Kinda Like French Fries, Maybe


Let’s get things backwards and start with the side dish.  Interesting enough to warrant special mention, after all.  Although they resemble potatoes, these are yuquitas fritas, fried yucca (AKA cassava) root.  Somewhat similar to potatoes when fried, yucca is less starchy and a bit sweeter.  Imagine a mixture of sweet potatoes and the more “standard” (to Westerners, at least) variety.

The potato was cultivated first in Peru, but it’s not always the tuber of choice for local cooks.  In fact, Peruvians tend to favor the yucca when they crave a fried snack.  Therefore, yucca is a  fitting (and typical) accompaniment to the main dish, pollo a la brasa.  It’s Peru’s take on grilled chicken.

That undersells it, though.  Pollo a la brasa is intensely, even riotously, flavorful, unlike any chicken you’ve tried before.  Unless, of course, you’ve spent time in Lima.  This taste explosion is due in no small part to the extensive collection of ingredients in which the chicken marinates.  The list includes contributions Peru’s many ethnicities have made to the national cuisine, as well as the extensive produce available in a country that includes lush, deep emerald jungles, the snowy peaks that tower above them and just about every other environment within imagination.

Rosemary, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and beer (yes, beer) reflect European influence.  Asian immigrants provided soy sauce and ginger.  Then, of course, are the local ingredients Peruvians have on hand, among other things, limes and peppers.  Lots and lots of peppers.

Supplementing the flavors on the plate are a pair of dipping sauces, both of which make generous use of those very same peppers.  Neither is notably hot, though, reflecting the ingredients that balance the fiery peppers.  The light orange concoction on the left is simple, mainly a mix of cream cheese and hot rocoto pepper sauce.  Not a personal favorite, to be honest, though this likely is because of the Terrified Amateur’s limited appreciation (shall we say) of cheese.

Much more fortunate is the green dip on the right, aji verde.  Light, refreshing and herbal, it’s green both in color and in taste.  This one definitely exemplifies its name, as verde is Spanish for “green.”

Just as the ingredients list draws from multiple sources so too do the recipes.  The main dish, pollo a la brasa and the aji verde both were featured on a great site called The Daring Gourmet.  Appropriate enough.  Meanwhile, Peru Delights inspired both the yuquita fritas and the rocoto dipping sauce.

Because big flavors are involved, the ingredients required are a bit, well, esoteric – even more so than normal.  As usual, though, readily-available substitutes are suggested.  Because there are months between inspiration and execution, the T.A. has time to shop (thank God for the internet!).  For those of you inspired to try these recipes now, however, your enthusiasm should be encouraged, hence the recommended substitutes normal people, not just food fanatics, may obtain easily.

*****

Pollo a la Brasa

(Peruvian Grilled Chicken)

  • 1 2-to-3 pound broiler chicken (*1)
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • juice of 2 limes
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
  • 1/4 cup dark beer (*2)
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon huacatay paste (*3)
  • 1 tablespoon aji panco paste (*4)
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground annatto (*5)
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Combine all ingredients but the chicken in a food processor and blend until smooth.  Place the chicken (*6) in a large zip-top plastic bag and pour the blended ingredients over it.  Force out as much air as possible before sealing the top and refrigerate for at least four hours or, preferably, overnight.

Grill chicken over indirect heat, flipping at least once, until chicken is cooked through (45 minutes to an hour, depending on the cut of chicken and its thickness).

Serve the chicken with Aji Verde sauce if desired.

NOTES:

1 – Instead of a whole fryer chicken, try a  similar weight of thighs or leg quarters; they’re moister and more flavorful.

2 – As it pairs better with chicken, I used ale instead of a dark beer.

3 – Huacatay paste is made from a Peruvian herb also called “black mint.”  It’s available in Latino markets and online.  To me it tastes musty; not a big fan, but I wanted the experience to be as authentic as possible.  Instead you may substitute one teaspoon each of dried mint leaves and steak sauce.

4 – Aji panco is a paste made from a mildly hot and fruity Peruvian pepper.  Instead use the sauce from canned chipotle in adobo sauce, spiked with a dash of sugar.

5 – The annatto is added mainly for its red coloring.  If you can’t find it, try a similar quantity of paprika.

6 – I scored each piece of chicken a couple times with a sharp knife.  This allowed the marinade to infuse the chicken more readily and increased the flavor.

*****

Aji Verde Sauce

  • 2 jalapeno peppers, seeded
  • 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, loosely packed
  • 1 small clove garlic
  • 1 green onion, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons huacatay paste (*1)
  • 1 tablespoon aji amarillo paste (*2)
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup good-quality mayonnaise

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth.  Refrigerate for at least an hour to allow the flavors to connect and the sauce to set.

NOTES:

1 – Huacatay paste is made from a Peruvian herb also called “black mint.”  It’s available in Latino markets and online.  To me it tastes musty; not a big fan, but I wanted the experience to be as authentic as possible.  Instead you may substitute one teaspoon each of dried mint leaves and steak sauce.

2 – Aji amarillo is a spicy, flavorful paste made from a yellow Peruvian pepper.  If you don’t have access to a Latino market and you’d rather not wait for an Amazon order, try a teaspoon each of yellow mustard and hot sauce, with a dash of sugar.

*****

Yuquitas Fritas with Rocoto Sauce

  • 1 pound yucca (or cassava) root, peeled, cored, and cut into sticks approximately 1/2 inch across and 3 inches long (*1)
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • vegetable oil, for frying (*2)
  • 1/2 rocoto pepper, ribbed and seeded (*3)
  • 8 ounces cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil

Cook the yucca in boiling salted water with the garlic until the yucca is tender, about 20 to 30 minutes, drain and set aside to dry and cool. (*4)

Meanwhile, make the rocoto sauce.  Combine the rocoto pepper, cream cheese and vegetable oil in a food processor and blend until smooth.

Heat the oil, poured to a depth of about and inch, in a saucepan.  Fry the yucca sticks, a few at a time, until golden.  Drain on paper towels, then serve with the rocoto sauce.

NOTES:

1 – Yucca is available in most larger grocery stores and in Latino markets.  It has a woody, stringy core, which you don’t want to include, so cut your fries from the outer two-thirds of the peeled yucca root.  If you don’t use yucca, sweet potatoes are fairly similar in taste and in texture, though not in appearance.  You even could use “plain old” potatoes (another Peruvian staple, by the way), but they wouldn’t be as distinctive.

2 – I used peanut oil instead, as it adds a nice flavor.

3 – If you don’t have a rocoto pepper, try a small can of chipotle in adobo sauce, with a splash of hot sauce.

4 – If you have the time, freeze the yucca sticks for a day or longer after boiling and draining them.  Apparently, this gives them a softer consistency when they’re fried.  This may have been why my recipe turned out so well, although I can’t say for sure, as I never prepared yuquitas fritas without freezing the yucca first.

 

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