Katie Choy’s crash course in Peruvian cuisine came years ago, when her mother-in-law fell and broke her leg during a visit to her Jupiter home.
Until then, the food of her husband’s homeland seemed almost too complex to master. In her newlywed years, Katie, a Pittsburgh-area native raised on meat and potatoes, would jot notes as she watched her mother-in-law cook. Consuelo Aragon de Choy would create classic Peruvian dishes by fusing earthy Latin American flavors with interesting Asian ingredients, spooning out spicy chile pastes of various hues and intensity.
But it was when Consuelo could not cook that Katie became her surrogate in the kitchen.
“I’ll teach you,” her mother-in-law would say from her chair, directing Katie to grab pots, open spices, raise and lower the flames on the stove.
Ingredient by ingredient, the dishes would come together on Katie’s stove. Today those dishes fill a large cookbook – Katie Choy’s “Family Secrets: Experience the Flavors of Peru” ($29.99, Lydia Inglett Publishing). But well before the book was published months ago, and well before the Choy family came to expect delicious Peruvian feasts at their Jupiter table at holiday time and, later, on random weeknights, there would be a few disasters in Katie’s kitchen.
One incident involved what is perhaps one of Peru’s more iconic dishes. Once Consuelo went back home to Peru, there was a disastrous attempt to make ají de gallina (creamy stewed chicken in Peruvian yellow pepper sauce). Katie recalls she didn’t have the right ingredients on hand and her substitutions didn’t work out as well.
But once she managed to transcribe the recipe in detail from Consuelo and seek out the authentic ingredients at local specialty markets, Katie not only mastered the traditional Peruvian dish, she devised a crockpot shortcut for the stew she likens to chicken chili.
“It became our holiday meal. We’d have it for Christmas. It was that special meal,” says Katie, a former nurse who met her husband, Dr. Rogelio Choy, while on the job at Jupiter Medical Center.
She was cooking that very dish one night when her husband got home from work and stopped by the stove in admiration.
“He just stood there and he smiled at me. And I said, ‘What are you smiling at?’ And he said ‘I think you’re turning into my mother,’” she recalls.
Some might be mystified at such a remark, but Katie knew exactly what he meant – and she took it to be “the biggest compliment ever.”
Her rendition of the dish had conjured a powerful memory of home and childhood for her husband. It was a gift to both the recipient and the cook.
That crockpot shortcut has turned the dish into an anytime meal for the Choys and their younger children, Francesca, 17, and Stefan, 19. (Their son Armand, 20, lives in San Francisco.)
“I’ll make it on a weekday like nothing,” says Katie, who now blends most of the stew ingredients, pours them into the slow-cooker and tops it with chicken breasts. The flavors intensify as the chicken cooks. “The chicken shreds like a dream. It’s just so good.”
More than two decades have passed since she had her first taste of the cuisine that transformed her kitchen. It came in the form of aromatic ocopa sauce, the first thing her mother-in-law cooked on the day she arrived at Katie’s Jupiter home.
“She comes in and she’s unpacking and she’s putting things in the freezer. Then she made this wonderful sauce,” recalls Katie. “I can’t say I remember the exact day that I tasted it, but it was one of those things you don’t forget. We put it over potatoes first. Then, whatever we’d have for dinner, we’d pour it over the top, and it was just so delicious.”
It turns out, her mother-in-law had brought the homemade sauce, frozen, all the way from Peru, and braved a U.S. Customs interrogation before warming up the delicacy on the stove in Jupiter. She had brought it from home because she wasn’t sure she could find the sauce’s key ingredient, a Peruvian herb known as huacatay, in Jupiter.
“At the time, I was unfamiliar with the spice and asked her what it was,” Katie Choy writes in her cookbook. “She leaned over and whispered, ‘It’s similar to marijuana!’ I thought to myself, ‘Hmmm. What is she feeding us?’”
She came to find out, the herb belongs to the marigold, not marijuana, family. And it’s sold locally in a jarred paste.
“We still get a laugh over that one,” she says.
Reprinted with permission from Katie Choy’s “Family Secrets” cookbook.
Ají de Gallina
Imagine your taste buds coming alive as they savor tender chicken bathed in a nutty cream sauce, followed by a hint of heat. I find it even more delicious the next day, or as a filling in empanadas.
