak up broth and become tender and savory during the lengthy cook. Mild, nutty yuca is a must for me, as are starchy green plantains, sweet yellow plantains, and chunks of corn on the cob. I also included white ñame root, butternut squash (a substitute for Colombia’s ahuyama squash), and potatoes (in honor of my sister), but those ingredients are more flexible: In keeping with the nonprescriptive nature of the dish, they can be swapped out for larger portions of any of the other vegetables.
A One-Pot Feast
1. BUILD THE BASE Cook meats, onion, celery, carrots, scallions, tomatoes, bell pepper, and garlic for 10 to 15 minutes.
2. CREATE THE BROTH Add water, bouillon, corn, and green plantains (to give the broth body). Cook for 1 hour.
3. REMOVE CHICKEN AND CORN This prevents them from overcooking. Simmer the rest for 30 minutes longer.
4. ADD MORE STARCHES Add yuca, ñame, squash, potatoes, and yellow plantains. Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.
With that, the bulk of the work was done. I assembled the stew in my largest stock pot, first cooking the meats with some aromatics to establish a flavor base and then adding chicken bouillon cubes (their flavor more concentrated than boxed chicken broth), cilantro, allspice berries, and water. An hour later, I removed the chicken and corn (to prevent them from overcooking) and then added the rest of the starches.
Once the vegetables were tender, I stirred a heaping quarter cup of fresh cilantro into the pot, an unskippable, quintessentially Colombian ingredient that suffuses the stew with color and vibrancy, and then removed the meat and vegetables and placed them on platters. I brought them to the table, along with the steaming pot of broth and plates of garnishes, to create a cozy and aromatic spread. I couldn’t wait to invite my sisters over for a bowl.