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Borrowing Zing from Cusco, A Spice Blend and US Recipies

Seasonings for Cusco Spice Blend (David Knowlton)

Seasonings for Cusco Spice Blend (David Knowlton)

Some things are just amazing. Among these are the flavor combinations of Peru. Disparate in origin, they come together, melding into something greater, a treasure found no where else. 

In them are kernels of ideas, brilliant and unusual like the kaleidoscope of colors in its corn—sunrise, sunset, summer’s day and the inky purple of night. They have superb uses within traditional Peruvian cooking but you can take them into your kitchen and use them in your recipes to surprise and delight.

This thought occurred to me when I was looking once again at Doña Mercedes’ list of seasonings for lechón, roast pork, found in the recipe section of this site. I remembered what it was like to eat this succulent and tender meat in her home where the richness of pork met flavors that I had no way to describe. They were unusual yet enticing, filled with the umami that makes you just want to have some more.

It was the same experience when I made her recipe in in the US and served it to friends. The roast sat overnight in flavors that percolated into it. It was first bathed in lime juice and soy sauce. Once that had dried I slathered it with a paste made from sunlight bright yellow ají peppers and their blackberry appeal, the earthy spiciness of cumin, and the sharpness of black pepper. To this I added the sticky pungency of garlic and a surprise, the oxymoronic sharp sweetness of ginger. Yes, ginger!

As it baked it filled the house with enticing perfumes that made it hard to wait for the meal to be served. And when it was, I could tell from the way my friends dug in that is was good.

Open Face Lechón Sandwich with Gravy and Peruvian Onion Zarza (David Knowlton)
Open Face Lechón Sandwich with Gravy and Peruvian Onion Zarza (David Knowlton)

Didn’t I say that Peruvian seasonings are a surprise! You find the spicy, fruity hotness of Native American chile peppers, the caravan of spice and citrus from the Middle East, as well as the tang of ginger that can go both into candy and savory food.

Give it now the depth of fermented soy sauce and you have a combination that brings America and the Old World of Europe and Asia together.  Yet,it is as if it came together in the pots of the Inca sisters who, along with their brothers, were said to have come from the earth and made a civilization.

I looked at the list and thought “why can’t I extract that set of flavors and use it in other recipes”.  It seemed it should bring zing and depth to many other foods as well.

Holding aside the lime juice and soy sauce, and using dry spices, I made a combination mostly following the proportions Doña Mercedes had given. I thought I would use it, adapting it to each recipe, along with the soy sauce and lime juice. I did pull out, however, the salt and black pepper figuring that should be added to taste according to the recipe instead of being part of the spice blend.

Cusco Spice Blend

1 tsp garlic powder

4 tsp ground cumin

4 tsp ground ginger

12 tbs ground yellow ají

Mix together and set aside for immediate use of store in a sealed container. (Remember to add somewhere the lime juice and soy sauce in the proportions of the juice of 1 lime and 1/4 teaspoon of soy sauce as you make your recipes).

I had 1 lb. of  ground chicken handy. I had bought for something else, but decided to use it to put my idea to the test. “Why not make up some chicken meatballs in a savory sauce using the blend?”

Seasonings for Cusco Spice Blend (David Knowlton)
Chicken Meatballs with Cusco Spice Blend (David Knowlton)

For the meatballs I first took stale bread from which I removed the crust. I placed it in a bowl and added water. The bread soaked up the liquid and then crumbled beautifully when I squeezed it through my fingers.

To the crumbled bread I added the chicken, a tablespoon of the Cusco Spice Blend, and one egg. I mixed it all together with my hands and set it aside.

In the meantime I set a fry pan to heat over a medium high temperature and finely minced half of one good sized red onion as well as a clove of garlic. When the pan was hot I added a tablespoon of olive oil and set the onions and garlic to sauté until soft. Over it, I sprinkled  a tablespoon and a half of the spice mixture, stirred it in and let it cook with the onions for another minute or so.

In Peru they call this blend of alliums and seasoning an aderezo.  It is the base of many dishes, using different combinations of seasonings.  In other countries they often call it a sofrito.

I then added a quarter cup of white wine and let it reduce a bit before adding a quarter cup of the lime and soy sauce blend. Once that was simmering, I added a two cups of chicken broth and returned it to a boil. 

Now I fashioned my chicken balls and set them into the sauce and let them cook till done and until the sauce had concentrated and simmered down into a heavenly elixir.

I have to confess. About two thirds of the way there I tasted the sauce to check the level of salt.  Oh my! I could barely contain myself. I wanted to just spoon it up and slurp it down until there was none left.

Despite the overwhelming temptation, I put the lid back on the pan and left it to finish cooking.

I served it with a Peruvian white rice—one cooked with onion, garlic, and oil—as well as a green salad with a simple vinaigrette, the experiment a succulent success.

Now I am scheming other recipes I can cook with this blend of spices and its unusual combination of flavors. 

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