A Hearty Pea Stew for a Cold Day
It was a revelation on a plate, a simple stew of dried peas with carrots and small bits of meat in a red ají sauce that tasted meaty and yet carried a hint a pungence, called ají de arvejas.
I was nineteen and living in the Andes, Bolivia specifically. The food culture in which I had been raised was gone and I lived and ate what was served me by Bolivians. Some of them were well off and travelled to Europe and the United States while most had few resources and still shared what they had. I lived for two years in a very different world from the suburban American life of my parents and siblings.
Mac and cheese, pizza, hamburgers, spaghetti, and chop suey from bottles, cans, and boxes—or fast food joints—were increasingly the substance of meals in my home and those of my peers in the United States. Still, my mother would buy a bag of hard, green peas sometimes and make up a thick soup she called snet, especially when it was cold out and something hearty was called for.
It was thick and green. Often it included sausage balls and sometimes fresh green peas, but always there was the possibility of adding a splash of vinegar. Even more, the soup came with memories of my grandfather’s homeland across the ocean and occasionally stories of my great grandmother and great grandfather’s families. I do not remember much of the stories. An allure of intimacy and yet mystical distance accompanied the soup and still does, every spoonful.
It had never occurred to me that you could eat once-dried peas on a plate in a rich sauce where they had not collapsed into a mush in which a spoon would stand up. This Bolivian dish seemed to typify a whole different way of being and approaching food from that of my home.
I could buy whole dried and toasted peas on the street and carry them in my pocket to snack on as I walked the sometimes paved and sometimes dirt streets of first Oruro and then La Paz, Bolivia. They kept me in energy even if every time one sat between my teeth I wondered if this was the one that would not break open and instead break my teeth as everyone warned. “Be careful. You have to eat them with caution. Sometimes they have not softened.”
I did find hard ones but never one that would break my teeth even if I bit down cautiously every time I ate them.
Dried, mature peas, whether split or whole, meant so much, and were so hearty and good. They helped combat the chill of highland Bolivia above ten thousand feet and made my stomach happy, at the same time they spoke to my soul, even if I seldom stopped to reflect on that.
When they appeared as a delicious stew on my plate, an ají or uchu in Quechua, so different in conception and taste from the pea soup of my family, I ate it up and then used bread to soak up the last of the juices if the boiled potatoes in the stew had not been sufficient. I loved this simple dish and it came to speak of how deeply the culture and food of the Andes had taken up residence in me.
You find versions of this dish throughout the Andes. In Bolivia, appropriately, the dish is served in November as part of remembering the departed. You can easily see some of the meaning: dried peas reconstituted in a sauce that is like the dead returning. The peas share something fundamental with the departed, that act of coming back. This makes it a good dish for the feast of the dead and November.
Of course in the Andes, November is a different time than in the northern lands of my childhood and the different ones of my ancestors.There November is dark and cold and peas remind of the scant sustenance available for that long dark period. In the Andes the month is the beginning of the growing season when the earth opens and receives the rain and sprouts seed to form the crops of the coming year. Dried peas are what remains of the former year as you await the coming, new crops.
Our soup in the US was scantily seasoned, other than from onion, garlic, pork and perhaps dried thyme, though we could always add the ever present vinegar of the north.
In the Andes, besides the onions and garlic, the peas are seasoned with that amazing hot pepper from the capsicum chinense species that is somehow not very hot but extremely rich in dark and broad flavors. In Bolivia we called it ají colorado while in Peru it is known as ají panca.
At the moment I am in Utah and it snowed yesterday. More is promised for today. The streets and sidewalks are covered in white on top of ice and temperatures are well below freezing. Today is a day to bring the rainy season of the Andes into my heart along with the cariño, the love, of the people who shared food with me over many decades. It is time to make up an ají de arvejas, a yellow split pea stew.
Here is a recipe adapted from Bolivia’s La Prensa.
Ají de arvejas
2 Lbs. of ground beef (in Bolivia you would finely mince an equivalent amount or less)
1 Lb. (16 ounces) split yellow peas.
5 medium potatoes (I used Yukon gold that I obtained from a local farmer)
1 quart of water
1 large red onion
1 large, ripe tomato (since tomatoes are not good right now, I used a quality, tomato puree)
2 large carrots
2 Tbs ají panca (red ají) paste (you can grind the whole, soaked peppers in a blender, though I used bottled paste—Doña Isabel brand.)
1 Tbs finely diced parsley
2 cloves of garlic
1 Tsp sugar
1 Tsp salt
4 Tbs oil
Add a couple of Tbs oil to a heated fry pan and coat your pan. Add the dried peas that you have previously gone through to remove any impurities or stones (though you seldom find those anymore in peas from the US.) Over medium heat toast the peas, stirring continuously till they reach a light caramel color. Set aside in a bowl and toast your garlic, turning regularly, until heated through and lightly toasted. Remove. Add your ají panca paste and fry it for a couple of minutes or so. Remove and set aside.
Peel and your onion and prepare a 1/8 inch dice. Peel and dice your carrots into 1/4 inch cubes. Mince the garlic.
Heat a dutch oven over medium high heat and make what is called an ahogado in Bolivia (aderezo in Peru or sofrito elsewhere). To do this, add three tablespoons oil to your pan and coat the pan. Add the diced onions and garlic and cook for three or four minutes until they are softened. Add the toasted ají panca paste and either the finely diced tomato or an equivalent of tomato puree. Let cook for three or four minutes, stirring frequently to assure it heats evenly. The ahogado will clump and requires stirring as a result.
Add your ground meat to your ahogado, breaking it apart and mixing it thoroughly. Cook the meat until there is no red left, stirring often.
Combine the toasted peas with this mixture and add the water. Cover and allow to simmer about a half hour.
While it is cooking peel and cut your potatoes in about a 1/3 inch dice. Set aside in water.
Now you need to calculate since dried peas require different cooking times at different altitudes. You will want your potatoes and the peas to be done at the same time. (P..S see note below.)
Add the potatoes and finish cooking.
When it is almost done add your salt and sugar. Adjust seasoning as needed.
You can serve the dish alongside rice, or by itself in a bowl or on your plate. Sprinkle freshly minced parsley on it.
I like to also add a bit of salsa cruda (Bolivia) or Zarza Criolla (Peru). This is red onion sliced into fine plumes that are soaked in salted water for some fifteen minutes or so to take out the bitters. Drain them and let dry. To this you can add minced parsley (Bolivia) or cilantro (Peru), along with a bit of minced hot pepper and / or tomato, should you wish. Place a bit of salsa cruda on your dish and it is ready to go to the table. (P.S. See note below.)
In Bolivia and Peru plates are served individually and are taken to the table where they are set before each person, rather than the US way of leaving the food in a bowl and letting individuals serve themselves the quantity they wish.
P.S. After letting the ají de arvejas settle, I realized the next time I make it I will double the ají panca paste and add more salt. A friend from Bolivia told me that the potatoes should be added with the peas so that they fall apart and thicken the juices. Traditionally the dish is served with chuño, freeze dried potatoes, or with tunta, the same only white. I am also told that one does not put the salsa cruda (onion and all) on the dish. You should just sprinkle parsley on it. Enjoy.