Ají de gallina is the quintessential Peruvian dish: it is a perfect fusion of Andean and European cuisines. It has roots in pre-Columbian times; the Inca people cooked a breed of chicken called the “hualpa” (which was renamed after Atahaulpa, the last Inca ruler executed by the Spanish) with hot pepper. Ají amarillo was – and still is – the most commonly used pepper in Peruvian kitchens; and it is the key flavoring ingredient in this recipe. The Spaniards added nuts, cheese and olives to the traditional Andean recipe; they also added the use of a panada as thickening agent. French chefs who came to Peru in the 19th century transformed the dish into more of a creamy fricassée, with shredded chicken instead of the Quechua tradition of large chunks. In short, each culture made its mark; and ultimately created an entirely new dish that is now uniquely Peruvian.
Ají de gallina is a treasured national dish. Every Peruvian home cook has this recipe in his / her repertoire, and adds a personal spin. It was my husband’s childhood favorite, and he says that it is a common favorite of many Peruvian children. His mother made it for every birthday celebration. Unfortunately, I have corrupted him: he now requests my braised beef short ribs with my top-secret mango-tamarind barbecue sauce! But that’s another post.
This recipe is traditionally made with non-egg-laying hens. Hen is older and tougher than the regular frying or roasting chickens that are commonly sold here; but is much more flavorful. You’ll need to boil the heck out of it to make it tender… but I promise, the flavor is well worth the extra time. I’m not one to promote the big-box stores… but you can often find hen in the frozen food section of that megalomaniacal corporation that starts with a “W.” If you can get a fresh hen at your local butcher or grocery store, so much the better. Use a whole roasting chicken if you must – but don’t use chicken breast! Bone chicken is essential to create a flavorful stock and moist meat.
This dish is usually served as an entrée at home, with both rice and potatoes; and as an appetizer in restaurants, with potatoes only.
Hen and Stock:
- Hen, frozen or fresh One 5-pound bird
- Water To cover hen (about 2 ½ – 3 quarts)
- Carrot, peeled and halved 1 each
- Onion, yellow, quartered 1 large
- Celery 1 stalk
- Garlic 2 cloves
- Cumin 1 Tbsp.
- Bay leaf 2 large
- White pepper ¼ tsp.
- Kosher salt 1 tsp.
- Olive oil, extra virgin ¼ cup
- Onion, small dice 1 large
- Garlic, minced 4 large cloves
- White bread, crust removed ½ loaf (about 10 slices)
- Evaporated milk 12 oz. (1 can)
- Hen stock As needed / about 2 ½ cups
- Parmesan cheese, fresh grated ½ cup
- Ají amarillo paste ¼ cup
- Salt ¼ tsp. (to taste)
- Black pepper ½ tsp. (to taste)
- Boiled potato 4 each
- Hard boiled egg 2 each
- Peruvian olives, halved 8 each
- Remove giblets from hen; thoroughly rinse, inside and out.
- Place hen in a large stockpot; fill with cold water until bird is covered.
- Add quartered onion, carrot, celery, garlic, bay leaf, white pepper and salt; bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat; cover partially (allow to vent) and simmer for at least 2 ½ – 3 hours (until hen is so tender that it begins to fall off the bone, and the legs / wings can be easily pulled from the body).
- If your pot is small and hen is not completely covered with water, turn after 1 hour.
- Strain; make sure to retain the broth in a pot, and keep it hot on the stove.
- Remove hen, and allow to cool. Discard remainder of strained ingredients.
- When hen is cool, peel off the skin and discard. Remove the hen meat from the bone, and shred finely.
- Skim surface oil off the surface of the stock.
Hen and Sauce
- Cut the bread first; allow to sit out for 1-2 hours.
- Soak the dry bread in the milk until saturated. Place in a food processor, and purée until smooth.
- Heat the oil over medium heat; sauté the onion until soft and translucent (4-5 minutes).
- Add garlic and ají amarillo paste; sauté 2-3 more minutes.
- Add bread mixture; stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, cook until liquid evaporates and mix is dry.
- Add one ladle (½ cup) of stock at a time, stirring to prevent sticking. When liquid evaporates, add another ladle-full. Repeat, for a total of 4 ladles (or until a thick sauce consistency is reached).
- (Optional: at this point, you can purée the sauce, using a hand blender.)
- Add the cheese and the shredded hen meat. Add one more ladle of stock; mix well to combine.
- Remove from heat.
- Taste; add salt and pepper as desired. (It may not need any.) If sauce is too thick, add one more ladle of stock, and mix well.
- Serve gallina atop boiled plain potatoes; garnish with hard-boiled egg, black olives, and crushed peanuts or walnuts. You may also add arroz a la Peruana as a second side dish.
- You can serve this as a main dish, or (in smaller portions) as an appetizer or first course.
- Refrigerate or freeze the extra stock – it makes a delicious soup or stew base.
- You can substitute 1 sleeve of Saltine crackers for some or all of the bread.
- Evaporated milk is used in many Peruvian recipes. For a much thicker and richer sauce, substitute heavy cream for the evaporated milk.
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Recipe by Jennifer Ramos Lorson.