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When it comes to Peruvian food — widely considered the most refined cuisine in Latin America — the Peruanos are not shy about expressing their cultural pride.

And no one takes more pride in that country’s cuisine than Olenka Orjeda of Santa Rosa, a recent Peruvian transplant who has made it her mission to bring her native country’s authentic home cooking to the North Bay, where she delights guests with pop-up dinners, private parties and cooking classes.

“We have a lot of creativity in Peru,” said the chef, who runs her own catering business, Olenka Cooks! “For me, Peru is like a big, melting pot of different cultures: Spaniards, Africans, Chinese and Japanese. Our cuisine has a lot of influences from these other countries and from our own people, the Incas.”

By melding New World ingredients like peppers, potatoes and quinoa with other culture’s spices and techniques, Peru has earned its place on the international gastronomic map, whetting appetites with its mouth-watering ceviches and potato dishes, seafood stews and tropical fruits.

The capital city of Lima is now a major destination for food lovers, playing host to Latin America’s largest food festival, Mistura, every September. And Peruvian chefs such as Virgilio Martinez, chef/owner of Central restaurant in Lima, are now riding a wave of popularity matched only by the foraging chefs of Scandinavia.

But just because Peruvian food is trending hot right now doesn’t mean it’s not accessible to the average home cook, and that is the message that Orjeda wants to get across to Wine Country.

“To people who have never experienced it, it may sound scary,” she said. “But if you can get a couple of key ingredients — the peppers for spice and the key limes for acidity — then most of it is very approachable.”

As a Third World country, Peru has developed a versatile but affordable way of eating that does not involve a high proportion of expensive meat. And carbs on top of carbs can often be the norm.

“We eat beans, quinoa, rice, pasta and potatoes, and we use a lot of vegetables,” she said. “It feels like comfort food.”

In 2012, Orjeda married Vintners Inn General Manager Percy Brandon, who is also from Peru, uprooting herself to move to Sonoma County. Although she had worked in the banking industry in Lima, Orjeda opted to switch to her true passion of cooking, at the urging of her husband.

“I love to cook,” she said. “That was my dream from childhood.”

She recently completed the Santa Rosa Junior College Culinary Arts Program in order to help her English and cooking terminology. Meanwhile, the couple is raising twin, 2-year-old boys, Vincenzo and Giacomo.

While growing up in La Punta, a peninsula connected to Lima’s old port of Callao, Orjeda first learned to cook at the knee of her grandmother, known as “Mamama” in Peru.

“My grandmother was an awesome cook,” she said. “I have always had a front row seat in the kitchen with her.”

The ingredients in Peru are as wildly diverse as the land itself, with the irrigated coastal plain yielding grassy vegetables such as asparagus, the Andes mountains providing 3,800 different types of colorful potatoes and the Peruvian Amazon offering succulent fruits like the sweet guanábana to the juicy passion fruit.

And, thanks to the Humboldt current, which creates a cold, high-nutrient coastal upwelling along the west coast of South America, there is always plenty of fresh fish and crustaceans, all year long, on the Peruvian table.

Much of the country’s fresh catch goes directly into its delicious ceviches, a lunchtime appetizer that popped up in Peru under the influence of the Japanese, who started immigrating there in the 1800s to farm.

“The fresher the fish, the more you appreciate it,” she said. “We cut the fish, season it with salt and eat it fresh. That fish came from the ocean to your plate.”

To make a classic ceviche here, Orjeda sources local rock cod because she finds it is the closest equivalent to the lenguado (flouder) that is served in most Peruvian ceviches.

“The consistency of the cod is good, the color is precise and the flavor is good,” she said. “We serve it in a little bowl, because ceviches are supposed to be juicy.”

First, the fish is cut into small cubes. Then Orjeda chops up red onions, yellow Peruvian peppers (aji amarillo), limo peppers (aji limo), garlic, ginger, celery and cilantro.

“The last thing you do is squeeze key lime juice over it,” she said. “Then you garnish the ceviche with cooked sweet potato, which helps if you bite into a pepper that’s too pungent.”

To further garnish the dish, she adds some soft Peruvian corn (choclo) — a giant variety of field corn from the Andes — as well as dried Peruvian corn (canchita).

