Jacques Gautier, chef and owner of Palo Santo in Park Slope, grew up crisscrossing the Caribbean and Central and South America, making frequent trips to visit family scattered across the region and tagging along as his father, who worked for the O.A.S., traveled on business. He absorbed the languages and cultures, and fell in love with the food.
Years later, when he was ready to open his own restaurant, he knew he wanted to specialize in Caribbean and Latin American cuisine, but first, he had some work to do. Jacques spent a year exploring, immersing himself in the life and experience of Latin American market culture – endlessly eating, collecting recipes, and beginning to piece together a menu for his future restaurant.
One of his favorite finds? Picante de mariscos – a traditional Peruvian market staple of shellfish stewed in a spicy, creamy sauce made with fermented chili paste and coconut milk. On a recent visit to Palo Santo, Jacques took us on a journey through the dish.
So Jacques, what should we have today?
We just got some really nice fresh, local razor clams in today, and I’m going to use them in a traditional Peruvian dish called picante de mariscos. Picante de mariscos is a dish that you’ll find at markets everywhere in Peru. Bolivia too. It’s a very traditional dish. It’s basically a spicy shellfish stew, that we make with a fermented chili paste, sofrito, fish stock, coconut milk, chayote and chickpeas. It’s a really nice dish. I think that would be a good one to try.
Tell us about it.
There are a lot of different versions of picante in Peru. It’s not just made with shellfish. It’s a loosely defined kind of dish. Picante just means ‘spicy’ in Spanish. The common thread is that they’re all spicy stews that are made with various types of chili pastes and various kinds of proteins. The picante de mariscos is made with shellfish. Picante de lengua is made with beef tongue. Ají de Gallina is made with chicken – Ají is what they call chili peppers in Peru.
There are three different chili pastes that are most commonly used to make picantes. The spiciest is rocoto, which is made with rocoto peppers, which are very common in Peru. They don’t have habanero or Scotch bonnet peppers in Peru. They use rocoto. It looks like a miniature bell pepper, but it’s very, very spicy. Easily as spicy as a Scotch bonnet.
Then there’s the panca pepper, which they use to make panca paste, or pasta de ají panca. The panca is not as spicy as the rocoto. It has a dark, dark red color and rich flavor, a little like dried fruit. That’s the kind that’s typically used in picante de mariscos.
The third kind of paste you’ll typically see used in a picante is the ají amarillo paste. It’s the mildest of the three. Still spicy, but relatively mild. The Amarillo pepper is bright yellow, and so is the paste. The ají de gallina, which is the version of picante made with chicken, is usually made with that bright yellow ají amarillo paste.
So those are the three different kinds of chile pastes that you’ll typically see used as a base for really traditional Peruvian picantes. Most picantes also use either cream or coconut milk. Some don’t use either, but most do. It depends on the region. Generally up on the altiplano or in the mountains, they use cream or llama milk. On the coast they typically use coconut milk. Our picante de mariscos is more of a coastal-style picante, so we use coconut milk.
We make our own fermented chili paste here for our picante de mariscos. It’s very similar to the panca paste you’d find in Peru, but it’s a little different because we can’t easily get panca peppers here. You can buy commercially produced panca chili pastes, but with those, instead of really fermenting the chilis, they usually just grind them up and add msg for that instant umami flavor. I tried those when I first started making this dish, but we like to do everything from scratch here. With everything we serve, we like to start from scratch with fresh ingredients, so I just learned how to make it myself.
It’s hard to find panca peppers here – there’s somewhat limited access to real Peruvian ingredients. Guajíllo peppers are the closest thing I’ve seen on the market here to the panca. They’re very similar, so we use guajíllo in our paste. We use a mixture of dried guajíllo peppers with fresh Fresno chilis, fresh red ripe jalapenos, and a few of those little Thai chilis and Scotch bonnets. So we use a blend of peppers to recreate the flavor of a traditional Peruvian panca chili paste. It helps with consistency throughout the year too – if we only used red jalapenos and we couldn’t get red jalapenos one day so we used Fresnos instead, the whole sauce would be totally different. By using a blend, each of the peppers adds its own flavor and it allows you have a more consistent flavor regardless of which peppers are available in any week.
To make the paste, we pack the mix of chilis in sugar and salt, with a little garlic and cumin, and we let them ferment in the cooler for like three months. We turn them over every week or so. The peppers really sweat as they ferment. The salt draws out all the water from the fresh peppers, and that liquid creates a kind of brine. The chilis basically soak and ferment in that brine. The salt slows down the fermentation. The sugar feeds it. So they sort of cure and ferment for a few months. When they’re ready, we puree them in a blender with a little bit of oil and some of their own brine, and that’s your paste. That’s our interpretation of a traditional Peruvian pasta de panca. It’s very, very close to what you’d find there. It ends up being really savory and really spicy, with the underlying rich, fruity flavors of the chilis and a nice, heavy umami flavor from the fermentation.
