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Aji! My Heart!

April 26, 2009 Peru

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The Rees’ are lovers of condiments. At the top of our list is mustard, which we always keep many kinds of close at hand (french fries are nothing without mustard). Other notables on the list are pico de gallo, chimichurri, rice vinegar, rooster sauce, onion-y relishes, and aioli.


Packets of Aji and Criolla de Rocoto to mail home

In Perú we have discovered something new to slather our meals with: Criolla de Rocoto and Aji. Be still our hearts! Where have these amazing flavors been all our lives? We can barely start writing about Peruvian food without drooling and having to go get a snack, but these tiny bright little sauces which make it to every table at every restaurant have our bellies rumbling in no time.


Rocoto Relleno

The Rocoto Pepper (or locoto, or manzano) is one of the earliest peppers domesticated, some 5,000 years ago. Usually red and thick-walled, like a tiny round bell pepper, the Rocoto packs a punch similar to Jalapenos. It is heavily applied in Peruvian cooking in dishes ranging from condiments to ceviche, to Rocoto Relleno – stuffed Rocoto.


Criolla de Rocoto at the table

The delicious salsa Criolla de Rocoto is zesty, with a slight smokiness unlike a chipotle, but deathly addictive. Peruvians use it unsparingly on anything and everything. We had a delicious preparation of Criolla de Rocoto at our seafood lunch in Lima, but we also bought a so-go-we-liked-the-package sampling at the supermarket. It varies from table to table, but we haven’t met a Criolla de Rocoto we haven’t liked.


Aji Pepper

The Aji pepper and salsa go by the same name. The pepper is orange, and smaller and more elongated than the Rocoto, with a fruitier flavor. As with the Rocoto, Aji peppers play a major role in the Peruvian kitchen appearing in many potato dishes such as Papa a la Huancaína, Carapulcra (dried potato stew), and Tiradito (fresh fish marinated in aji pepper sauce with lemon).


Papa a la Huancaína

We have yet to raid a Whole Foods or South American Market back home to check if these peppers are available stateside, or elsewhere around the world for that matter, but if they are we’re including some recipes we found for these amazing condiments that make virtually any dish come alive.

Criolla de Rocoto

1/3 a chopped onion
1/2 rocoto pepper
2 cloves garlic chopped
Juice of 1 lime
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
2 teaspoon chopped green onions
1 teaspoon chopped cilantro
Salt and pepper to taste

Seed and derib the rocoto and chop finely — wear gloves.
Place pepper, onion, garlic, and lime juice in blender.
Certain recipes call for a splash of evaporated milk at this step. This undoubtedly takes some of the bite out of the salsa, and we’d need to experiment in the kitchen to determine if we think this is necessary.
With the blender running, slowly add oil, to form a creamy sauce.
Toss in parsley, green onions and cilantro on the last pulse. Don’t puree them, but get them nice and mixed in.
Add salt and/or pepper to taste.

Certain recipes simply combine all the finely chopped ingredients in a bowl (no milk, no oil) and serve. Usually, we are in this chopped-only camp (try spending a few minutes to simply hand chop your pesto – you’ll never go back to the blender), but with this salsa it’s quite nice to have a fairly smooth, colorful sauce to pour over meats, seafood, potatoes, or anything else in your path.

Aji

2 red onions, finely chopper
Juice of 4 limes or Key limes
2 Aji peppers very finely chopped and deribbed
2 teaspoons chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 teaspoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

After chopping red onions, place them in a bowl with salted water. Stir 1 minute, then leave the onions in the water an additional 5 to 10 minutes, then strain them and let them partially dry. (This process of washing onions, typically Peruvian, takes the strong edge off them and leaves them with an improved flavor.)
Place the washed onions in a container, squeeze the lime juice over them and then stir in the remaining ingredients.
At this step you can choose, or not, to purée the whole shebang in a blender.
Delicious over pork, red meat, duck, chicken or seafood. A piece of bread soaked in it is just as tasty. Stirred into a soup, it gives a bright piquancy.

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