When fall arrives in New England, I get in the mood for a nice stew. We do not eat a lot of meat but this particular Peruvian dish, Seco de res, always hits the spot. Its sauce is heavy in cilantro (which I love) and the meat is tenderized by a fermented corn beer called chicha de jora, which also makes up part of the sauce. This combination is what makes this stew stand out from the rest.
Seco de res, or beef stew, is a dish that comes out the colonial times of Peru's history. Before the Spanish arrived, and other Europeans, there were no cows, no cilantro, no peas, no cultivated onions or garlic, no cumin, and no carrots. It is also thought that the stewing practice with this combination of ingredients is somewhat akin to tajine-style cooking, from the Moorish influence on Spain's culinary history. The sides that are traditionally served with the stew -- canary beans (native to Mexico) and white rice (native to East Asia) -- are also not native to the continent. Potatoes, aji amarillo and Chicha de jora are, however. Featuring aji amarillo and chicha as some of the flavor components are the secret ingredients I feel makes this dish uniquely Peruvian.
Chicha de jora is basically a corn beer and has pre-Incan origins. It is believed, based on archaeological
evidence, that elite women of the Wari culture were once responsible for brewing the beer, a culture which thrived between 500-1000 AD. There is one form of chicha that has gotten a lot of media attention recently -- the kind that is produced in a traditional way by women chewing the corn, then spitting into an open container, collecting the corn mash and then allowing it to ferment for a few days, covered There are many different types of chicha, including ones made from quinoa, peanuts and even yuca. The kind used for this recipe, chicha de jora, is produced much like a modern beer where the yellow corn is germinated, the sugars are extracted and the wort is boiled before placing the liquid in large clay vessels to ferment for several days. No chewing here!
Chicha can be consumed as a non-alcoholic beverage, used as a tenderizer and flavor enhancer of meats and in stews, and fermented further to become an alcoholic beverage as well. In the U.S., you can find it bottled in Latin American stores that carry Peruvian products as is pictured above. I have only really used it as a meat tenderizer and flavor enhancer, but feel free to try a sip!
When studying in Peru, it was was suggested I use an ingredient in building the stew sauce that, for me, did not appear to be traditional despite it being native to the Americas. Once I tasted the end result, however, I understood why! My other not-so-secret ingredient then is grated squash, zapallo or calabaza in Spanish. It adds a vegetal flavor, sweetness and a thickness to the liquid that would be lacking without it. So, without further delay, amig@s, here is my special recipe of for Seco de res. Whenever I make it my father tells me it reminds him of home. I hope you feel that way too! Buen provecho!
Seco de res - Serves 6-8
1/4 cup oil
3 lbs beef, cubed
1 large onion, diced
4 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon aji amarillo, pureed
1/4 - 1/2 acorn squash, grated
1 bunch cilantro, pureed (makes about a cup)
3/4 cup chicha de jora (reserved from marinade)
1/2 cup water (if needed)
1 cup peas
2-3 large carrots, sliced (optional)
1 1/2 lbs yellow potatoes, cooked bite sized chunks (leave the skin on!)
Salt and pepper to taste
Marinate the beef cubes in the chicha de jora for at least 3 hours in the refrigerator or, even better, overnight!
Drain beef, reserve 3/4 cup marinade for later.
Heat oil in a pot and sear the cubes of beef. Remove and reserve for later.
Saute onions until translucent. Add garlic, cumin, and aji amarillo and cook until fragrant. Add grated squash and cook until softened. Toss beef back in and cook, allowing the meat to absorb some of the spices and flavoring for a few minutes.
Add the chicha de jora and pureed cilantro (you can also use a dark beer in place of the chicha or a combination of both). Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and simmer for about 45 minutes, or until the meat is tender.
Add peas, carrots and cooked potatoes. If the liquid is a little low, you can add a bit of water. Serve once all vegetables are cooked and warmed through.
This dish is typically served with white rice and canary beans, or frejoles canarios, as shown in the photo.