There are two other kinds of Peruvian ceviches, she said. The Leche de Tigre, with fish stock and fish scraps used in the base of the sauce; and Tiradito, which is similar to a crudo or carpaccio, with raw fish cut into thin slices like sashimi, and then topped with the spicy Leche de Tigre.

One of the indigenous ingredients Orjeda likes to incorporate into Peruvian feasts is the quinoa seed, an energy-boosting staple grown in the mountains of Peru for 5,000 years. Most Americans, she believes, do not know how to make quinoa delicious.

“For me, quinoa should taste as you season it,” she said. “I make a good sauté of onions, garlic, red Peruvian pepper paste (aji panca) and yellow Peruvian pepper (aji amarillo).”

As an appetizer, Orjeda developed the hybrid Peruvian-Italian dish of Quinoa Arancini — small balls of quinoa mixed with Parmesan cheese and coated with rice flour, then fried. She serves it with a side of homemade Huancaina sauce, which is sort of like the Peruvian versino of Pimento Cheese.

“It’s a cheesy, creamy, spicy but not too hot sauce,” she said. “It comes from the town of Huancayo.”

As a main dish for a Peruvian feast, Orjeda will often whip up a traditional Seafood Cau Cau (Cau Cau de Mariscos), a stew that demonstrates the cuisine’s ability to balance flavors. It combines the warmth of the yellow Peruvian pepper (aji amarillo), the freshness of mint and lemon and the earthiness of turmeric (palillo), set against a soothing backdrop of potatoes.

“The beauty of Peruvian food is in the balance between acidity and spiciness,” she said. “We do cook extremely in balance.”

The Africans originally made the Cau-Cau stew from tripe (cow stomach), but today, it serves as a vehicle for all kinds of proteins, from chicken to seafood.

“We eat it with garlicky, long-grain rice,” she said. “Rice is to Peruvians as tortillas are to Mexicans.”

The Pisco Sour, a cocktail marrying Peru’s potent grape brandy with key lime juice and whipped egg whites, is also a point of pride for Peruvians.

“Last year, the United Nations recognized pisco as our national, Peruvian, grape-distilled brandy,” Orjeda said. “I call it a ‘protein shake’ because of the egg white ... the foam on top makes it look so pretty.”

Because Peruvian food offers flavor and spice but not intense heat, Orjeda often serves her country’s cuisine at winemaker dinners all over Wine Country, including Lynmar Estate in Sebastopol.

“Peruvian food and local wines are to die for,” she said. “They just love each other.”

“Some people comment that we are a happy and energetic people,” she added. “I think it’s because we eat lots of garlic and onions, parsley and mint, Peruvian peppers and seafood ... it’s very healthy.”

The following recipes are from Olenka Orjeda of Olrnks Vookd! (olenkacooks.com) You can find frozen Peruvian chiles (aji amarillo and aji limo), aji amarillo paste, Peruvian corn (choclo) and popcorn (canchita) at labodegaperuana.com.

Quinoa Arancinis (Bolitas de Quinoa)

Makes 30 to 40 arancinis

1 small white onion or shallot, diced

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons minced garlic

1 cup white quinoa

½ cup white wine

3 cups chicken stock

1 cup shredded Parmesan

1 cup shredded mozzarella

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 cups breadcrumbs

2 eggs, beaten

Frying oil (Mazola corn oil)

In a large pot, sauté onion with olive oil. When soft and translucent, add the garlic. Incorporate the quinoa and sauté for 1 minute. Add the wine and cook until the alcohol evaporates.

Add the chicken stock and let it boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes, until it is cooked. Turn off the heat.

Add the cheeses and combine. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour the mixture over a cookie sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Do not allow any space between the quinoa mixture and the plastic paper. Refrigerate at least 2 hours.

Cut into 1-inch cube and roll each cube into a ball. Pass the ball through the beaten eggs and then roll over the crumbs. Deep fry until golden brown in enough oil to cover the balls. Serve with Huancaina sauce (recipe below), Huacatay or Rocoto sauce.


