Culinary Ambassadors: Laylita’s Recipes

Chaulafán de Pollo

How much do you know about South American food? I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but if you haven’t been there or don’t have any ties to the region, I’d guess not very much. Maybe you’ve heard of a few iconic dishes: asado in Argentina, feijoada in Brazil, arepas in Venezuela. Or maybe, like many people, your picture of it is shaped by the ubiquity of Mexican food, and you blithely assume that some form of tacos, burritos and enchiladas (with maybe a few regional variations) are eaten all the way from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego.

I realized how misguided this belief was the moment I stepped off a plane in Peru ten years ago. All around me were things I’d never heard of and none of the things I had. There were certainly no tacos, burritos and enchiladas – in fact, there weren’t even any tortillas. Instead there was boiled corn with enormous, starchy kernels; multicolored potatoes drenched in spicy peanut sauce; thick meat and bean stews eaten with rice and pickled onions; buckets of a vibrant yellow condiment called salsa de ají; plantains served fried, mashed, boiled and stuffed; and possibly my favorite discovery, humitas: moist cakes of sweet, fresh corn, salty cheese and onions, wrapped in cornhusks and steamed. There were a few names I recognized such as ceviche and tamales, but neither of the Peruvian versions bore much resemblance to what I knew (though they were undoubtedly better than any I’d ever had). I came back totally entranced with the flavors of this Andean culinary wonderland, but with little to no literature in existence on the subject, I had no idea how to even begin to recreate them myself.

In the last decade there have been a few advances on the book front (this one, for example, has become the gold standard), but there’s still a frustrating lack of anything really in-depth on most South American cuisines. You can imagine my excitement, then, to stumble upon Laylita’s Recipes, a food blog that is not only beautifully written and photographed, but features several of the very dishes I fell in love with in Peru. Surprisingly, though, it’s not about Peruvian food at all.

Laylita’s Recipes is written by Layla, an Ecuadorian expat living with her French husband and son in Seattle (if only I’d found her blog a year ago, I’d have begged her for a hands-on lesson!). While she occasionally strays into French classics or her own creations, the main focus of her site is the food of her homeland, and specifically of the southern province of Loja where she grew up (which borders on Peru, which might explain why her versions of things look so familiar to me). What I love about her is that she’s a natural teacher, explaining everything from peeling green plantains to stuffing empanadas in such clear, simple terms that I almost feel like it’s second nature before I’ve even attempted it. Her stories are also wonderful; I particularly loved reading about how she used to make humitas as a child, first harvesting the corn in her family’s fields, then sitting around with the neighbor women shucking bushels of it while they scared the children with stories about the devil that lived in a nearby tree. And when I finally make it to Quito I’ll be sure to keep her food-focused guide to the city very close at hand.

It’s her recipes, though, that are the greatest treasure here. I’ve made a few of them already to rave reviews: her creamy, deeply savory locro de papas, for example, was perfect comfort food for a chilly spring evening a few weeks ago, and her patacones with ají criollo were the surprise hit of a recent south-of-the-border-themed dinner party. On top of that I’ve bookmarked easily a dozen more: her sugar-dusted, cheese-stuffed empanadas de viento; her coconut-bathed pescado encocado, the charmingly-named llapingachos, her stuffed-plantain bolones de verde, her beer- and tamarind-laced seco de carne and of course her humitas, which I’m impatiently waiting for corn season in order to try.

Much harder was narrowing the field down to one recipe to feature here. I finally settled on a recipe as delicious as it is curious in origin: chaulafán, a rice dish born of the fusion between Chinese and Ecuadorian culinary cultures. While the Chinese community in Ecuador dates back to an influx of miners in the 19th century, no one seems sure of exactly when their fried rice started sporting a distinctly Ecuadorian personality (or when Ecuadorians adopted it as a dish of their own). What’s clear, though, is that both sides gained something from the exchange: a dish of spicy, sizzling rice punctuated with crusty pork, tender chicken, creamy bits of egg, sweet raisins and aromatic cumin and cilantro. Topped with hot sauce, tangy curtido (pickled red onions), and cool, buttery avocado, the result is a feisty mosaic of flavors, temperatures and textures, not to mention a whole new perspective on the idea of ‘fusion cuisine’.

And after one bite, I swear you’ll be ready to board the next flight south to find out just what else you’ve been missing.

p.s. see the first post in this series here.

