Monday, February 25, 2013

Sunday Dinners: Peruvian Peppered Chicken (Ají de Gallina)--and The Comfort Food Thing!

Maybe it's the season, or maybe it's the fact that life has just starting going so quickly that it's hard to keep up. But, whatever the reason, it seems that comfort foods are what I crave these days. Throw in my last week's Peruvian-themed lunch and subsequent post for Latin Twist, and the result is my yen for  Peruvian comfort food. And that brings me to today's recipe: Ají de Gallina.

It was definitely in Peru where I first tried this dish; I was staying at my friend Cynthia's and I remember that—like so many other first-time flavors I was sampling—this was really tasty. But the big difference with this one was that there was that additional comfort element! (Could be because of the Saltine-thickened sauce?! Which, by the way, is always under debate: many people will tell you you must use bread instead of Saltines!)

 I first documented the recipe when I was working on Viva la Vida with Chef Rafael Palomino (ah, way back in 2002!).  Since then, I've made it on several occasions, and always with great results (happy customers!).

This home-style Peruvian dish is quite different from many others that hail from there; it's a chicken/rice based dish, topped with a creamy pepper sauce (that can be turned up or down!). Hearty, warm, and cozy, this dish is perfect on chilly days, and perfect for larger crowds (simply double amounts!).  ¡Buen provecho! Enjoy!

Peruvian Pepper Chicken—Ají de Gallina

Adapted from Viva la Vida, by Rafael Palomino and Arlen Gargagliano ©2002

Serves 6

4 large boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, preferably free range
Kosher salt
1 ají mirasol, a teaspoon of ají amarillo (sold in jars in Latin American markets) or one guajillo, Mexican dried chile , or ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (adjust according to your liking!)
1 twelve-ounce can of evaporated milk
1 package (check ounces) of saltines, crumbled into small pieces
6 ounces of Queso Tropical (white cheese sold in Latin American markets) or  mild  feta cheese, crumbled or cut into small chunks
1 teaspoon canola oil
1/2 red onion, finely diced
1/2 teaspoon turmeric (or Peruvian palillo, sold in Latin American markets)
Peruvian or Kalamata olives and cilantro leaves for garnish

In a medium-size saucepan (large enough to fit the chicken and plenty of water) with about 4 to 6 cups of water and one teaspoon of salt, simmer the chicken breasts over medium heat until they’re cooked through (about 20 minutes). Remove the chicken from the water, but don’t discard the water (you will use it).  When the chicken is cool enough to handle, shred it, using your hands, into thin 1/4 to 1/2- inch long pieces. Set aside.

In a blender or food processor, combine the ají, evaporated milk, saltines and cheese and mix until puréed. Set aside.

In  a medium-saucepan, heat the canola oil over a medium flame.  Add the onion and turmeric and stir. When the onions soften (about 3 minutes), add the creamed mixture from the blender and stir. Turn the flame to low. Stir in  the chicken, followed by about two cups of the caldo, or water that you cooked the chicken in. The mixture will be quite soupy at first, but it will thicken after a while. Stir frequently, and add more caldo as needed. After between 8 and 10 minutes, the mixture will start to thicken. Turn off the heat and taste. Correct seasoning, and serve with plenty of white rice, topped with several Peruvian olives.  

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