There’s a saying in Peru: Bueno es culantro pero no tanto. Translated, it means “Cilantro is good, but not too much.” Peruvians use this expression in all manner of conversation — not only when talking about food and cooking. In other words, they mean “too much of a good thing.” But the right amount of cilantro, says my friend Maria Elena, is the key to really good seco, a traditional Peruvian dish she learned while growing up in Lima.
Seco is easy; it’s a braised meat dish. I first tasted it at Maria Elena’s house last spring when she was giving me yet another free knitting lesson. I was just finishing my first scarf, and despite the many holes from dropped stitches and an uneven width from all those stitches I picked up, my dear friend and her lovely mother, Mariel, boosted my confidence. I’m now a knitting fiend — making fingerless gloves on four needles, no less. Seco will always have a special place in my heart.
Maria Elena takes liberties with her seco. It’s meant to be made with goat or lamb, but she prefers the flavor of stewing beef (what meat is less expensive?), and her husband doesn’t care for onions. If he’s in the house, she uses onion powder; if he isn’t home while she’s cooking, she uses fresh. But don’t tell him — there’s a theory that he doesn’t know that he actually likes onions, so shhhhh …
Seco also requires aji, a spicy pepper puree particular to Peru. (Other South American countries use aji, but it’s often made differently.) You could puree a roasted red pepper and a roasted jalapeno together for a similar flavor, or order aji online at: amigofoods.com
1 onion, finely diced
1 large garlic clove, minced
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 1/2 pounds stewing beef, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 bunch fresh cilantro, most stems included
2 tablespoons aji
3 tablespoons water
1 can Guinness or other stout
1 medium russet potato, peeled and diced
1 pound bag frozen peas
kosher or sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, saute onions and garlic in oil. Raise the heat and add meat. Brown well.
In a food processor, combine cilantro and aji with water and puree the mixture. Add to meat and stir well. Add stout, stir well, and simmer over low heat about 2 hours. When meat is tender, add potato pieces and cook about 10 minutes. Add peas and cook 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve over rice. This recipe feeds a small army: Maria Elena has four sons.