Friday, July 6, 2012

Week Twenty-Six: A Journey to Peru

Since moving to Miami, Peruvian food has become a mainstay in my everyday life, and I eagerly anticipated cooking some of my favorite dishes this week.  Modern-day Peruvian dishes are rooted in the region’s native ingredients and a strong Spanish influence dating back to Spain’s arrival there in the sixteenth century.  In addition, influences of immigrant cultures, including Chinese, Japanese, African, Middle Eastern, and Italian, present dishes that represent the styles of each culture’s cuisines interpreted with native Peruvian ingredients.  As an example, ceviche is popular in coastal areas with an abundance of fresh fish.  The fish and Andean chiles used in this dish are certainly native ingredients, not to mention the boiled sweet potatoes and corn typically served alongside it, but the use of limes can be traced to a variety of limes that the Spanish introduced there.  In a twist, Japanese immigrants who first arrived in 1899 applied the sashimi techniques of their native cuisine to the concept of ceviche resulting in the creation of another famous Peruvian dish, tiradito.   As I considered which Peruvian dishes to try at home this week, I focused on the more traditional dishes with native ingredients and Spanish influence in order to better understand the roots of this nation’s cuisine.

In full disclosure, arroz chaufa is one of my all-time favorite Peruvian dishes, but I felt like making it would not acquaint me with the true origins of Peruvian cuisine.  For culinary purposes, it is just Chinese Fried Rice served on a Peruvian menu.  If I hadn’t made Fried Rice for Week Eight’s Journey to China, I might have allowed it.  Fortunately, I found plenty of new dishes to satisfy my quest for Peruvian food, and I can always order chaufa takeout for lunch.

Tueday Night Prep:  Aji Amarillo Paste and Aji Panca Paste
Aji amarillo and aji panca are chiles that consistently appear in traditional Peruvian recipes.  The Amarillo is an orange pepper with a bright flavor and medium heat; whereas Panca chiles are hot with a smoky, fruity flavor.  In order to incorporate their flavors into the Peruvian dishes I planned to cook, I made pastes with dried aji amarillo and aji panca chiles that I purchased at Whole Foods.  For each paste, I simply soaked the peppers in water overnight and blended them with a little canola oil, salt, and fresh garlic. 

Wednesday Night Dinner:  Pisco Sours and Aji de Gallina
Pisco Sour
I really couldn’t spend a week focused on Peruvian cuisine without including Pisco Sours.  I still remember the first time I read the ingredients of a Pisco Sour on the cocktail menu at Jaguar shortly after I moved to Miami.  I was shocked to see egg whites listed and immediately ordered one to try it out!  I must admit that I like this as a summer cocktail, and I whipped up a quick batch with some Pisco, freshly squeezed key limes, simple syrup, and egg whites topped with a few dashes of Angostura bitters.

Aji de Gallina
This dinner served as a vehicle for my aji amarillo paste.  By all accounts, this traditional Peruvian chicken stew served with a nutty cheese sauce is a Peruvian favorite, and I must admit that I had never heard of it until this project.  I’m so glad I know about it now though.  The dish begins with a mixture of sautéed onions and garlic mixed with milk-soaked white bread and aji amarillo paste.  I used an immersion blender to mix these ingredients into a smooth texture before adding chicken stock to create the sauce.  When the sauce thickened, I added shredded chicken to stew for about five minutes.  Then, I added chopped walnuts and parmesan cheese for the final five minutes of simmering on the stovetop.  I served it with rice and garnished it with chopped parsley, kalamata olives, and boiled eggs.  My friend Bonnie joined me for dinner this night, and I think she best described the dish as warm chicken salad with rice.  That’s exactly what it tasted like…and in a good way.  I loved the subtle heat of the aji amarillo paste. 