Chaulafán de Pollo (Ecuadorian Fried Rice)

Like a lot of Chinese or Chinese-influenced food, there’s more work involved in prep than in actual cooking here. Rice (as well as a couple of carrots) needs to be cooked, eggs need to be scrambled, veggies and herbs need to be chopped, and chicken needs to be shredded. For the sake of time, actually I’ve taken the liberty of adapting the recipe to use a store-bought rotisserie chicken instead of boiling a whole one. The difference in taste is minimal, and the shortcut shaves easily an hour-plus off the time count. Of course if you happen to have some raw chicken lying around or just want to keep things as traditional as possible, I certainly won’t hold it against you; just head on over to Layla’s recipe for the from-scratch instructions.
source: adapted from Laylita’s Recipes
serves: 6-8, generously

For the rice:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or butter
2 tablespoons white onion, diced
3 1/4 cups (800ml) chicken broth
3 cups (550g) rice
Salt, to taste

For the chaulafan:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil or butter
1 large onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, crushed
 or minced
4 oz (120g) pancetta or bacon, diced

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, divided

7 tablespoons soy sauce, divided

1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon achiote powder (or turmeric)

6 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro (coriander), divided

hot chile powder, to taste
meat from 1 large rotisserie chicken, torn into bite-sized pieces
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced

6 eggs, scrambled in a little oil

1 cup (140g) frozen peas
2 large carrots, peeled, cooked and diced
½ cup (75g) raisins
2 bunches green (spring) onions, finely chopped

To serve: avocado slices, ají or hot sauce, curtido (pickled onions), and ketchup

To cook the rice, heat the oil or butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, add the onions and the rice and stir until the grains are well-coated. Add the chicken broth, bring to a boil, and reduce the heat to low. Cover the pot tightly and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the rice is just cooked.

Heat the 3 tablespoons butter or oil over medium-high heat in a large (at least 12-inch/30cm) frying pan or wok. Add the chopped onions, garlic, pancetta or bacon, 1 tablespoon of the Worcestershire sauce, 1 tablespoon of the soy sauce, cumin, achiote powder, 3 tablespoons of the cilantro and hot chile powder to taste; cook for about 5-8 minutes or until the onions are soft.

Add the cooked rice, chicken meat, and diced bell peppers. Continue to fry, stirring frequently, for another 5 minutes. Stir in the remaining soy sauce, remaining Worcestershire sauce, scrambled eggs, peas, carrots, and raisins. Remove from the heat and fold in the remaining 3 tablespoons of cilantro and green onions.

Serve with avocado slices, ají or hot sauce, pickled onions, and ketchup, if you like.

Dear Local Strawberries

Fresh Strawberry Pie

Dear Local Strawberries,

Welcome. I know you’ve had a busy few months, filling mouths and jam jars and making appearances at countless local festivals on your annual (and no doubt tiring) trek north, but I want to thank you all the same for stopping here and spending some time with us in Germany. We had one hell of a winter, and not too nice of a spring either, so your little sweet scarlet orbs of sunshine are really just what the doctor ordered – or would be if doctors here were in the habit of prescribing fruit (which I actually think they should be, but that’s a discussion for another time). If you want to know the truth, there were times when it was just the promise of your visit that got me out of bed in the morning, particularly when, day after day, the only things to be found in the markets were every bit as drab and colorless as the winter landscape. I know that some people got so desperate they even fell victim to the temptations of your early-season impostors, you know, your monstrous white-shouldered cousins that fly in before you each year from places like Spain and Morocco where they seemingly like to grow things without flavor. But not me; I knew it was worth waiting for you, and even when you failed to arrive on schedule a couple of weeks ago, I knew you’d come eventually. You always do.

Anyhow, since I’m so happy to see you and want to give you the welcome you deserve, here’s what I propose. For as long as you decide to stay – which I’m hoping will be a while, particularly when you see what I have planned – I will put you into as many of these pies as I’m physically able to make, and we’re physically able to eat. Sound good? It should, since this pie is just about the best thing to come along since sliced bread. On second thought, it’s better, since I’ve never woken up in the middle of the night consumed by cravings for a well-cut loaf. This pie, on the other hand, I can scarcely stop thinking about, particularly when there’s just one slice left in the fridge and I can’t shake the nagging fear that someone else may finish it off before I do.

But let me tell you about this pie: it respects you. You know how so many desserts that feature you end up turning you into a cloyingly sweet heap of cellulose? Not this one. It keeps you fresh and intact, your exquisite flavor – and your dignity – preserved. The trick, it seems, is in not cooking you. In fact, you’re not even warmed in the making of this pie – though to be fair your juices are, after being gently extracted and combined with just enough gelatin to give you a wobbly-soft cushion to relax on when you’re spooned into the crunchy shortbread crust. And speaking of the crust, it’s a marvel in itself, though don’t worry about it stealing the limelight – it’s only there to play backup. Really, this pie is all about you. For a change, you’re not an accompaniment, you’re not even a component (like you are when you hang out with your old pal shortcake): you are the dessert. I know it’s a strange concept and probably one you’re not too familiar with, but trust me, it works – and better than you can possibly imagine.