When we’re ready to actually make the picante, we start with a sofrito. Sofrito is just your traditional base in pretty much all Latin American and Spanish dishes. You make it with some onions, garlic, tomato and some fresh hot peppers sautéed in olive oil. Once you have your sofrito going, you add the chili paste and let it cook a little. Cooking it mellows the flavor a little bit and melts it into the sofrito. When it’s ready, we deglaze the pan with a little beer. Traditionally in Peru, they would use chicha, which is an ancient kind of corn beer. It’s made with yellow corn that’s germinated, toasted, and brewed and fermented just like beer.
I actually did make chicha once. I was teaching a class on pre-Colombian cooking in Latin America, so I had to be really careful to use only things that actually existed in the Americas before colonization. I researched very old recipes for picante and found that they used to be made with chicha. It was pretty easy to make. You’ll still find chicha made and served all over Peru. Supposedly, they originally chewed the corn and spit it back into the fermentation pot because the enzymes in the saliva would kickstart the fermentation process. But we don’t do that here. [laughter.] We use beer – just to deglaze, to pick up all those brown caramelized flavors from the pan and to add a little of its own flavor.
After we deglaze the pan, we add our stock. For the picante de mariscos, I use fish stock. If you were making an ají gallina – the picante with chicken – you’d use a chicken stock. If you were making a picante lengua – with beef tongue – you’d use beef stock. You use whatever stock it makes sense to use depending on the type of picante you’re using.
Like everything here, we make our fish stock from scratch. We take fish heads, carcasses and mirepoix – mirepoix is classically just carrots, onions and celery, but I always like to add ginger and lemongrass too, just because I really like those aromatics, along with the stems from whatever fresh herbs we have around – cilantro or whatever. So into the pot go the fish heads, the mirepoix of carrots, onions, celery, ginger, lemongrass and herbs, and then white wine and water to cover everything. Then we cook it down until it’s really rich – when it’s done, it’s basically a gel. We do the same with our chicken stock – we let it go overnight. We let it cook in an oven overnight so it gets really rich, really thick. That’s how I like my stocks.
There are a lot of different ways of doing stocks. Do you know that book ‘The Making of a Chef,’ by Michael Ruhlman? There was an interesting thing in there about making stocks. He basically went through the program at the Culinary Institute of America and wrote about it for the book. The French guy teaching them to make French stocks had a completely different way than the Chinese instructor making Chinese stocks. The Chinese let their stock boil away. When it cooks down, they top it off with more water and just keep it going and going. The French would never do that. They say, “Don’t move it. Don’t stir it. Don’t let it boil. Don’t let it get cloudy. Don’t let it go too long.”
Latin American stocks are much more about just throwing flavorful ingredients in a pot and letting them cook down to concentrate the flavors. That’s it. That’s all that matters. I don’t mind my stock being cloudy. If I’m going to use a stock in something like a picante or a molé, I don’t need or want some French style consommé. It wouldn’t make sense.
So now we have the sofrito, the fermented chili paste, the beer and the stock in the pan, and we cook that down a bit, and then we add coconut milk. We stir it in and let it simmer to bring the sauce together. I like to let it reduce to thicken a little bit, but it’s traditional in Peru to thicken the sauce by adding cracker crumbs, or by stirring in a paste made with crackers and a little bit of stock or water. If you need it, you add that to the sauce and it thickens right up.
Then come the chickpeas and chayote. You find chickpeas all the time in Peruvian cooking. They add a nice light, nutty flavor to the dish. Chayote is a fruit that’s native to Central America. It’s very popular throughout Latin America. It looks like a green, wrinkly pear or avocado, and it grows on vines. When it’s farmed, they let the vines climb up and across trellises like you’d see in a vineyard, and the fruit hangs down from the vines. Chayote has a pretty crisp, light flavor and a nice texture – it’s sort of in between a zucchini and an Asian pear or between a potato and cucumber, but a little more subtle. I like to use them because they add texture and they lighten up the dish a little bit. They’re not heavy at all. You don’t have to use chayote. Sometimes I use potato or other root vegetables in the picante. You can use whatever’s in season, really. That’s the whole point of a picante, really – they’re very versatile and you can make them with whatever you have. In summer, I really like to make the picante de mariscos with a whole cob of corn. You just throw it in the pan and let it simmer in the sauce – it’s really nice. But today, we’re using chayote.