Serves 4 to 6
1 whole chicken (3 ½-4 pounds), skin and excess fat removed, and cut into parts
2½ teaspoons salt, divided
1 cup pecans or peanuts (soaked in fresh water for 1 hour or more and drained)
4 slices white bread, crust removed and cubed
1 large yellow onion
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2-4 tablespoons ají amarillo paste, depending on hot you like it (see NOTE below)
3 cloves garlic, pressed
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
Prepared white rice, for serving
3 hardboiled eggs, halved, for serving
Peruvian olives (purple-black botija olives)
- Place chicken and 1 teaspoon salt in a large pot with just enough water to cover. Bring to a gentle boil over high heat, cover, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes or until no longer pink.
- Remove chicken and let cool. Reserve water. Shred or cube chicken and set aside. This step can be done a day ahead and refrigerated.
- Blend nuts, bread, and ¾-1 cup reserved chicken water on high until smooth. Remove and set aside. Rinse blender.
- Blend onion and ¼-½ cup reserved water until pureed. Remove and set aside.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large pot over medium heat until shimmering. Add pureed onion and cook 10 minutes, stirring as necessary to keep from sticking.
- Add 1 teaspoon salt, ají paste, garlic, nutmeg, and 2/3 cup reserved water, stir and cook another 10 minutes.
- Add nut puree and stir and cook about 8-10 minutes.
- Stir in evaporated milk, cheese, and chicken. Cook another 5 minutes, taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve over hot white rice on warm plate, garnished with eggs and olives.
NOTE: Find ají amarillo, or Peruvian yellow pepper paste, wherever Latin foods are sold. In Palm Beach County, it’s available at Presidente, El Bodegon supermarkets or other Latin specialty markets.
- For an easy shortcut, use a store-bought rotisserie chicken and canned broth. Discard skin, remove meat from bones and shred. Follow with recipe beginning at step 3.
- Crockpot version: Take 1 teaspoon salt, soaked pecans, bread, oil, onion (quartered), aji paste, garlic and nutmeg, and blend with 2 cups chicken broth until smooth and creamy. Pour ½ into slow-cooker. Lay 4 chicken breasts over sauce and pour remaining sauce over chicken. Cook on medium 4 hours or until chicken is very tender and easily pulls apart. Shred chicken, return to slow-cooker, and stir in evaporated milk and Parmesan cheese. Cook another ½ hour on low. Times may vary according to individual slow-cookers.
Ocopa con Papas
Potatoes with Cheese Sauce
This was the first Peruvian sauce I ever tasted and loved it immediately. We serve it over everything.
Serves 6 to 8
4-5 Yukon gold potatoes
3-4 large eggs
1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled
¼ cup peanuts or walnuts
1 medium onion, diced small
1-2 tablespoons ají amarillo paste, depending on how hot you like it
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup or more of water
1 pound queso blanco or other fresh cheese
2 tablespoons huacatay paste (sometimes called Peruvian black mint)
3-4 lettuce leaves, washed and dried
Peruvian olives (purple-black botija olives)
Sprinkle of paprika
- Place potatoes and eggs in a medium sized pot, cover with cold water, and bring to boil over high heat. Lower heat to maintain simmer and set timer for 9 minutes.
- Remove eggs only and plunge into ice water bath. Continue simmering potatoes another 12-15 minutes or until tender. Remove potatoes and set aside to cool.
- In medium sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat. Sauté garlic cloves 2-3 minutes until golden and fragrant, stirring frequently. Be careful not to let them burn, lowering heat if necessary. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside to cool.
- Add nuts to already hot and oily pan, and roast over medium heat for several minutes until fragrant and golden. Caution, they can burn quickly. Remove with slotted spoon, and let cool with garlic.
- Return already hot pan with oil to medium heat, add a little more oil if necessary, and stir in onion, ají amarillo paste, and salt. Cook until onions are soft, about 5-6 minutes stirring often. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
- Place garlic, nuts, onion mixture, water, queso blanco, and huacatay paste in blender. Puree until smooth and creamy, adding more water, a little at a time as needed. This sauce becomes very thin when heated, and thickens as it cools.
- Pour sauce into medium sauce pan. Cover and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
- Peel eggs and potatoes and slice in halves or quarters. Place atop bed of lettuce along with olives, drizzle with sauce, and sprinkle lightly with paprika.
Serve with additional sauce alongside in serving bowl.
To purchase Katie Choy’s cookbook, visit KatieChoy.com.