Ají de gallina is the quintessential Peruvian dish: it is a perfect fusion of Andean and European cuisines. It has some 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, who was 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.
However, it is also related to the Spanish precursor to manjar blanco, which was a cooked dish that included milk and almonds. The Spaniards added cheese and olives. French chefs who came to Peru in the 19th century may have changed the dish into more of a creamy fricassée, possibly adding the European use of a panada as thickening agent, and shredded chicken instead of the Quechua tradition of large chunks. Native chopped peanuts replaced the almonds as well. 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.
* * Please note – there are several steps which require advance preparation and waiting time. * *
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). Periodically skim surface oil and scum off the surface of the stock.
If your pot is small and hen is not completely covered with water, turn after 1 hour.
* While stock is cooking, prep stew base and garnish ingredients (see below).
Add the potatoes to the stock for the last 25 minutes. (Remove when fork-tender, if done before the stock.)
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 by hand.
Gather / measure / prep mise en place.
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.