We lived in Peru for a couple of years, and considered ourselves to be in gastronomic heaven. Peruvian cuisine takes advantage of the country’s geography (coast, jungle, mountains) and history (including the Inca, Spanish conquistadores, African slaves, Chinese indentured labor, and many other immigrants). All these influences–different foods and cooking techniques–came together to contribute to an absolutely wonderful cuisine, one that continues to evolve.
Of the many Peruvian dishes I like, Ají de Gallina is one of my favorites. Ají means chili; the yellow in this dish comes from the signature yellow chili peppers that symbolize Peruvian cooking (plus a bit of turmeric). Gallina means hen–in this case, shredded chicken. And the creamy, cheesy, nutty part of the dish speaks to European influences. It is traditionally served with black olives (which I had on hand) and boiled yellow potatoes and quartered hard-boiled egg (which I belatedly discovered I did not have on hand).
This is not a difficult dish to make, but does require some preparation time, so if your weekdays are busy, this may be best made on a weekend. I tend to make it in stages while taking care of other tasks around the house and in the garden.
3 lb. boneless chicken breast halves
2 carrots, peeled
2 bay leaves
4 slices white bread, crusts removed, cut into quarters
1 (12-oz.) can evaporated milk, plus extra milk if needed
3 tbsp. canola or vegetable oil
2 large onions, diced
4-6 large garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp. aji amarillo paste (yellow chili paste)–available at international/Latin food markets
2 tsp. turmeric
1.5 tsp. salt
1 c. chopped walnuts, toasted (see below)
¾ c. grated Parmesan cheese
boiled yellow potatoes, peeled and halved
hard-boiled eggs, quartered
1. Place chicken breasts in a large pot, and add onions, carrots, and bay leaves. Add enough water to cover the chicken, then lightly salt the water. Bring water to a boil, immediately turn off the heat, cover pot, and let the chicken poach for about an hour. Remove chicken from the broth, let cool, and then shred with clean fingers. Reserve all of the broth.
2. Meanwhile, soak the bread in the milk.
3. Sauté onion in oil in a heavy-bottomed Dutch Oven or large pot over medium heat until softened and turning golden at edges. Add garlic, cook 2 more minutes, then add the turmeric, salt, and pepper. Cook for 2 minutes, then add aji amarillo paste and cook for 5 more minutes. Note: 2 tbsp. chili paste gives this dish a nice little kick; for more heat, add 3 tbsp.
4. Toast the walnuts (place walnuts on a baking sheet in a single layer, and toast in a 350-degree oven for about 5-10 minutes or until lightly golden and aromatic; be careful not to burn them, as I have done on more than one occasion when trying to do too much multitasking….).
5. Put the bread and milk into a blender or food processor, add the toasted walnuts and a splash of reserved chicken broth (about 1/4 c.), and blend until smooth. Add this mixture to the onions in the pot, cook for a few minutes, adding more broth if necessary to thin, then add chicken and parmesan cheese. Thin as needed with more milk or broth (you will probably need a fair amount; add more milk for a creamier texture, more broth for a lighter dish). Add more salt and pepper to taste.
6. Serve over rice and with suggested accompaniments. Garnish with some chopped parsley for additional color, if desired.