The Aji de Gallina was a treat in itself, but just as exciting was the way it connected me to a fellow Miamian, Elizabeth Anne, who responded to my tweet about Aji de Gallina.  As it turns out, her family is Peruvian, and she provided me with some great insight about her favorite dishes:

Thursday Night Madness:  Sopa a la Criolla for Dinner / Prepwork for Friday Lunch and Dinner
My original plan for Thursday night was to make jamon del pais and salsa criolla to take to work on Friday for butifarra sandwiches.  I also needed to carve a beef heart into thin slices and begin marinating them for Friday night’s dinner.  In all seriousness, those three tasks were enough to fill my evening, but after my twitter conversation on Wednesday night, I decided to push the limits of my time and create a much more aggressive plan.  What can I say?  Sometimes the overachiever in me takes over, and I just can’t help myself.  Most of the ingredients for the sopa a la criolla were already in my pantry, so I decided to make it for my dinner that night.  The suspira a la Limeña seemed simple enough that I could make it in small cups for an added treat at work on Friday.

Jamon del Pais
Jamon del Pais is Peruvian ham seasoned with aji panca and garlic.  For my preparation, I simmered a two pound pork loin roast in water with onion and a bay leaf for about two hours.  When the roast had cooked through, I coated it with a mixture of aji panca paste, minced garlic, vinegar, cumin, turmeric, sazon completa, and ground annatto seeds.  I placed it in a roasting pan with two cups of the cooking liquid to ensure that the pork remained moist, and I roasted it for thirty minutes.  After it cooled, I sliced it thinly for the next day’s butifarra sandwiches.

Salsa Criolla
While the jamon del pais simmered on the stovetop, I focused on the salsa criolla, an onion salad seasoned with jalapeno peppers, lime juice, vinegar, cilantro, and parsley.  Admittedly, my knife skills are not stellar, and when I read that having “feathery” looking onions was the key to an authentic salsa criolla, I took that as a challenge, and the finished product turned out beautifully!

Beef Heart
Having successfully completed the slight knife skills challenge of salsa criolla, I forged ahead to the more daunting task of butchering the big beef heart for Friday night’s anticuchos.  I cut the fat from the top of the heart and worked to divide it into chambers as I had read was the appropriate way to approach this.  As it turned out, the chamber on the bottom was much larger than the others and the perfect sized “chunk” to trim and cut into thin slices for the skewers.  Based on Steven Raichlen’s recommendations in Planet BBQ, I added garlic, toasted cumin seeds, ground annatto seed, and olive oil to my Aji panca paste and slathered the skewered beef heart in it to marinate overnight.

Sopa a la Criolla

Next on Thursday night’s agenda:  Sopa a la Criolla.  I decided to make the recipe posted on the Fighting Windmills blog as it seemed authentic and simple enough to throw together on a weeknight packed with other projects.  The soup begins with a quick sauté of flank steak cut into small cubes.  Then, aji panca paste, chopped onion, diced tomatoes, and dried oregano are added.  The recipe also includes a paste of rocoto chiles (another chile native to Peru) in the sauté, but I did not have that ingredient available and substituted hot sauce like it recommended.  When the onions are translucent, hot water is added to the mixture.  When it reaches a boil, angel hair pasta or spaghetti is added and cooked until the pasta is al dente.  Finally, a can of evaporated milk and two eggs are mixed into the soup, and it is ready to be served. 

When I read this recipe, I expected a rich, heavy soup due to the final additions of eggs and evaporated milk, but I was surprised to find a light, flavorful broth.  The juxtaposition of the evaporated milk and peppers offered an interesting twist.  At first, the initial flavor of the soup is mild and milky, but the heat from the peppers builds bite after bite resulting in an interesting and satisfying flavor profile.  It reminded me a bit of Vietnamese Pho because of the spaghetti noodles served in a thin sauce with only a small amount of meat included for seasoning…not to mention all of the slurping noises I made while eating it.

Suspira a la Limena
After finishing my big bowl of soup, I jumped back into the kitchen to make Suspira a la Limeña.  This custard-based dessert is popular in Lima and coastal cities, and I found several recipes online.  The easiest version was basically dulce de leche topped with meringue, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t the most authentic, more like a “semi-homemade” version.  I opted for a recipe that began with a custard made from sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, egg yolks, and vanilla extract.  After cooking the custard to a thick pudding-like texture, I let it cool for about thirty minutes.  Then, I spooned it into individual cups and topped it with a basic meringue.  I was just sliding them into the refrigerator at about 11:30 PM when the hubs walked in the door from the airport and laughed out loud at the sight of me still working on the “project” late into the evening on a Thursday night.

