I grew up in Miami, which means I saw calabaza pumpkins more often than any other variety of gourd. These large, squat winter squashes are native to the Caribbean and feature in popular dishes throughout the region. Visit even the most mainstream supermarket chain in Miami, and you will find a mountain of calabaza pumpkin wedges in the produce section. The mottled yellow and green skin, orange flesh, and dense clusters of seeds vividly call out to shoppers through shiny plastic wrap. The mild, soft flesh melts into a velvety soup called crema de zapallo, which my mother learned to make in Peru. I’m sure other Peruvian immigrants—and in Miami, there are many—used calabazas to recreate this dish, too.
The city’s significant Peruvian community ensures that native seasonings, like ají amarillo chilies and an herb called huacatay, are easily procurable at almost any supermarket. These ingredients, when combined with calabaza pumpkin, form the base of a dish called locro de zapallo. Heartier and more complex than my mom’s simple pumpkin soup, this is one of few vegetarian entrees in a very meat heavy cuisine. The dish includes potatoes, fava beans, and a variety of giant corn called choclo. Ají amarillo gives the stew a yellow hue, bright flavor, and subtle heat, and finely chopped huacatay adds a hint of freshness similar in flavor to Japanese shiso or Korean perilla leaves. The dish is finished with a dash of milk and chunks of uncultured queso fresco that melt slightly from the heat of the stew. It is a spicy, creamy, slightly herbaceous symphony of textures, a welcome treat in Lima’s frigid winters. And in Miami, locro can be as simple to recreate as mac and cheese when temperatures drop to a chilly (for us) 65 degrees.
But when I lived in Boston, I faced the challenge of having to hunt down fundamental Peruvian ingredients. Even basic Latin American and Caribbean foods—plantains, cassava, and queso fresco—required special trips. As a result, I ended up developing new dishes that took inspiration from traditional Peruvian preparations but made use of ingredients readily available at most retailers.
This stew can be seen as the gringo version of locro de zapallo. Confession: Zapallo is the Peruvian word for a particular kind of pumpkin indigenous to South America, and the closest equivalent available in the United States is the Caribbean calabaza pumpkin. That being said, the pot of locro that I make in Miami technically isn’t 100 percent authentic, but it is close enough to the original to be familiar to most Peruvians. So how could I recreate an already inauthentic soup, and make it good?
Enter butternut squash. It finds a perfect home in this (second) reimagining of locro de zapallo. Other ingredients have been substituted so that most cooks can recreate this recipe at home without having to hunt for Peruvian and Caribbean ingredients. As such, the recipe I’m giving you is quite removed from what someone might eat in Peru or Miami, which is why I cannot call it by its original name. Red pepper flakes replace the oftentimes elusive ají amarillo, and give this dish a gentle kick. Instead of huacatay, basil adds its sweet aroma, along with flecks of green. American sweet corn stands in for Peruvian choclo, and shelled edamame replaces fava beans, which can be difficult to find out of season. In place of evaporated milk, which is the go-to in Peru (and Miami), heavy cream gives lusciousness to this stew. Queso fresco isn’t always readily available and can be prohibitively expensive when it is, but I have found that fresh mozzarella fills the role beautifully.
Despite its departure from authenticity, one could say that the recipe below has a Peruvian soul and an American body. Just like the locro from which it takes inspiration, this soul-warming dish is hearty, creamy, just a bit spicy, and has the added bonus of melting cheese, which makes everything better. Also like original, it is easy to prepare and can become a weeknight mainstay like it is in many Peruvian homes. The stew reflects how immigrants adapt recipes to the ingredients available to them in their new homes—and, in turn, create uniquely American dishes.
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 medium to large yellow onion, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
- 1 medium-sized butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and diced into 1-inch cubes (approximately 5 cups)
- 1 large Yukon Gold potato, peeled and diced into 1-inch cubes (approximately 2 cups)
- 4 cups vegetable or chicken broth
- 1 cup frozen shelled edamame (fava beans work here, too)
- 1 cup frozen corn kernels
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon finely-chopped fresh basil
- 1 cup fresh mozzarella, diced into 1-inch cubes
- Salt and pepper to taste
Is there a recipe you've had to adapt due to unavailable ingredients? Let us know in the comments!