Chef JuanMa Calderon’s Peruvian version of the South American stew is simple, comforting, and delicious
In Lima, it’s not likely that you’ll see locro — a stew of squash, potatoes, and corn — on a restaurant menu, says JuanMa Calderon, the chef and co-owner of the Boston-area restaurants Celeste and La Royal. It’s cheap and simple, something your mom might prepare.
But locro is on the menu at Celeste, which opened in 2018 to rave reviews: Eater Boston and Esquire considered it among the best restaurants of the year. Non-Peruvian diners, who make up most of the restaurant’s clientele, tend to order the locro because it’s a vegetarian option (though you can order fried fish with it). “But when a Peruvian comes to the restaurant and they see it on the menu, they’re kind of nostalgic,” Calderon says.
Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru all have their own versions of locro, which predates Spanish colonization; its name is derived from the Quechua word ruqru. The source of Peruvian locro’s flavor is twofold, Calderon explains: the aderezo base of onions, garlic, and aji amarillo (which is used for all Peruvian dishes), and huacatay, a pungent herb that’s also known as black mint. Calderon thinks that his locro in Massachusetts and the locro in Peru aren’t very different. “It’s so simple that you cannot change it that much,” he says, though he is playing around with the stew’s presentation.
Celeste’s origins can be traced to the dinner parties that Calderon and his partner, Maria Rondeau, used to throw at their home under the name Kriollo Real. “I was new in Boston and I needed to attract friends or interesting people to meet,” Calderon says. “The best way is cooking.” When their gatherings started to get “out of control,” the pair decided to open a restaurant.
In 2021, Calderon, who is also a filmmaker, and Rondeau, an architect and producer, began running an experimental restaurant called Esmeralda from their part-time home in Vermont. The following year, they opened La Royal in Cambridge. “We start to do something, which becomes another thing, which becomes another thing,” Calderon says. Though the initial plan was to treat Celeste as a temporary five-year project, that’s no longer the case. “We have a big family of people who work [there] and we cannot say after five years, ‘okay, guys, goodbye, we finished our project,’” he explains.
For Calderon, who moved to the United States in 2001, cooking is salve against homesickness, and a homey dish like locro represents what makes him proud. “I’m sharing not only Peruvian food, but basically my mom’s food,” he says. “I don’t want to represent the whole Peru; I just want to represent the kitchen where I used to eat when I was a child.” Pair it with steak or fried fish if you wish; for Calderon, the only way to eat locro is with white rice and sunny side up fried egg.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely chopped red onion (about ½ medium red onion)
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons aji amarillo paste (yellow pepper)
1 pound butternut squash, cut in 1-inch cubes (any available winter squash is fine)
4 large Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut in 1-inch cubes
4 cups vegetable stock
1 bunch of huacatay (black mint), de-stemmed and chopped (can be replaced by fresh parsley or fresh oregano)
1 ear of corn, sliced into 1-to-2-inch discs
1 cup evaporated milk
1 cup shelled fava beans (fresh or frozen; you can also substitute frozen lima beans)
Salt, ground pepper, and turmeric to taste
1 cup cubed fresh cheese (such as queso fresco)
Step 1: In a large pot, prepare the aderezo: heat the olive oil over medium heat, add the chopped onion and cook for about 5 minutes until translucent. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add the aji amarillo paste and cook, stirring frequently,for about 5 minutes.
Step 2: Add the potatoes and squash mix together until coated thoroughly and then add the vegetable stock. Add the huacatay (or other fresh herbs). Cover and let simmer for around 30 minutes, or until potatoes and squash soften and can be smashed with a wooden spoon. Add the fava beans and corn. When the potato and squash are integrated as a thick puree (even allowing large chunks of squash and potato to remain), gently stir in the evaporated milk and cook until heated through. Season to taste with the salt, pepper, and ground turmeric. Stir in the cheese immediately before serving.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Recipe tested by Ivy Manning