Huancaina Sauce

Makes about 2 cups

3 to 5 Peruvian aji amarillo (yellow peppers)

10 ounces queso fresco (casero or cotija)

¼ cup evaporated milk

¼ cup corn oil

Pinch salt

Remove the stems of the Peruvian aji amarillo and cut into chunks. Mix in blender with cubed queso fresco, milk and corn oil. Add salt and check consistency. If it is not thick enough, add 4 saltine crackers and blend until you get the appropriate texture.


Peruvian Ceviche

Makes 4 servings

1 pound rock cod fish fillets

Sea salt, to taste

1 red onion, cut in half lengthwise and sliced very thinly

2 small ice cubes

½ cup fresh key lime juice

Salt and pepper

1 small aji amarillo, rib and seeds removed, diced

1 small aji limo, diced

2 cloves garlic

2 teaspoons cilantro leaves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon celery, chopped fine

½ teaspoon fresh ginger, diced

1 sweet potato (cooked in water with sugar, cinnamon and orange peel), then skinned and sliced ¼-inch thick

2 kinds of Peruvian corn (choclo - see note below, and dried canchita)

2 tablespoons sugar, for choclo

Anise seeds, for chocolo

2 teaspoons key lime juice, for choclo

Cut the fish into ¾ to 1-inch cubes. Place in a cold bowl and season with sea salt. Slice the onion.

In a separate bowl, combine 2 small ice cubes, key lime juice, salt and pepper, Peruvian aji amarillo and aji limo, garlic, cilantro, celery and ginger. Taste for seasoning. Add the fish.

Rinse the sliced onion in lots of water with salt. Strain it and add it to the ceviche.

Serve in a shallow bowl with boiled sweet potato slices, Peruvian giant corn (choclo) and Peruvian popcorn (canchita.)

Note:To serve the choclo, take one bag of the frozen corn and boil it with 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 small spice bag of anise seeds for 15 minutes. When cooked, drain, remove spice bag and add the lime juice.


Seafood Cau-Cau

Makes 4 servings

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 red onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

5 tablespoons yellow aji amarillo paste (see note below)

½ teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon turmeric

4 white or red potatoes, cut into ½ inch cubes

2 cups fish stock

¼ cup cooked octopus, chopped

½ cup calamari, cleaned and chopped

16 shrimp (prawns), peeled and cleaned

15 small scallops, clenaed

6 sprigs mint, finely minced

2 teaspoons key lime juice

Salt and pepper

Sauté the small diced onion in a pan until tender. Add garlic and Peruvian yellow pepper paste and cook for 1 minute. Add cumin and turmeric and mix all together.

Add 1 cup of stock and the cubed potatoes. Let cook until potatoes are almost done. Add the octopus, shrimp, calamari and scallops along with remaining stock. Cook for 1 minute over low heat and taste it.

Incorporate the minced mint leaves and mix it all together. Turn off the stove and add the lime juice. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with white, fluffy and garlicky Peruvian-style rice (recipe below.)

Note: You can buy pre-made paste, or make it yourself. To make your own paste, take 6 aji amarillo peppers and blend with 2 cloves garlic, 2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 cup corn oil. Put in a jar and refrigerate.


Peruvian White Rice

Makes 4 servings

¼ cup corn oil

3 tablespoons garlic paste

2 cups white, long-grain basmati rice

1½ cups water

In a large saucepan, heat oil, add rice and salt. Stir the rice until you start seeing the change of color (to deep white); add the garlic and sauté for about 1 minute.

Add the water and stir. As soon as it starts boiling, cover with the lid and put in minimum temperature for 20 minutes. Do not open lid!

After 20 minutes, do not open yet! Turn off the stove and let it rest for about 10 to 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork and enjoy.


Pisco sour

Makes 1 serving

3 ounces of Pisco

1 ounce simple syrup

1 ounce key lime juice

6 ice cubes

½ egg white

2 drops Angostura bitters

Put in a shake or blender all the ingredients in the following order: first pisco, then simple syrup, lime juice, ice and finally the egg white.

If you use a shaker, beat for 10 seconds. If using a blender, blend for 5 seconds.

Pour and decorate the top of each cocktail with 2 drops Angostura bitters.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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