The first time I tried this wheat berry stew I had an epiphany. It was absolutely divine: the flavor and the color were stunning, and the texture, soft and cottony, not starchy at all. Some friends of mine don´t like wheat because of this texture that I love. On that first encounter, it was served as a side dish, accompanying some stuffed caiguas, a Peruvian vegetable that is usually filled with meat.
Years went by and this wheat berry stew became a familiar dish in my kitchen. Sometimes Amelia, our cook, added diced potatoes to the preparation, and sometimes she added chicken. With some variations, this dish is known as trigotto, a risotto made with wheat berries instead of rice. The creaminess creates a wonderful side that goes well with poultry, beef, and fish, but I´d rather have it on its own, with grated cheese on top and white, fluffy rice. Yes, Peruvians shamelessly mix two carbohydrates in a lot of dishes, and guess what? They taste great!
In Peru we use fresh aji amarillo in this preparation, but feel free to use the easier to find aji amarillo paste. What you should be looking for is not the spiciness of the chili pepper, but the color and floral aroma. Use the best artisanal queso fresco you can get, because some of the industrialized versions are tasteless. I don´t recommend replacing it with mozzarella because you don´t want the cheese to melt into the wheat, but keep its shape.
Barley is a great substitution if you don´t have wheat berries. And if you are in a gluten free diet, use quinoa instead. This recipe will give you a tasty barley, quinoa or amaranth stew. Instead of parsley you can use cilantro or huacatay (black mint which you can find fresh in Peru or buy in a paste abroad), for another layer of flavor. Remember that in the Andes, it’s all about simple combinations of bold flavors with great nutritional value. This dish is living proof of it.
- 1 pound wheat berries
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- 1 cup diced onion
- 3 mashed garlic cloves
- 5 fresh aji amarillos, or 3 tablespoons aji amarillo paste
- Salt and pepper
- 4 cups vegetable stock
- 2 cups diced queso fresco
- 3 tablespoons chopped parsley
- Put the wheat berries in a saucepan and cover with water. Soak overnight, and drain. Add water to cover and boil until tender (about 15 minutes). Reserve.
- If using fresh aji amarillo, slice it lengthwise, take out the veins and seeds, chop it, and process in a blender with ¼ cup water.
- Heat the vegetable oil in a saucepan, add the onion and cook for 5 minutes.
- Add the garlic and aji amarillo paste, salt and pepper.
- Add the cooked wheat berries and the stock, and cook for 20 minutes over medium high heat. When ready, add the queso fresco and parsley. Cook a few more minutes and taste for seasoning. The wheat absorbs most of the liquid, but the mixture should be moist.
- Serve with rice, or as a side dish.