I was in Peru for about a week in late 2016 and enjoyed some incredibly good vegan food. This dish of Peruvian lentils with beet puree is a composite of two different meals that I found really memorable.
The first was a meal at a little vegetarian place in Miraflores called Sabor y Vida. This was an unassuming eatery with a prix fixe menu that cost a few dollars for an impossibly large amount of food.
As it turns out, I was BLOWN AWAY by the deliciousness of the dish of black lentils with rice that I had selected. I wasn’t sure exactly how they made the lentils so creamy and earthy and amazing, but I slurped up that entire giant plate of food after dressing it with some Peruvian aji amarillo paste.
The second meal was one that I ate in the Amazon region – another lentil dish served with a stunning bright red beet puree. Despite its beautiful burgundy hue, the beet flavor was rather tempered, and the cooks explained to me that it was made with a mixture of beets and potatoes. I don’t have access to all of the varieties of Peruvian potatoes here in Maryland, but found that either Yukon gold or purple potatoes worked nicely in my homemade beet and potato puree.
I also went through a few tasty iterations of trying to recreate the creamy beluga lentils from Sabor y Vida, and between that and copious research about Peruvian cuisine I’m convinced that I’m as close as I’m ever going to get now. My “secrets” for these flavor bomb Peruvian beluga lentils?
- Start out with a ton of onion, and brown the sh*t out of it. In many soups and stews I would only soften the onion, but beluga lentils can stand up to some deep caramelized onion flavor, and they’re better for it.
- Other than that, keep the flavors simple. Basic vegetable stock, garlic, and just a pinch of spices, and then some aji amarillo paste to finish are all you need. I tried adding fresh peppers and other veggies to this dish and they made it actively worse. You can wilt in some spinach at the end if you’re really stubborn.
- Cook the lentils slowly and keep going until they’re barely not falling apart. This may seem like a sin for beluga lentils that are prized for their caviar-like appearance, but taste is most important so just trust me.
With Valentine’s Day right around the corner it seemed like the right time to share this recipe since apparently we’re supposed to eat red things. This dish of Peruvian lentils with beetroot puree is probably nothing special for my boyfriend at this point since he’s had to eat it on several occasions while I tested the recipe, but aside from those extenuating circumstances, I think it’s a lovely way to elevate your standard beans-and-rice vegan fare. Beluga lentils feel like a luxury while still being in the legume family; and beetroot has that amazing vibrant color.
Ingredient note: Aji amarillo is one of the main varieties of chili pepper popular in Peru. It’s a bright orange pepper that’s very hot, with a fruity flavor. I’d likely compare it most closely to the habanero in terms of peppers that are more common here in the USA, although not quite as spicy. It’s commonly served in paste form as a condiment, as are several other peppers such as aji panca.
I was lucky enough to stumble across a jar of aji amarillo paste at a grocery store in my area, but I don’t get the feeling that’s a common experience. Goya brand makes one which may be available in the Latin food section at your store. It can also be ordered online – or I suggest substitutions in the recipe. It really does make these Peruvian lentils sing if you can manage to get your hands on some!
Peruvian Beluga Lentils with Beet Puree
Savory, earthy Peruvian lentils served with a gorgeous red beetroot and potato puree. A meal special enough for Valentine's Day but healthy enough for any day!
For the Peruvian lentil spice blend (optional):
- 1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/8 tsp ground white pepper
- 1/4 tsp dried oregano
For the Peruvian beluga lentils:
For the beetroot puree:
- 8 oz Yukon gold potatoes cut into 2-inch pieces (other types of potato, aside from Russet, also work)
- 24 oz red beets cut into 2-inch pieces
- 3/4 tsp salt (plus more to taste)
- 2 tbsp freshly-squeezed lime juice
- 2 tbsp olive oil
For serving (optional):
- cooked brown rice or other grain of choice
- vegetables of choice
- chopped fresh scallions, cilantro or parsley
For the Peruvian beluga lentils:
In a large saucepan (cast iron is recommended if you have it), heat the olive oil over medium to medium-high heat. Add the diced onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is both softened and nicely browned, 5 to 7 minutes. (Add a little bit more olive oil if needed).
Add the garlic and cook for 60 seconds more. If using the spices, stir in all of them and cook for 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add the lentils and vegetable broth, bring to a boil, and then cover and reduce to a steady simmer.
Cook for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, and then stir in the non-dairy milk. Continue to cook, partially covered, until lentils are very tender (10-20 more minutes). Stir occasionally and add more vegetable broth 1/4 cup at a time if beginning to dry out.
Stir in the aji amarillo paste. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and additional chili paste.
For the beet and potato puree:
Steam the beets and potatoes. If you have a pressure cooker such as an Instant Pot, add water, the steaming rack, and the beets and potatoes, and cook under high pressure for 15 minutes. Otherwise, set up your steamer and steam for 35 to 50 minutes, or until fork-tender.
Once cool enough to handle, remove the peels (they should come right off). Add to a blender or food processor along with the salt and lime juice. Slowly add the olive oil and blend until smooth. Taste for seasoning and set aside.
Prepare a bowl with other serving accompaniments. Add about one-quarter of the lentils, about one-quarter of the puree, and any garnishes. Enjoy hot. Once cooled, leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week or so.
SPICES: I tested this recipe with and without the ground spices and truly it does taste fantastic even with omitting all of them. So my recommendation is to use the ones you have on hand and not worry about the others.
AJI AMARILLO SUBSTITUTE: Aji amarillo is a wonderful, bright, fruity, spicy pepper. If you can find this ingredient I guarantee you'll love using it in various recipes. If not, substitute another chili paste or chili sauce (such as sriracha) of choice, starting with 1 and 1/2 tablespoons and increasing to taste.