The weather is changing. A chill rain falls where I am in the US.. The leaves in the valley are on the edge of becoming a miraculous gold and my street will seem a tunnel of bright color.
With the hint of cold in the air, I want something heavier than the light fare of summer, something with the weight and nutrition to sustain as days grow shorter and new colors appear.
My thoughts turn to a dish I have not had for awhile, though it is a classic of the Peruvian cuisine that increasingly occupies me, lomo saltado. A stir fry of tender beef, red onions and firm tomatoes served with french fries and rice, it is just dark enough, colorful enough, and savory enough to satisfy me as fall flirts.
I could just go to a local Peruvian restaurant to satisfy my urges, since this dish has become a standard on their menus, but I find it highly varied from restaurant to restaurant. I want something really good and not just so so.
For years I ordered lomo saltado regularly whether in Peru or the United States; it is such a singular and symbolic dish. But that was years ago. I do not know when this iconic dish and I split paths nor when we first met.
It must have been the first time I went to Cusco, young and filled with excitement to be in my great aunt Lola’s country, a place she talked about and whose food she made whenever we visited her, though I do not remember her ever serving us lomo saltado. It must have been that time in Cusco, when i was twenty-one and had just come with friends by train, steam-ship, train from La Paz, Bolivia where I had been living.
The orange tiled roofs and white walls of the then compact city of Inca monuments and distinctive culture captivated me, though I had lived in colonial cities with their architectural treasures in Bolivia. I am sure that it was either on Plateros Street or in the San Pedro market that I ate my first lomo saltado.
At the time, Cusco was not a center of fine cuisine. There were restaurants along the plaza, the main square, that offered international cuisine for local elites and tourists, but Plateros and most every other street where people gathered had restaurants much like those in Bolivia whose offerings were the fixed sequence menu of ordinary cuisine offered at various prices.The courses were a soup, a main course, a dessert, and a refresco (a fruit water or room temperature tea).
I do remember eating lomo saltado later in Lima, my aunt’s city, on another trip. I sat at a bar that surrounded an out-door kitchen. In the middle men worked with huge woks to make up instantly whatever people ordered.
The sounds of scents of pre-sliced meat and vegetables hitting an intensely hot, curved steel surface stays with me as does my surprise at seeing the cook add, at the end, soy sauce and black vinegar (though I did not know what the latter was then) to the barely cooked dish to heat right before serving.
He ladled it out of containers of rich, dark sauce, and kept stirring, jumping all the ingredients around, before opening a vat of steaming rice. He mounded an ample amount of rice on the plate, scooped the fragrant meat and vegetables from the large wok, dusted the dish with minced parsley while quickly stuffing a small sprig of gleaming cilantro into the rice.
Suddenly it was before me and I sat there for an instant, slowly lifting my fork, while letting the perfumes wash over me.
Color, scent, and intense flavor. That is the first well formed memory I have of lomo saltado. It burst fresh from the wok, where I saw it cooked. That was as good an introduction as any to Peruvian food well-prepared.
I wanted to recreate that first experience of memory, sharp sounds of sizzling meat, black vinegar, fresh vegetables, french fries with flavor and all. Looking online and in various cookbooks was an exercise in frustration. They vary from a simple sautée to adding bell peppers and other ingredients. Some called for soy sauce and some white vinegar, but none used the black vinegar I remembered.
Gastón Acurio´s new cookbook in English, simply and boldly titled Peru: The Cookbook, had arrived with its colors like a rainbow over Cusco. His recipe called my attention, both for its straight forward simplicity and for what promised to be its depth of flavor.
With fresh and good ingredients straight from the farmer’s market, and a few things from my nearby Chinese store, I made it up.
Oh my. The flavor was far better than that of most restaurants and quickly transported me to that bar in Lima, watching, hearing, and smelling a lomo saltado miraculously appear from an intensely hot wok, one of the first woks I had ever seen.
Here is Gastón Acurio’s recipe along with notes in brackets and italics because no recipe makes its way without comment from page to plate.
Lomo Saltado (Beef Tenderloin Stir-Fry)
1 3/4 lb. beef tenderloin cut into 1/2 x 1 1/2 inch strips.
3 tablespoons vegetable oil plus extra for deep frying [I used peanut oil for the stir-frying and a good vegetable oil for the deep frying.]
