How Peruvian Stuffed Peppers Made it into California Cuisine

For a vintage California dinner party at my home in Philadelphia the other night, I made a recipe from the 1903 Landmarks Club Cook Book called Peruvian Albondigas. The word means meatballs – in this case, meatballs of lamb, olives and hardboiled eggs stuffed into peppers. 

What is Californian about a Peruvian recipe? California cuisine is based on a mélange of ingredients and cooking styles brought to the state by immigrants from around the world. During the first decades after statehood, before the transcontinental railroad was completed, the ports strung out along the Pacific rim of the Americas, were a lot more accessible to California than most of the rest of the United States, served as they were by regularly scheduled coastal steamship lines. Contingents of fortune seekers from Chile and Peru were among the first to reach California in the Gold Rush, and they brought their foodways with them. Which is why it is fitting that a Peruvian recipe has a place in Vintage California Cuisine.

This particular recipe, to be sure, was most likely not brought to the state by a gold seeker during the Gold Rush. It is from the Landmarks Club Cook Book, published in Los Angeles in 1903 as a fund raiser for an organization that had recently been revived by Charles Fletcher Lummis to restore California’s neglected Spanish-era missions. Lummis himself probably collected it during 10 miserable months that he spent in Peru in 1892-93. A flamboyant journalist, Indian rights activist and aficionado of Southwestern cuisine (among many other things), Lummis accompanied his dour friend, the famous archeologist Adolph Bandelier, on an archeological expedition to Peru that winter. They had agreed that Lummis, a past master at getting attention, would publicize the discoveries from the ancient ruins that Bandelier intended to excavate, by writing articles for the leading magazines of the day.

Charles Lummis, photo courtesy of the Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, N.21821.

In reality, as I reported in the biography I wrote about Lummis, Bandelier, who was beset with a succession of agonizing ailments, and worst of all, endured the drawn out death of his wife in Lima, became paranoid that Lummis would steal all the credit for his findings. So Bandelier basically abandoned Lummis in gloomy Lima and headed out to the ruins on his own. Lummis’s loneliness dripped from the letters he wrote to his wife, averaging 1,500 words a day for every one of the 279 days that he was in Peru. In my research for the biography, I had time to barely dip into that particular 416,000-word batch of correspondence. But knowing of Lummis’s fascination with food, and his tendency to obsessively record such details as what he ate every day, I suspect that this particular recipe was included in one of those letters.

lamb, olives and hard-boiled egg stuffing

All of which is to say, there was enough of historical interest for me in these  stuffed peppers that I was going to enjoy them, whether they were tasty or not. I must also say, I wasn’t convinced just how good they would be. The recipe uses raisins in ways that wouldn’t have occurred to me – both in the stuffing mixed with olives and in the tomato sauce. What’s up with that, I thought. Raisins, as it happens, turn up unexpectedly in a number of vintage California recipes – in the enchilada, stuffed pepper and stuffed onion recipes in a cookbook published in Santa Barbara in 1888, for instance, and in a green bean recipe published in 1910 by San Francisco’s leading celebrity chef of that era, Victor Hirtzler. I couldn’t find a single reference to raisins in my copy of the authoritative, 500-page Border Cookbook: Authentic Home Cooking of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico. With our massive refrigerators, stuffed with fresh ingredients, have we lost touch with the many virtues of dried fruits? Maybe. If so, that’s our loss, judging from this recipe, which, to finally get to the point of this post, was outstanding, according to all of my dinner guests.

So, here’s the recipe, followed by a few comments about how I interpreted, and experimented, with it.

Peruvian Albondigas

Boil mutton till tender. Scald large green chile peppers and remove their thin outer skin. Hash the meat and make it into a stuffing with raisins, stoned ripe olives and hard-boiled eggs minced fine. Fill the peppers with this stuffing and put them in a pot in which has already been prepared a sauce of tomatoes, whole red chile peppers, raisins, onion and a little broth, and heat slowly, twenty minutes, without stirring. Garlic can be added.

Source: The Landmarks Club Cook Book:
 a California Collection of the Choicest
Recipes 
 from Everywhere (1903)

First of all, I probably could have found real mutton at an ethnic market somewhere in town. But I used lamb instead. And I could have braised some lamb shanks or stew meat and shredded that to more closely approximate the original recipe. But since I was cooking for a dinner party, and wanted to streamline things, I saved lots of time and labor by starting with ground lamb, which cooked up in a few minutes, and was already “hashed.”

So that the raisins would more readily incorporate with the other ingredients, I chopped them up and used a heaping cup full of packed raisins bits, evenly divided between the stuffing for 14 peppers and enough tomato sauce for two casserole dishes. Even more raisins wouldn’t have hurt. I used a scant cup of chopped kalamata olives and eight chopped up hard boiled eggs for the stuffing.

Peruvian Albondigas Casserole

As for the stuffing, I stuffed half the peppers with a lamb mixture, in line with the recipe. For the vegetarian guests I expected, I stuffed the remaining peppers with a stuffing mix in which I replaced the lamb with ricotta cheese.

