Let’s talk about Peru. This is going to be tough, because there is so much to say! It remains one of my favorite countries I’ve ever visited: Incan ruins, deserts and canyons, the Amazon rainforest, the highest navigable lake in the world, and thriving cities, to start. And oh yeah, the food. Always the food.
Peru is the country that really made me passionate about food. Before Instagram was created and long before I started blogging, I went around Peru snapping photos of my plates. I couldn’t help it because they were so stunning and delicious.
At the time I was there (2010), my friends and I were able to eat multi-course meals at some of the most renowned restaurants in the country for $20-40 USD…an unbelievable value. So eat we did. At Astrid & Gastón, the flagship restaurant of world-renowned chef Gastón Acurio, and at his restaurant Chica in Arequipa. At the Huaca Pucllana restaurant, fine dining right inside Pre-Incan ruins. Alongside the Pacific Ocean, nestled in the cliffs of Lima. And everywhere else we could get in two weeks.
I’ve wanted to learn a dish from Peru for a long time. It’s a challenge because, firstly, the bar is so high! And so many of the traditional and indigenous ingredients aren’t super easy to find in the US, or they aren’t vegetarian. But I’ve created a variation of the Rocoto Relleno, or spicy stuffed pepper hailing from Arequipa in the south of Peru, that I’m proud of. A rocoto is a red pepper – it looks suspiciously like a sweet bell pepper, but its heat level is closer to a habanero..it’s very spicy especially if eaten raw. For this dish, the spice level is reduced by boiling the rocoto three times in water and sugar, then stuffing it with chopped beef, pork, eggs, cheese, and spices, and baking it with melted cheese on top. It’s often topped with a mixture of evaporated milk and egg, and served alongside potatoes. One of the key ingredients is ají panca, another Peruvian pepper (this one is much milder than the rocoto) which is often sold as a paste.
I use a stuffed red bell pepper instead of a rocoto and added the spice to the filling, mainly because it’s challenging to find rocotos here and the boiling process sounds tedious. I also swapped mushrooms and lentils for beef and pork, and skipped the step with evaporated milk and eggs and the potatoes. Because the ají panca was also challenging to find, especially on my busy schedule these days, it is omitted from my version even though you would typically include it. However, I did try to stick to other traditions of the dish, including adding olives, hard-boiled eggs, and raisins to the filling and topping it with queso fresco. Even if it’s not perfectly Peruvian, I found the result warm, cozy, and comforting for a late fall food. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do! What’s a food you’ve always wanted to learn how to make?
This recipe is based off of the Rocoto Relleno recipe on The Spruce Eats by Marian Blazes. I liked this recipe because it was adaptable and didn’t require the use of ají panca.
I used sweet bell peppers from the supermarket and green lentils and mushrooms for the filling. I added spiciness to the dish by adding some dried chilis de árbol that I had in the cabinet, but you could also use a habanero or some cayenne powder if that’s what you have. And if you can’t find queso fresco, I suspect fresh mozzarella would make a decent substitute (though I didn’t try it yet).
This dish seems intimidating because of the long ingredient list and steps, but it comes together in an hour and really goes quite smoothly. There are a few key prep pieces. I get these started before chopping anything at all. First, the lentils should be cooked to at least al dente before the get added with everything else. Second, the recipe recommends pouring boiling water over raisins to plump them. I thought this was probably an extraneous step so I skipped it once, and I really did notice a difference in how juicy they were, so don’t skip it! Third, if you don’t have a hard-boiled egg on hand make one now, you’ll need it by the end. Once that’s all started, you can chop everything else.
Sauté the mushroom, onions, garlic, and whatever chilis you’re using in oil, adding cumin and sweet paprika once soft. Add in the cooked lentils and raisins, then add vegetable broth and simmer until the liquid is absorbed. Finally, add in olives and chopped hard-boiled egg and remove from heat.
Prepare your peppers. Start by slicing the tops off, but don’t throw them out! Then, core the peppers. Remove as much of the veins as possible and then rinse out the seeds. Now your peppers are ready to be stuffed. Add queso to the mushroom and lentil mixture and stuff your peppers. Don’t be afraid to pack it in if you have extra mixture!
Top with queso fresco slices and bake in the oven. I like to broil mine for the last five minutes so the peppers and cheese start to brown, but this depends on how your broiler works and personal preference. Serve warm and enjoy!
Vegetarian Spicy Stuffed Peppers (Rocoto Relleno)
60 minutes, serves 4
- 1/2 cup dried green lentils, rinsed
- 2 cups vegetable broth, divided
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1 hard-boiled egg, coarsely chopped
- 3 tablespoons canola oil
- 1/2 pound (8 ounces) mushrooms, coarsely chopped
- 1 red onion, diced
- 2 chile peppers (I used chile de árbol, substitute 1 habanero)
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1/3 cup sliced black olives
- 1/2 cup queso fresco crumbled, plus 4 slices
- 4 red bell peppers
- Large frying pan
- Tongs (optional, but handy for handling the peppers and the egg)
- Baking sheet or casserole dish (something to roast the peppers in the oven)
- Small pot
- Cook the lentils. Heat 1 1/4 cups vegetable broth until boiling, then add lentils and reduce to a simmer. Cook for 15-20 minutes, or until just tender. Drain once cooked and set aside.
- Prep the raisins and egg. Place the raisins in a small bowl and cover with boiling water, let sit for at least 10 minutes. Drain when finished. Hard boil the egg by cooking in boiling water for 10 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
- While the lentils, raisins, and egg are prepping, chop everything else.
- Heat the canola oil in a large frying pan. Add mushrooms, onions, chilis, and garlic. Cook on medium high until mushrooms and onions are slightly soft, about 5 minutes.
- Add the paprika and cumin and cook for 2 more minutes. Then add the cooked lentils, drained raisins, and remaining 3/4 cup vegetable broth. Reduce to a simmer for approximately 10 minutes, or until the liquid is fully absorbed.
- Stir in the black olives and hard boiled egg. Remove the mixture from heat and let sit for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the peppers. Remove the tops, but don’t throw them away. Wash out the seeds and cut down the veins.
- Crumble 1/2 cup queso fresco and combine to the lentil-mushroom mixture. Stuff the peppers with the mixture. Top with a slice of queso fresco.
- Place the peppers on a baking sheet or in a casserole dish, with the tops next to them. Bake for 10 minutes. Then broil for 5 minutes or until the cheese is slightly toasted. Serve warm.