A Peruvian Classic
By Dennis Linden
This month’s Guest recipe was submitted by Peter Blake, one of the newest members of the Melissa’s team. Aji de gallina is a Peruvian chicken dish with a spicy cream sauce that has many variations, but usually features two of the country’s most ancient indigenous ingredients, potatoes and the Aji Amarillo chile pepper. The combination of the buttery texture of tender Gemstone® potatoes slathered in a pleasantly spicy cream sauce lends a warming, comfort food goodness to this dish that evokes an appreciative, wordless head nod with every bite. Plus this dish is very easy to prepare!
The real star of Peter’s dish is the Aji Amarillo chile pepper cream sauce. "Aji" means chile pepper in Spanish, and "amarillo" means yellow. Actually, though called a yellow chile, these peppers turn a deep orange color when mature. The Aji Amarillo Chile is believed to have been cultivated crop in Peru since about 2500 B.C. The heat of this pepper is not overwhelming, especially after removing the seeds and scraping the interior ridges. When cooked the pepper gives off a raisin-like aroma; its flavor is richly full-bodied and slightly fruity with a mild heated aftertaste.
BTW, while fresh Aji Amarillo peppers can sometimes be found at specialty retail outlets seasonally, Melissa’s dried version is available year-round. Dried chile peppers are sweeter with deeper, more concentrated flavors compared to their fresh counterparts. To re-hydrate dried peppers, soak in hot tap water for about 20 minutes. Be careful not to soak longer as the pepper can turn bitter.
Of course, the other native Peruvian co-star in Peter’s dish is the potato. Archeological findings indicate that Inca Indians were the first to cultivate potatoes dating back to around 8,000 BC. Come to think of it, it is very apropos to be featuring a recipe with potatoes in this month of St. Patrick. Ireland can thank those wandering expansionist Spanish Conquistadors who conquered Peru in 1536 and brought back the newly discovered tuber to Europe. Still, the motherland will always be Peru, where there are over 3800 potato varieties commercially farmed today. While they differ in size, shape, color, skin, pulp, texture and taste, all have their place in the country’s cuisine.
Most Aji de gallina recipes call for regular-sized yellow potatoes, like a Yukon Gold, but I much prefer Peter’s choice of Melissa’s Gemstone® pack of baby potatoes for this dish. Not only is this an assorted selection of the tastiest varieties available that varies with availability throughout the year, small baby potatoes also cook much quicker and, I think, have more flavor than their full-grown versions. Also, the color combination of dark purple, red, yellow and cream are just visually more interesting on the plate. When cooking potatoes more vitamins are retained by steaming rather than boiling them. This is because both Vitamin C and B are water-soluble; so when potatoes are soaked in water or boiled some of the vitamins leach out into the water. Vitamins B-6, C and thiamine are also heat-sensitive, so the higher the temperature and the longer the cooking time required for boiling, the more the vitamins are lost.
Peter Blake may be in his first few rookie “seasons” here at Melissa’s, joining the company just last May, but his many years as a chef in the English and European hospitality industry is expected to serve him well in his role as an ambassador representing the company both locally and nationwide at venues such as conventions, product seminars as well as the many charity events that Melissa’s supports throughout the year.
“In preparation for this exciting role, my first months have been spent learning the dynamics of Melissa’s as a produce distribution company,” explained Peter. “I am working in various departments to fully understand how this amazing company operates from top to bottom. I have had brief stints working in the warehouse, packing, shipping and receiving departments. Currently I am helping to grow our organic program. I have also taken it upon myself to further my knowledge within the company by assisting procurement, sales and marketing as well as accompanying various team members to local charity and culinary events.”
Peter’s long and winding path to Melissa’s is also typical of the nomadic life of the professional chef. He began his cooking career in the kitchen of a vegetarian restaurant in Nottingham, England, where he worked himself through the ranks over three years to become the head chef. Of course the next logical career move was to join the kitchen of a nearby hotel that specialized in cooking all kinds of meats! He then moved to the big city (London) to take a position with a hotel chain, which gave him the opportunity to experience every chef role in a professional hospitality kitchen from Saucier to Pastry Chef and every specialty position in-between. He then transferred to Berlin, Germany with the same hotel chain for a time, which exposed him to both another cuisine and culture. Eventually Peter left the hospitality industry to be the personal chef for both a brigadier general in the British military and then an American Ambassador. His resume also includes culinary stints in Australia as well as some restaurant management consultant experience. I’m not sure which is more strenuous – the life of a musician on continual tour or the many kitchens in the life of a professional chef! We are glad that you have settled in with Melissa’s, Peter -- welcome to the family! Peter has promised to share more of the culinary knowledge that he has learned along the way with future submissions to this blog -- and I for one certainly look forward to preparing and tasting them!
Chicken Aji Amarillo
2 Dried Aji Amarillo Chiles, reconstituted, seeds removed, chopped
1 shallot, rough chopped
2 tablespoons sour cream
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
2 Chicken breasts, boneless and skinless
1 package 16 oz. Melissa’s Gemstone® potatoes
S&P, to taste
Cilantro leaves (garnish)
1 egg, hard-boiled, quartered (garnish)
6 black olives, whole pitted (garnish)
Steam the potatoes lightly, until just cooked through. Let cool slightly before slicing in half. Keep warm until plating.
In a medium sauce pan sauté shallots and peppers in butter until shallots are translucent, then add the stock and sour cream. Bring mixture to a boil, lower heat, simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, pour through a fine mesh strainer to remove all fibrous materials. Keep warm until plating.
Sauté chicken breasts in a covered pan for 8-10 minutes, let rest 5 minutes before slicing each breast on the bias.
Plating: Center half of the potatoes on each plate, place the sliced chicken breast on top of the potatoes and then cover all generously with the pepper cream sauce. Garnish each serving with a sprinkle of fresh cilantro springs, two hard-boiled egg quarters & a few black olives.