I can’t really take the credit for this pie, though. For that you have to thank a certain lady at a sadly-defunct magazine. I did, however, refine her recipe somewhat in ways I thought would serve you better. I gave you a slightly sturdier crust, for one thing, so you’d have plenty of support when you were transported from pan to plate. More importantly, I tried to minimize the amount you’d be diluted, extracting juices from all of you rather than just a select few, and cutting you slightly larger so that you’d retain your integrity even despite having given up your lifeblood for the better good of the pie. I also made sure you’d never come in contact with anything warmer than room temperature, again so as to not threaten your delicate constitution. I think the fiddling worked: in this form you’re not only the best strawberry pie I’ve ever eaten, you’re one of the best fruit desserts of any type. And even my husband agrees you don’t come much better than this, despite being a much more equal-opportunity strawberry-lover than me (he even likes you cooked! I know!).

So, my dear strawberries, there you have it. I may not be able to welcome you with the kind of trumpets and fanfare you encounter elsewhere around the globe, but I promise, once you step into this pie you’ll be met with a rare and special kind of reverence. You’ll no doubt win some new fans, and I daresay you’ll even leave those cherries and plums awfully big shoes to fill when they arrogantly breeze through later in the summer. And if I could ask just one small thing in return, I mean apart from everything else you give so selflessly, it’s this: would you consider scheduling us just a little bit earlier next spring? A year will be such an agonizingly long time to wait for another slice of this pie.

Gratefully and eternally yours,

Fresh Strawberry Pie

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, but I will anyway: local strawberries are the only way to go for this pie. I don’t even want to think about what it would be like with those tasteless trucked-for-days interlopers, but surely nothing like the sweet, tangy, essence-of-summer bombshell it should be. Even if the season has come and gone where you are (and I realize there are plenty of places further south where it has), just stick a bookmark here and come back next spring. As for the rest of you, what are you still doing reading this? Get pie-making!
p.s. Do note the lengthy chilling time for this pie. To serve it in the evening I’d start on it no later than late morning; if you want to serve it in the afternoon I’d whip it up the night before.
source: adapted from Gourmet
serves: 8

For crust:
8 oz (225g) shortbread or other crumbly butter cookies
2-3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons (45g) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
good pinch salt

For filling:
2 lb (1 scant kg) strawberries, hulled and quartered (or cut into eighths, if they’re large)
3/4 cup (150g) sugar
1/3 cup (80ml) fresh lemon juice
1 envelope (2 1/4 tsp/9g) unflavored powdered gelatin

To serve:
whipped cream flavored with a little sugar and vanilla

Preheat your oven to 350°F/175°C. Pulse the cookies in a food processor to fine crumbs, then pulse in the sugar, butter and salt until combined. Press the crumb mixture evenly onto the bottom and sides of a 9-inch (23cm) pie dish. Bake until golden and fragrant, about 15-18 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.

In a large bowl, toss the quartered strawberries with the sugar and lemon juice. Let stand, stirring occasionally, 45 minutes to an hour, until the berries have softened but before they start to turn mushy. Drain the berries in a sieve set over a large glass measuring cup. Add enough water to measure 2 cups (480ml). Taste the liquid: it should be lip-smackingly tart and sweet. If it needs either a little more sugar or lemon, add it now. Transfer the juice to a medium saucepan and return the berries to their bowl.

Sprinkle the gelatin over the strawberry juice and let soften for one minute. Bring to a bare simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the gelatin has dissolved (don’t boil or the gelatin’s setting power will be compromised). Meanwhile, prepare an ice bath in a large bowl or the sink. Dip the bottom of the saucepan into the ice water, and stir until the juice has cooled to room temperature, 3-4 minutes. Stir cooled juice back into berries, then transfer the berry bowl to the ice bath. Stir the berries frequently (and gently) until the mixture thickens and begins to mound, 20 to 30 minutes. Alternatively, refrigerate for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until the same thing happens.

Spoon the filling into the crust (you may have a little more than will fit, in which case spoon into a bowl or ramekin and save for a cook’s treat). Chill until the filling is set, at least 4 hours. The pie is at its peak as soon as it’s firm, but it will stay in fine shape (in the fridge) for about 3 days, though the strawberries will soften progressively over time. Serve slices of the pie with plenty of vanilla-scented whipped cream.