Our third post in the “All Around Latin America” comes from Pamela Pajuelo, a food blogger I connected with only recently and instantly became intrigued with her presentation of a cuisine I really enjoy but seldom eat or even cook. She’s also known as Señorita Vino, where she writes about her love of food and wine. Born and raised in Southern California of Peruvian parents with Italian and Middle Eastern roots, she attributes her epicurean leanings to her father’s culinary talents and her mother’s refined taste.
Please help me welcome Pamela! -Bren
By Pamela Pajuelo
Picture Los Angeles, circa 1970. A pale blue ‘64 Chevy Impala is cruising north on L.A.’s I-5 freeway. In the front seat, a striking couple from Perú argues in Spanish about whose family has produced the best cooks. In back, a little girl in a fuzzy white alpaca sweater gazes out the passenger side window. The destination: One of a handful of Peruvian restaurants in Southern California.
That little girl is me, and the lively pair in the front seat are my parents. Once or twice a month, we’d leave the Orange County suburbs and make the hour-long trip north to Los Angeles in search of anticuchos, picarones, papa a la huancaina and a frosty bottle of Inka Cola. Long-gone hole-in-the-wall restaurants with stately names like El Tumi and Inca Palace were the only places my homesick parents could enjoy Peruvian delicacies featuring ingredients not readily available at the neighborhood chain grocery store.
There was one dish, however, that my father could make at home which didn’t involve an elaborate ingredient scavenger hunt: Seco de pollo, a Peruvian stew with chicken, potatoes and cilantro.
Heavy on the garlic and onions, laden with succulent chicken, and emerald-green from the cilantro, my father’s seco was the menu item of choice when relatives flew in from Lima, or for boyfriends having dinner at our home for the first time. But seco was not just for special occasions.
Weeknights, the herby-garlicky aroma of a hearty seco would waft from the kitchen into my bedroom, signaling a much-needed homework break. During a soggy El Niño year, my high school suspended classes one afternoon because of the deluge. I came home to steamy kitchen windows and a massive, chipped casserole of seco bubbling away on the stove. Later that evening, perched on our lemon-yellow plastic dinette chairs, my family warmed up with heavenly-hot helpings of seco de pollo while the rain relentlessly pounded the house.
With apologies to my father, once I left home I adapted his seco recipe to accommodate my own style of healthy cooking. The flavor is still authentic, and thanks to globalization and big-box stores, I can use Peruvian beer in the preparation.
Peruvian cuisine is today’s culinary media darling, and the recent surge in trendy Peruvian restaurants has made the family car trip in search of comida peruana a distant memory. Still, nothing beats a homemade seco, chipped casserole and all.
* images courtesy of Pamela Pajuelo.
Eat well, love unapologetically, pray with true intention, and take care of yourself.
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PAPI’S SECO de POLLO (Peruvian Chicken Stew)
- 3 lbs. boned and skinned chicken breast
- 5 large garlic cloves
- 1 tbsp salt
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- ½ tsp ground black pepper
- ½ cup red wine or apple cider vinegar
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 3 ½ tbsp olive oil
- 1 seeded and minced jalapeño pepper (if you like it spicy, make it 2 jalapeños)
- 6 small yellow onions, chopped
- 1 tbsp salt
- 8 oz. of Cuzqueña beer (or any pale lager if you can’t find Peruvian beer)
- 2 cups of chicken broth
- 1 cup of the juice left over after browning chicken
- 6 small red potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 to 2 inch chunks
- 2 cups fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped and tightly packed
- ½ bag frozen green peas, thawed
- Cut the chicken breast to about 2-inch cubes and set aside in a glass bowl.
- Peel and crush the garlic with a garlic press. Use a mortar and pestle to grind the garlic, cumin, black pepper and salt to a paste. Mix in the vinegar, then add the olive oil and stir vigorously.
- Pour the mixture over the chicken, stirring to make sure each piece is evenly coated. Tightly cover bowl with plastic wrap and marinate for three hours.
- In a large casserole, heat the olive oil at high heat, then add the chicken and brown it on all sides (10 – 15 minutes). Transfer the chicken to a plate and set aside. Reserve residual juice in a measuring cup or bowl.
- Using the same casserole, stir in the onions, salt and jalapeño peppers and sauté until the onions are golden (about 15 minutes). Pour in the beer, reduce the heat and cook until the beer has completely evaporated.
- Add the browned chicken, the reserved juice and the chicken broth. Stir and bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and cook for about 30 minutes.
- Add the potatoes, cover and cook for another 30 minutes or until the chicken is tender and the potatoes are cooked.
- Check occasionally and stir. Add more stock if needed.
- Add the peas and cilantro. Stir thoroughly and cover and cook for about six minutes.
- Serve hot with steamed white rice. Garnish with a sprig of cilantro, if desired.
(Serves 6 to 8)