For the tomato sauce, I chopped up some fresh Roma tomatoes that I had on hand, and sauted them with the onions, and I added to that a large, 32-ounce can of crushed tomatoes, cooking it all for awhile with the raisins until it thickened up a bit. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have cooked the sauce down quite as much, since the dishes I ended up with were a bit on the dry side. Although the recipe calls for cooking the stuffed peppers in a pot, presumably on the stove top, I ladled the sauce into two casserole dishes, nestled the stuffed peppers down into the sauce, and baked them for an hour in a 350 degree oven, covered with tin foil for all but the last 15 minutes.

The ricotta cheese version

Here in chile pepper-challenged Philadelphia in the dead of winter, I rounded up a grand total of four usable Anaheim peppers. The other peppers I used were yellow wax peppers and Italian frying peppers, all of which were sweet. I followed the instruction to scald and peel the peppers. But the peeling didn’t slip off, so I gave up on that. Scalding them for perhaps six or eight minutes was essential anyway, to make the peppers pliable enough to easily and quickly stem, devein, slit lengthwise and stuff. The unnamed dried, round red chiles that I found in a local market and used were also, as it turned out, sweet. So the stuffed peppers I served up had nary a hint of chile pepper heat. None of my guests complained about that. But next time, I might stuff a few poblanos, and make one casserole dish with a sauce spiked with hot red chilis, for those who want stuffed peppers with more of a kick.

That said, the stuffed peppers I ended up with this time – both the ricotta and the lamb versions — were, by all accounts, outstanding. The combination of sweet raisins and acidic tomatoes and onions in the sauce was downright awesome. The combination of sweet raisins and briny olives in the stuffing: equally awesome. Thanks to my man Charles Lummis for finding this dish as he was miserably cooling his heels in Lima, Peru, 120 years ago this winter.

About Mark

Mark Thompson, who currently resides in Philadelphia, writes about law, history and food, among other topics. American Character, his biography of Charles Lummis, an Indian rights activist who lived in California and the Southwest from the 1880s through the 1920s, was honored by Western Writers of America in 2002 with a Spur Award for best biography. His second book, Vintage California Cuisine, traces the origins of the state's unique culinary sensibility to the earliest cookbooks published in California. Thompson also publishes a web site called SeasonalChef.com, about farmers markets and seasonal produce. He has written for dozens of publications including the Atlantic, The New Republic, the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times.
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One Response to How Peruvian Stuffed Peppers Made it into California Cuisine

  1. serenpoly says:

    I independently found Lummis’s recipes for a cooking class I’m teaching this April about cooking in Southern California (where I live) in 1913. It happens to be an important date in my little town 80 miles east of Los Angeles, since there was a serious freeze in January that year, which ruined many of the local citrus groves – and most of their owners.

    I’ve ‘interpreted’ the dish even further than you did, starting the sauce with a prepared tomato salsa (tomatoes and onions and peppers, oh my!) and only a small amount of beef broth. I even used ground bison for the meat for my first experiment, although we, too, will be using ground lamb for the ‘for real’ version. Here I have no difficulty finding poblano chiles (the dark-green pointy ones I call ‘Mexican bell peppers’; although they are slightly picante, they’re milder than Anaheims or New Mexico chiles, and are what Mexican chefs use for chiles rellenos). But I didn’t even try scalding them, just charred them over the burner and rubbed off the skin with paper towels as I would for any other recipe.

    This filling is actually a true Spanish concoction called picadillo, modified by the New World tomatoes and chiles, and the raisins in it date back to medieval Spain and the Moors. Sweet-and-sour flavors, as you probably know, were common in the Middle Ages. I can’t vouch for Victor’s green beans, but your Santa Barbara recipes probably got their raisins via Spain. In Mexico, they sometimes stuff a whole cheese with picadillo; Diana Kennedy has published a recipe, which also involves ‘braising’ in tomato sauce, IIRC.

    I left my raisins whole, added pine nuts (a common inclusion in picadillo and a genuine Southwestern food going back to Native Americans), and heated the stuffed peppers in sauce in a skillet on top of the stove. Since the peppers and filling were already cooked, it only took a few minutes to get everything hot through, and the sauce stayed adequately ‘saucy’.

    We also found it excellent.

    The leftover filling and sauce was great over scrambled eggs and tortilla chips for brunch (improvised chilaquiles), and the dish has gone into my personal home rotation. I’ll have to try the cheese idea sometime!

    Incidentally, the 1905 LA Times Cookbook wouldn’t have called these chiles rellenos either. (Gotta wonder _why_ these are ‘albondigas’, in Peru; everywhere else I know about, ‘albondigos’ are meatballs or meat dumplings.) There are a couple of very similar recipes there, but they’re all just called ‘stuffed peppers’. ‘Chiles rellenos’ in that book are always stuffed with meat (not cheese), and breaded and fried.

    PS: I have _American Character_ on reserve at my local library. The research I did on Lummis for the class had piqued my interest, and I stumbled upon your site via Google.

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