Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cooking a Peruvian Meal in California

The long weekend is past, and the idiot cats, instead of going to some sunny place, spent it in the dismal weather of the beatiful San Francisco Bay Area, on a mission.

When many years ago my boyfriend, then a young and skinny student, was leaving home for a dangerous adventure in the universities of North America, one of the things that his mom gave him was a Peruvian cookbook. Yes, one of the first things that hits a hungry and homesick foreign student is a food nostalgia - moms know this. Now, after all these years, countries, and extra pounds, R., a.k.a. the FatCat, still has the book.

So our mission was to find all needed ingredients and to cook as authentic Peruvian dishes as we could. Specifically, we needed a beef heart for anticuchos de corazon, and key limes and panca chili that are used for most sauces and marinades in the Peru Pacific Coast cooking. So we went combing the Bay Area for the exotic stuff.

The limes were easy - most Mexican markets have them. The heart turned out to be a real problem. I had an impression that the big Oriental supermarkets carry it, and if they don't, sure Dittmer's would have it. It's a meat, after all, and if it's meat, Dittmer's has it! So we checked several Chinese markets, they had pork and chicken hearts and beef everything, from hooves to ears to tails - but no beef hearts! Finally in Dittmer's they told us what's going on: everyone who can fish is gone fishing for the long weekend, and beef heart is the fishermen's favorite bait! Dittmer's could order it, frozen, for the next week.

Exhausted by the quest, we stopped for a light lunch in Las Americas, a little Peruvian restaurant on B Street in San Mateo. And there, they not just served us the most authentic, tasty, homestyle food, but also pointed us to a market a couple of blocks away that has all our ingredients!

A few words of praise and a word of caution about Las Americas: it may not look like much (no white linens - no crystal wine decaunters), but it's excellent food and it tastes real - and I had a native to judge this. However, if you don't work on a farm or in the construction business, come very hungry and order carefully, one dish at a time. Most main dishes and even some appetizers are very filling. The people who develop this homestyle cooking do work on farms, and yes, they serve potatoes over rice and eat them with bread. That being said, Las Americas is the best place for Peruvian food on the Peninsula. Not counting my boyfriend's home, of course, when he's in a mood for cooking.

So here's the place where Las Americas owner sent us for ingredients: Mi Rancho market, with three locations on the Peninsula, and one of them happened to be just three blocks down on B Street. It's so clean and well stocked it's hard to believe it's an ethnic market. Mollie Stone's can envy it's neat display of fresh produce. This is why I really don't understand why the manager was so nervious of my taking pictures there. She was just following me around the store, and even when I showed her the pictures I've taken and promised that I won't photograph the customers, just the groceries, she relaxed just a little bit. Well, since the harm is done and these photographs already made the good woman worry, I guess I have to show them here, just to prove that the only thing she had to worry about was too many new customers.

This is where we found the elusive panca chili, and not only dried peppers but also a paste, that is easier to use (now we have both dried and paste, and I am going to extract the seeds from the dried peppers and try to grow fresh). And the good-looking butcher, being asked whether he has heart, put a hand on his chest, then turned around and brought from the back a fresh trimmed 2lb beef heart, at $2/lb!

Now, the quest was almost over, we just had to cook our finds. The beef heart was so clean, I didn't even have to call my brother the vascular surgeon to ask how to trim it. We just cut almost all the fat from the outside and the sinew in the inside.
There is a youtube video from a cooking school that teaches how to make anticuchos:
It's fun to watch, and it has music. Since the video is in Spanish, and doesn't give measures for the ingredients, I am including our version in English. The measures are approximate, as always.

Anticuchos de corazon, beef heart skewers (serves 8 as an appetizer or 4 as a main dish)

2 lb beef heart, trimmed, sliced against the grain about 1/4 in thick

for the marinade:
2-3 tbsp panca chili paste, or substitute a mix of spanish paprika and chili powder - but the taste is not the same!
1 cup red wine vinegar
3 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp groung cumin
1 tsp fresh oregano, minced, or substitute 1/2 tsp dried
salt, pepper to taste

Combine all marinade ingredients and mix well. Place beef heart slices in a glass dish, cover with marinade and mix. Cover and marinate, refrigerated, for at least two hours, preferrably overnight. Remove the slices from marinade and thread them on skewers. Cook on a preheated griddle or fajitas skillet with a little oil, over high heat, either on the stovetop or on the grill, about 2-3 minutes per side, brushing with the marinade.

Traditionally served with boiled potatoes, but I guess we had all the potatoes we needed to eat this weekend the day before, so we served them with a tomato salad instead.

Choritos a la Chalaca, mussels Callao style (one dozen serves 3-4 as an appetizer)

12 mussels, cleaned

for the salsa:
1 large red onion, finely chopped and rinsed with cold water
1 firm red tomato, chopped
1 cup key lime juice
small bunch of cilantro, chopped
1/2 tsp panca chili paste
1/4 fresh jalapeno pepper, very finely chopped (this was a very brave thing for me, I cannot eat spicy foods and am scared of jalapenos, so he had to convience me to add it. The salsa wasn't very hot, but I still think that I couldn't handle more than 1/4 pepper)

Mix all salsa ingredients and refrigerate for 10-15 minutes.

Place the mussels in a pan with a little water added, cook covered until they open, about 2 minutes, discard the ones that didn't open. Remove top half of the shell, place still warm mussels on half-shells on the serving dish and top with cold salsa.

This dish is very much like ceviche, in fact, all the salsa ingredients except the tomato are also used for the ceviche marinade. It's sharp, hot and strong tasting, goes well with a tarter, cool-grown Sauvignon Blank.

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