14 oz. potatoes, cut into batons. [Potatoes are a problem. French fries in Peru are rich and flavorful, often with a light nuttiness because of the variety of potato used. To try to get some of this I did not use the russet potatoes most favored for French fries in the US and instead used two fresh-harvested yukon gold potatoes. They worked very well and had the flavor I wanted.]
1 red onion sliced. [I got my onion fresh from a Mexican vendor in our local farmer’s market. It had that intense bite you want. I sliced it in half and then into what in Spanish are called plumas—half inch wide, slightly arched strips—by cutting it lengthwise.]
2 yellow chillies, seeded, membrane removed and sliced. [I used cristal peppers from a friend’s garden. These are not the right ones, but come close. You would need fresh escabeche peppers from Peru but outside of some farmer’s markets, such as in the San Francisco Bay area, those are difficult to find. The frozen peppers of canned ones in Peruvian markets no longer have the right texture, so I substituted the cristal peppers. I suppose you could also use lemon drop, though they are fiercely hot. I did what Acurio called for and then, remembering how the dish is served in Peru, laid each half on my cutting board and julienned it in roughly 1/16th inch wide strips.]
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped. [I relied on a flavorful garlic from the farmer’s market and then used smallish cloves since garlic is not one of the strongest flavors of this dish]
5 tablespoons white wine vinegar. [I love the flavor of this vinegar, but found the amount in the recipe to be too much. It gave the dish more of a vinegar flavor than I liked so the second time I made it up I cut back the vinegar to four tablespoons and used Chinese black vinegar one time and then white wine vinegar. I love the muskiness added by the black vinegar but think, surprisingly, I prefer the richness of a good white wine vinegar.]
4 tablespoons soy sauce.
3 tablespoons oyster sauce [Acurio’s is the only recipe I found calling for oyster sauce, but I think the result is spot on.]
4 tomatoes skinned, seeded and sliced into half moon crescents. [I neither skinned nor seeded my tomatoes, remembering the many versions of this dish I had in Peru. I used fresh paste tomatoes from a friend’s garden and then added them, skin, seeds, and all at the last moment to barely heat through while retaining texture and shape. I think the skin adds to the aesthetics. But if you want to cook the tomato a bit more you might want to follow Acurio so that you do not end up with separated skins in your dish.]
1 scallion cut into 1 3/4 inch pieces [Oops. I forgot to buy scallions and so used fresh chives from the garden—sorry Gastón Acurio.]
1 tablespoon chopped cilanto leaves [I also forgot to buy the cilantro and only at the last minute remembered so instead I used some Mexcan pápalo from my garden. It gave a wonderful herbal note to the dish and I actually think I liked it better than the cilantro, though to be honest it is less authentic.]
2 cups, Peruvian-styled Cooked White Rice [Acurio’s recipe for the rice seems to have an error; I believe it confuses teaspoons for tablespoons. It will turn out way too salty if you follow it. To make it you basically sauté garlic in a fair amount of oil, add your water and bring to a boil, toss in the rice and salt, cover and let cook down for around ten minutes. It the rice is cooked through add a bit more oil and mix. Then let sit covered until ready to serve.]
Season the meat with salt and pepper and set aside [lightly since your soy sauce contains salt].[Make your French fries and set aside.]
Put 2 tablespoons of oil in a very hot wok, add the meat, and stir fry in four batches, until browned and medium well done, about 2 minutes. Remove from the wok and set aside.
Clean the wok with paper towels and return it to the heat, adding 1 tablespoon oil followed by the onion, yellow chilies, and garlic. Stir fry for 30 seconds, then add the pre-cooked meat, vinegar, soy sauce, and oyster sauce.
Stir-fry the ingredients over high heat for another 30 seconds and finish by adding the tomatoes, scallion, and chopped cilantro (coriander) leaves. Season with salt and pepper to taste. [I did not need to add any additional salt or pepper given the natural saltiness of the soy sauce and, as noted above, used chives and pápalo leaves instead of the scallions and cilantro].
Serve on plates with the potato batons and the rice. [The traditional way of making this is to add the French fries to the dish at the same time as the tomatoes, to quickly heat them through right before serving. Today people tend to serve them either on the side or below the lomo saltado. Either way is good, although each has proponents. In Peru they generally mold the rice onto the plate with a cup. You can serve it that way or simply mound it as you wish.
Oh, and do not forget, like I did, to stick a small sprig of cilantro (a couple of leaves) or parsley in your rice to liven up the presentation.