(Image taken from the Spanish Wikipedia entry for Ocopa; used under Creative Commons license.)
Having made a sweet-spicy salsa for my first recipe, I thought I’d follow up with a creamy-savory-spicy salsa (i.e., Spanish for “sauce”). Ocopa is a traditional Andean recipe, associated with the Southern-Peruvian mountain city of Arequipa. The flavor base is a combination of roasted ají mirasol (Peruvian yellow peppers, also known as ají amarillo) and huacatay, which is an Andean black mint that the inhabitants of that region use in a lot of their cooking. Huacatay has a unique and pungent aroma—somewhere between herbal mint and epazote—which is the key to this dish (see the Tips below on where to find it and how to substitute if you can’t find it). The textural base to this dish is a mixture of fresh cheese (queso fresco or a similar farmer’s cheese) and evaporated milk, thickened with crackers and nuts. It’s usually served as an appetizer or side dish, poured over slices of yellow potatoes. Interestingly, you can serve this in several hot-cold combinations, with the potatoes hot and the sauce cold, the potatoes cold and the sauce warm, both cold, or both hot (I generally go with the second option).
This is one of a number of Peruvian cheese-based spicy sauces (papas a la huancaína is another one) that involve blending together cheese, milk, hot peppers, and various other aromatics into a thick sauce, which is then served over slices of boiled potatoes or yucca (also known as manioc or cassava).
Ocopa aims to be a bit thicker than your usual Peruvian cheese sauce, so the milk has been replaced with evaporated milk, and we also add some crackers and roasted peanuts when blending the sauce. In addition to hot peppers, our aromatic base includes huacatay—which is this dish’s signature ingredient—garlic, a roasted onion, and some fresh herbs. You can vary this dish by replacing the peanuts with other nuts (pecans, walnuts) or changing the fresh herbs.
- Look for huacatay at your local Peruvian food store / importer, sold as a jar of paste. If you don’t have one in your city (look! you might be surprised), try a Latino supermarket or a specialty grocery store. If you still can’t find it, you can try to substitute a mixture of fresh coriander and fresh herbal mint.
- If you can’t find Latino-style queso fresco, you can substitute farmer’s cheese, haloumi, or even feta. If you use feta, though, try to find a low-salt one.
- This is usually served over boiled Peruvian yellow potatoes, which resemble Yukon Gold varieties in North America.
- This can be served in a number of hot-cold combinations. I prefer serving the sauce cold and the potatoes hot; however, if you have a large meal to prepare, you can prepare both in advance and serve them cold together. Hint: avoid putting the potatoes in the refrigerator! If they get too cold, the starch in the boiled potatoes will gelatinize and form a rather unappetizing slick on the cut sides of the potatoes.
- If you can’t find whole ají peppers (frozen or canned is fine), you can substitute the paste made from the same peppers, which is often easier to find. If you can’t find the paste, you can use some medium-spicy peppers, like jalapeños.
Ingredients & Equipment
- a blender (preferably a stand mixer)
- 8-10 ají peppers, roasted
- 200 grams of queso fresco (fresh cheese)
- 1 medium onion, roasted
- 2-3 cloves of garlic
- 1-2 tablespoons of huacatay paste
- a few sprigs of coriander and other herbs (your choice, but oregano or mint are nice)
- 1 cup (250 ml) of evaporated milk (but only use 3/4 at first, then add more to adjust thickness)
- 3 tablespoons of toasted peanuts (unsalted, preferably)
- 3 graham crackers (many recipes call for soda crackers, but I prefer the slight sweetness of graham crackers)
- yellow potatoes (or Yukon Gold), at least two per person
- hard-boiled eggs
- lettuce (garnish)
1. Put the ají peppers and the onion (peeled, cut into quarters) under the broiler (or into your oven set on the highest heat) until the peppers have blistered and the onions begin to blacken. I roasted them separately here, but you can roast the peppers and the onion at the same time.
2. Throw the peppers into a brown paper bag and allow them to self-stem for a few minutes. In the meanwhile, chop the onions roughly and place in the pan where you’re going to fry up everything.
3. Once the skin on the peppers feels a bit loose, skin them using the dull side of your knife. You can also do this with your fingers, but make sure to wash your hands afterwards (or wear gloves), you’re handling 10 hot peppers! Be sure to remove the seeds as well.
4. Put the peppers in a pot of cold water and add a teaspoon of sugar. Put over heat and wait for it to boil. As soon as bubbles break to the surface, dump out the water. You can repeat this process up to two more times (i.e., three times in total). This reduces the spicyness of the peppers, which allows you to get the flavor of many peppers without making the resulting sauce too hot. Boil once for people who like very spicy food, boil twice for people who can only eat moderately spicy food, and boil three times for people who can barely tolerate hot peppers. (Personally, I don’t think boiling twice is even worth it; after three boilings, you begin to lose the flavor of the peppers.)
5. In the meanwhile, peel your garlic and slice thinly.
6. Put the hot peppers, the garlic, the onions, the fresh herbs, and the huacatay together in about 1/4 cup (75 ml) of oil. Fry over medium heat until the garlic has mellowed out and the hot peppers have begun to fall apart (usually 5 minutes). Remove from heat.
7. While the pepper mixture cools a bit, place the remaining ingredients in a blender: the queso fresco/cheese (cut into cubes or crumbled), the evaporated milk (only 3/4 of it at first), the peanuts, and the graham crackers.
8. Add the fried pepper mixture (still warm) to the blender, add about a tablespoon of fresh olive oil, and blend until you have a semi-thick, smooth sauce. It will most likely be too thick, so you can thin it out by alternately adding splashes of olive oil and evaporated milk. If it becomes too runny, you can thicken it with more graham crackers and peanuts. (NOTE: the sauce will thicken a bit as it cools, so once you achieve the desired consistency in the blender, thin it out a little bit more.) Adjust flavor with salt if necessary.
9. Boil the potatoes and the eggs (separately).
10. Line a serving dish with lettuce. Place the thickly-sliced potatoes on the dish and cover with the Ocopa, reserving some sauce for individual servings. Place hard-boiled eggs, cut in half, around the edges of the plate. Serve warm or cold.
There you have it! Note that the sauce does not keep for very long, so you should consume it all in 3 days (or freeze it).