Whew, the past month has been a whirlwind! Between the holidays and a last-minute trip to Guatemala, I’ve barely had time to breathe, let alone develop new recipes. I’m back now, though, and, with the freezing winter temperatures of northern Illinois, likely to spend much of my time indoors – and cooking (this pepian root vegetable stew is just the first of what will hopefully be many recipes that emerge from my kitchen this winter).
Let’s start with my trip to Guatemala.
A few weeks ago, my friend texted me with a unique opportunity: to accompany her leading a service learning trip to Guatemala through her office at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Obviously, I jumped on this offer to not only travel to Guatemala (for free) but also to contribute, in a slight way, to improving the life of a Guatemalan family.
We worked with an organization called ImagininGuatemala, which recruits groups from all over the world to travel to Guatemala and help build a house for a family (in four days, no less!). The people from this organization were amazing to work with – friendly, excited, and clearly passionate about their work.
The family that we helped build the house for really needed it – their family of five was living in a space no bigger than a large tent, and about as well-constructed. Although the house we built was small and, by our standards, very basic, it was a huge step up for them.
The family was there every day we were, both helping and, in the children’s case, entertaining us. Even though my Spanish skills are very limited, all of us were nearly in tears when we had to say good-bye (just another example that sharing a language isn’t necessary to form bonds with people).
In addition to the days we spent building (and these were long, exhausting days of mixing cement and hauling cinder blocks), we did a few tourist activities and had some time to explore Antigua. It is an old Spanish colonial town and, because of building restrictions, retains much of the old architecture. The area has frequent earthquake activity, so there were many ruined cathedrals and churches, which have yet to be restored due to lack of funding.
The best view of the city was from Cerro de la Cruz, or the Cross on a Hill. A short hike up the hill, and all of Antigua was spread out below us, plus a great view of volcano Agua.
In fact, our first day was spent hiking volcano Pacaya. Imagine a rather peaceful hike through a green mountain forest and, at the top, walking into a desolate landscape of dried lava. We felt like we were on a different planet (Mars, maybe?).
One of the most striking things about Antigua, and the surrounding area, is the number of volcanoes. From a good vantage point, you could see four volcanoes, one of which is currently active (volcano Fuego). At night, we were able to see fire and lava erupting from the volcano, which was a very surreal experience. We felt like we should be fleeing the city or something (although the volcano was too far away to cause any damage).
We spent one weekend at Lake Atitlan (rumored to be so smooth it is like a mirror, although it definitely wasn’t when we were there), visiting villages and markets. At one of the villages we went to, San Juan la Laguna, we learned about the local plants and how they are used to dye thread and as medicine.
Another, Chichicastenango, has one of the largest markets in Guatemala. Although much of it was super touristy (think fake Mayan relics), I really enjoyed walking through the inner part of the market, where they were selling food (surprise, surprise).
Freshly made tortillas (tortillas los tres tiempos!) and gurgling pots of stew abounded on every corner, even in Antigua. And at least one of the pots of stew was sure to contain pepian de pollo, one of Guatemala’s most iconic dishes.
I had this sauce (sans chicken) once while I was there, at a Mayan cultural center outside the city. They served it with rice and fresh tortillas – a riff on one of my favorite things ever (sauce + bread).
The pepian I had was thin and mildly spiced, with a tomato base. Some of the pots I had seen bubbling away on the streets, though, looked more like what I wanted to create: a thick, spicy stew that would stick with you even in the coldest weather (I went from highs of 75 in Guatemala to highs of 4 here, so I needed something warming).
This recipe for pepian root vegetable stew fulfills all of my requirements.
The pepian sauce (which I adapted from this recipe on Revue magazine) consists of toasted chilies, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds, blended with charred garlic, onions, tomatoes, and a handful of cilantro. This creates a large amount of a very thick chili sauce (which I’m sure can be used for other things, too).
Since it’s winter here, I wanted hearty root vegetables for the stew. I used onions, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, and celeriac root, but you can use whatever pleases you (even just the pantry staples of onion, carrots, celery, and potatoes would work). After cooking these in a large Dutch oven with some salt, I added vegetable broth and about half of the pepian sauce.
Let it simmer away until the vegetables are tender. I added a couple of tablespoons of coconut oil at the end of cooking, to add some fatty goodness (and get that golden, oily sheen you would get on a meat-based stew). Sounds kind of gross, but I think it added a lot of richness to the stew.
And that’s it! Top with some more cilantro, maybe some lime juice (if you’re so inclined), and serve with rice and tortillas. I think my next experiment will be making tortillas from scratch, the way they do in Guatemala.