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Peruvian Pumpkin Stew with Chilies and Cheese

The approach of autumn is heralded by leaves changing color, the air getting crisper, and by the appearance in stores of winter squash and pumpkins. Squash and pumpkin are among the myriad delightful foods indigenous to the Americas. The word "squash" comes from the Natick and Narraganset Indian word askútasquash, while the word "pumpkin" comes from pumpion, a corruption of the French pompon, or melon. Well, the pumpkin is a fruit and a distant relative of the melon, but it isn’t a melon, it’s a squash. (For what it’s worth, the debate still goes on in some quarters as to what is a gourd, and is a gourd a squash, and which squashes are actually pumpkins, etc. — but WE know which is which, don’t we?)

Pumpkins and squash are members of the genus Cucurbita, and have in common firm, generally sweet flesh and hard rinds. Of the so-called "Indian triad" of maize, beans, and squash, it was probably squash that was cultivated first. At archeological sites in Mexico dated as early as 9000 BC seeds of several cultivated varieties of squash have been found.

In the U.S., we tend to think of pumpkin as pie, or maybe as soup, and squash as something you might have as a treat, but we are not world-class consumers. Worldwide, it is a favorite in stews, and it is a common vegetable in many countries. (I had pumpkin/squash with almost every hot meal I ate in Australia.) They are worth adding to the menu, since they are sweet, delicious, relatively inexpensive, and good for you. All squashes contain vitamin A, with the deep-colored varieties offering the most beta carotene, vitamin C and some of the B vitamins, and they are excellent sources of fiber.

While squash was consumed by indigenous peoples pretty much throughout North and South America, chilies and potatoes were strictly southern delicacies. South American Indians in the area of Brazil and Peru were eating wild chilies as early as 6500 BC Potatoes have their roots in the high Andes, and were possibly domesticated in Peru as early as 3000 BC The recipe below is from the region where potatoes and chilies got their start. It is a delicate yet flavorful dish. Though it is traditionally served with rice, the potatoes may be enough starch for you, in which case, other indigenous American fruits, like tomatoes and avocados, could be served on the side.

When preparing this dish, I find that squash is sometimes easier to work with than pumpkin, since it’s generally smaller. The last time I made it, I used half butternut and half acorn squash, and that yielded a wonderfully sweet, mellow stew. The chunks of squash and potato should be about 1-2 inches in whatever direction you choose (I love recipes that tell you to cube something that has no flat sides — bite-sized chunks are your goal here, and a vague sense of uniformity, so things cook at the same rate.) If you don’t have a kitchen scale, two pounds of pumpkin/squash chunks comes to about 8 cups.

It’s worth it to track down queso blanco (Chihuahua is the most common kind — just look in the deli section, if it’s not in the dairy case), because it melts well, and is the main source of salt in the recipe. But if you simply can’t find it, any salty, white cheese that melts easily will work (Monterey Jack would be a possibility, or even feta cheese). And don’t be intimidated by the chilies. The jalapeños are milder than the serranos, but neither add any noticeable heat when seeded and cooked this long. They do add a nice flavor, however, so don’t leave them out.

As for the leftover squash (an inevitability when you use two different kinds), I just simmered it in a little water, then mashed it and added salt, pepper, allspice and a little nutmeg. Yum. I love squash.

Peruvian Pumpkin Stew with Chilies and Cheese

1 onion, coarsely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 to 4 jalapeño or serrano chilies, seeded and chopped

1 Tbs. vegetable oil

2 pounds pumpkin or other winter squash, peeled and cut into chunks

2 medium white potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks

1 cup water

⅓ cup evaporated milk

1 cup shredded queso blanco (white cheese)

salt and pepper to taste

In a large frying pan, sauté onion, garlic and chilies in the oil, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender and beginning to brown. Add the pumpkin, potato and cup of water. Cover and reduce heat to low-medium. Let simmer until the pumpkin and potato are tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Stir in the milk and cheese and heat through. Season to taste with salt and fresh-ground black pepper. Garnish with additional cheese, if desired.

Serves 4‑6.

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