Friday Lunch at Work:  Butifarra Sandwiches, Sopa a la Criolla, and Suspira a la Limeña

Peruvian take-out is one of the most popular lunches in my office.  Luckily for us, we have a great little Peruvian spot called The Peruvian Kitchen nearby.  When walking through our kitchen, it’s not uncommon to hear the words “is there any more green sauce?” from someone with a plate of Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken and French fries.  With that in mind, I brought in the fixings for Butifarra Sandwiches, Sopa a la Criolla, and Suspira a la Limeña for a Friday feast.  For the sandwiches, we piled jamon del pais and salsa criolla on some Cuban rolls dressed with mayonnaise.  The combination of the chile-spiced pork, the crunchy, tart salsa criolla, and creamy sweet mayonnaise created a perfect sandwich!  As with most soups, the sopa a la criolla tasted even better after a night in the refrigerator, and in all honesty, we actually swooned over the suspira dessert, which reminded me of a cross between caramel cream and butterscotch pies.  Rich, unctuous, and delicious!  A real treat, and I am so glad I added it to the menu at the last minute.

Friday Night Dinner at Home:  Ceviche and Anticuchos

After a chaotic Thursday evening, a simple, laid-back menu was in order.  I came home from work and started working on the ceviche.  As much as I love ceviche, I had never attempted to make it at home.  Everything I read pointed to the fact that making ceviche is a simple, straightforward process without much room for error, but somehow I always stayed away from it.  I wanted to create a basic Peruvian presentation, so I started a pot of water on the stovetop to boil a sweet potato and an ear of fresh corn for my ceviche plates.  For the ceviche, I used flounder (because the fish guy said it was his best and freshest fish in stock), fresh lime juice, serrano peppers, cilantro, and black pepper.  After letting it marinate for thirty minutes, I topped it with red onions and served it with boiled sweet potato and corn.  The fish tasted so fresh and had a perfect texture.  While this may have been my first time to make ceviche at home, it will not be the last as it was some of the best ceviche I’ve ever eaten.

Anticuchos are skewers of grilled meat served on the streets of Peru that date back as far as the sixteenth century when the Incans made them with llama meat.  When Spaniards arrived on the scene, they brought beef and slaves with them.  At the time, the Spaniards showed no interest in offals and considered them food for slaves.  Interestingly, the slaves adapted the Incan dish by adding garlic to the marinade and by using beef hearts, instead of llama meat, to create a dish that is now a mainstay of Peruvian street food.

For our Anitcuchos, we grilled the skewered beef heart for a few minutes on each side and served it with a sauce made with an aji amarillo and peanut sauce.  Raichlen recommends this sauce and notes that it is more likely to be found in Bolivia; however, after discovering that peanuts are native to Peru and that the Spanish brought peanuts back to Europe as a result of their conquests in Peru, I decided that this sauce was appropriate at a Peruvian dinner table.  Plus, I had leftover aji amarillo paste, and this was a great way to use it.  We really enjoyed this dish.  I loved the flavor of the beef heart!  I will definitely make it again, but I will cut thicker slices next time.   My slices were so thin that I had to thread them onto the skewers, and it would have been better if it was thick enough to pierce through the middle of the slice with the skewer.  I didn’t realize the extent to which the pieces would shrink, and larger pieces would make a difference in this aspect, as well.  Still, the flavors of the meat and the dipping sauce were amazing, and I was proud of myself for stepping out of the box a bit this week.

I had so much fun making these Peruvian dishes.  My friend John has shared with me on several occasions that Peruvian food is truly his favorite of all South American cuisines, and I didn’t understand why until this week.  Beyond ceviche and chaufa, it seemed like every other dish that my friends introduced to me was just meat and French fries, which did not quite translate to me as special.  Making the chile pastes from aji amarillo and aji panca chiles proved to be the best decision I made.  From the mild chile accents in the Aji de Gallina and Sopa a la Criolla to the stronger, more powerful flavors in the Jamon del Pais and Anticuchos, I used these chile pastes as a compass to discover how they enhance and define Peruvian dishes.  The flavors certainly left a lasting impression on me, and I will continue to explore Peruvian cuisine in the future.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article that I found very informative.