So we let the chickpeas and chayote simmer in the sauce for a while, just to soften a little bit. The razor clams go in right at the very end. They cook very quickly – maybe a couple of minutes at most. They release their juices into the sauce, which adds a lot of flavor, and then that’s it – it’s ready to serve. I don’t know whether they have razor clams down in Peru. I’m sure if they do have them they’d use them in picante de mariscos, but with any kind of seafood dish we’re really most interested in using whatever’s fresh and local. That’s what’s it’s all about when it comes to seafood.
We work with a company called Mermaid’s Garden. They source fish and shellfish directly from fishermen in the northeast. They have a CSF that brings deliveries of really fresh stuff to people in a bunch of neighborhoods in Brooklyn each week, and they supply a bunch of restaurants too. So today they brought us these beautiful razor clams that came off a boat yesterday. It doesn’t matter whether they have them in Peru – they’re perfect for the picante. But like I said, it’s a really versatile dish. You can use any kind of shellfish – it’s good with shrimp, lobster, scallops, or clams like Littlenecks.
In the end what you have is a really richly flavored, spicy, creamy shellfish dish. It’s savory and spicy, with a lot of umami flavor from the fermented chili paste, the razor clams and the fish stock. The coconut milk gives it a creaminess and really light sweetness that really balances the spice of the chili paste and brings all the flavors together in the sauce. I really like creamy shellfish dishes like chowders, and the picante de mariscos is like the classic Peruvian version of that kind of dish.
What about you Jacques? How did you end up here, doing this kind of food?
I grew up in Washington D.C. My dad is from the Caribbean, from Haiti. We had family all over the Caribbean. My dad’s grandparents were Dominican. We had family in Puerto Rico. My older brother was born in Cuba. My dad worked for the Organization of American States, which is this organization whose function is to promote peace and economic and political cooperation between Latin American countries. So between his work and our extended family, we traveled around the Caribbean and Latin America a lot.
Because of all that too, I grew up eating Caribbean food. That’s what we ate at home. When I decided to open my own restaurant, that was the kind of food I wanted to cook. Those were the influences I wanted to use. But limiting myself to just Caribbean cuisine – it felt like it wasn’t broad enough, you know? There is a lot of amazing food beyond the Caribbean, in Central and South America too. I wanted to explore all that.
Before I opened this place, I spent a year traveling through the Caribbean and Central and South America, to do research to really understand the food, to absorb the cultures and gather recipes. And the way that you do that in Latin America is by eating in the markets.
Markets still dominate the traditional cultures throughout Latin America. That’s something that the Spanish brought. Everywhere in Latin America, the market is the center of the town, in every way – geographically, socially, culturally, economically. That has changed to some degree in more cosmopolitan areas, which is an unfortunate result of globalization. So while in some places, supermarkets have come in, in most places, it’s still all about those central markets.
In my experience traveling down there, what you see is that market culture is kind of segregated. Richer people and higher-end tourists kind of stay away from the markets, which is probably for the best when it comes to preserving that market culture. The markets are gritty places, just thriving with people and all kinds of foods. The last thing you’d want would be for someone to try to clean them up or change them in any way to make them more palatable to tourists. You’d lose a lot very quickly if that happened.
In all of my travels down there, Mexican food and Peruvian food were my favorites. In Peru, where this dish is from, there are still markets everywhere, even in big cities like Lima, which is a huge, very cosmopolitan, very modern city on the Pacific coast. I spent a month in Lima, hanging out in the markets every day, studying the culture and the food.
Each market sells vegetables and seafood and raw meats and spices and everything you need for cooking. To the side of the markets, they have all these food stalls, where they sell prepared food made with stuff from the market. In Peru, most of the stalls at any market are going to be picanterias. All around the markets you’ll find picanterias. You’ll have a stand with picante de mariscos, another one with picante de lengua, another with ají de gallina – all different picantes made with different chili pastes.
You’ll see other stuff too, like anticuchos, which are grilled organ meats served on skewers – they’ll take beef hearts and marinate them in chile paste and a creamy sauce and then grill them on skewers. So it’s a different dish, but it uses those same kinds of ingredients – the fermented chili paste with coconut milk or cream. You see those ingredients everywhere in Peru – they’re really at the heart of true Peruvian cuisine. You find them over and over again in dishes that go way, way back.
If anyone travels to Peru and really wants to understand what the place and the culture are all about, I would say that the one thing you have to do is go and eat at the markets. Ignore the warnings about how dangerous they might be. They’re more poor and grimy than they are dangerous. Poor and dangerous aren’t the same thing, you know? If you’re not bothered by a little grime, you’ll eat incredible food – some of the best food in the world. If you’re scared, you can stay at your hotel or go to a restaurant to eat insipid, watered-down versions of the same thing at twenty times the price. It’s up to you.
Palo Santo is located at 63 Union Street, between 4th and 5th Avenues, in Park Slope.
Photography by Heather Phelps Lipton. All rights reserved.