Chicken in Curried Red Pepper Sauce

Paprika Chicken 1

Let me just say that the current spice selection here in Cuenca is amaaaazing, especially compared to what it was just a few years ago.  A few weeks ago I was scanning the spice section at the super market and low and behold there it was, with a little glow all around it, CARDAMOM, the only ingredient missing from my pantry to make chai tea. a recipe I had been dreaming of for weeks, maybe even months.  I grabbed it off the shelf like it was the only one of it’s kind and held it close!  Ok, that might be a bit of an exaggeration but I’m pretty sure that I did a little skip down the aisle on the way to show Marcelo my find and I’ve been living on chai tea ever since.  Yeaaaa, that’s an exaggeration too, I’ve made it like twice, but my point is that a craving for something that is far far away and nearly impossible to substitute can just turn into an obsession.  So if you’re thinking of coming here for an extended period of time and you like food, especially international fare, it’s probably a good idea to pack some spices.

Most of my foreigner friends have, at the very least, a short list of old stand-bys that they routinely bring back with them.  I personally enjoy bringing back smoked paprika and my favorite chili seasoning, both of which you will find in the list of ingredients for the recipe below.  I also bring back a high quality dry spicy curry blend, a chicken and fish seasoning which can be used to liven up dressings, potatoes, etc., a southwest spice blend, organic veggie bouillon, a pickle spice mix, among a few others.

All of the basic dry spices are most certainly available in Cuenca.  Things like, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, fennel seed, oregano, basil, nutmeg, allspice, dill, basic curry powder, turmeric, cinnamon and lots, lots more.  Even though these are available, some say things like cinammon, just don’t taste the same.  I can remember feeling like that 6 years ago when I first arrived but after so many years, I’ve learned to rely on what is available and only bring back the things that are truly important to me – it’s all a matter of personal taste.

Almost all are shocked by the sad lack of pepper.  I think most assume, as I did, that Ecuador is a South American country therefore the pepper situation must be awesome.  Not really….there are a few different kinds of fresh peppers that can be found around town but when it comes to dry seasonings the selection is slim.  There are ground black pepper and black pepper corns (which can be priced pretty high) and nestled among my beloved cardamom, the other day, I did spot ground chipotle chili powder which was a first and equally as flabbergasting!  I just can’t vouch for it because I’ve yet to try it.  That’s about it.  And since we are talking about pepper we should probably mention salt.  Readily available are table salt and sea salt.  There are some specialty shops in town that carry some nicer salts like pink himalayan salt but I wouldn’t exactly say they are readily available or economically priced.

Let’s hope I’m not boring you too much with that long list of spices above but I wanted to try to be as thorough as possible for my spice loving foodies out there!  These things are important to me…there must be somebody else out there who feels the same, right? right?  guys?  But seriously, if you have any questions or I can check into the availability of a spice for you, please let me know in the comments.  Now on to the recipe!!  Because it is anything but boring!  It is SO YUM!  It’s saucy and sweet and spicy and quite simple.  Even more important, this recipe is full of natural goodness!  It is easy enough to be a weeknight meal or interesting enough to be dressed up for company.  Your choice.

1 large red pepper
1 medium white onion
3-4 cloves of garlic
6 small peeled tomatoes, cooking water reserved
(or 1 sixteen ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes, juice reserved)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
(1/2 teaspoon or less if using canned tomatoes)
a pinch of crushed red pepper
1 pound chicken breast, cubed
extra virgin olive oil
black pepper to taste

If you are peeling your own tomatoes, start by putting them in a large pan, covering them in water and bringing the temperature up to a boil.  After about 2 minutes, check to see if the skins are splitting.  Remove the tomatoes with split skins and leave the ones that have skins in tact to keep cooking.  If the skins have not split after another minute or two, remove those tomatoes as well and set them all off to the side to cool, reserving 1 cup of cooking water.  Next, roughly chop red pepper, onion and garlic.  Saute these vegetables in a large skillet over medium heat in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until soft, about 5 minutes.  Then, add 1 cup of reserved cooking water (or the juice from the canned tomatoes).  Add paprika, curry powder, chili powder and sea salt.  Turn the heat down to a simmer.  Peel the tomatoes.  If the skins have not naturally split, use a knife to make a small slit in the skin and pull off the skin.  Add the peeled tomatoes to the skillet, gently smashing them and breaking them up.  Let everything simmer together for about 20 minutes.  The liquid will reduce down and become a bit syrupy.  Move all the skillet contents to a blender to cool down.  Wipe out the skillet and add 1 tablespoon olive oil.  Add cubed chicken and cook over high heat until the chicken is just cooked, thoroughly white on the outside and inside but not overcooked.  Season the chicken with a little bit of salt and pepper.  Turn off the heat.  Blend the red peppers and tomatoes on the highest setting until you have a thick sauce.  Pour the sauce over the chicken and bring the heat up to a simmer.  Cook everything together for another 5 – 10 minutes.  Serve over steamy brown rice or quinoa and garnish with a little plain greek yogurt and flat-leafed parsley.

Serves 3-4

Paprika Chicken 3

 

Fresh Pineapple and Cinnamon Tea

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When my husband Marcelo was little, he and his mom were really poor.  They had to make the most of everything they had; wasting food was never an option.  But it wasn’t just a matter of choking down every last pea on the plate just because you had to.  Imagination and ingenuity helped them to create the food experiences lots of people take for granted.  I cherish the stories Marcelo tells me about him as a little boy purposefully serving himself just a portion of the food available so that he could go back for the thrill of “seconds” or even “thirds”.  Sometimes they used just one egg for both the main meal and dessert.  How?  My mother-in-law fried the egg yolk up and served it over rice.  Later the egg white was whipped into a frothy foam made with a tiny bit of liquor and sugar.  Now that is how to make an egg stretch!

Another family favorite, I promise, will never let you see the rind of a pineapple the same way again!   Now, instead of just tossing away the bulky core and rind of a freshly cut pineapple, I literally cannot help but put it to another simple but ingenious use – a deliciously sweet and cinnamon-y tea!  This recipe is not only easy but makes you feel really good because you’re getting the most out of that precious fruit.  Plus I’ve found it’s just the prefect thing to brighten up a chilly night.

Once you try this recipe I’m sure you will never throw another pineapple rind away again!  I’m so obsessed with this drink that even if I don’t have time to make it right away, I toss the leftover pineapple parts in a bag and freeze them for later.  I happen to love the combination of the distinct taste of stevia with the sweet and sour taste of pineapple.  Living in Ecuador, our all natural sweetener choices are a bit limited compared to living in other parts so I like to take advantage of using natural stevia leaves where it makes sense especially since they’re a product grown locally and very fairly priced.

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The rind and core of a whole pineapple
1 cinammon stick
1 T dried stevia leaves, honey or natural sweetner to taste
8-10 cups of water

Place all ingredients in a large pot.  Cover with water.  Bring the water to a boil.  Once it is boiling turn the heat down and let simmer for 10 minutes.  At this point the tea is ready to drink but I like to put the cover on the pot and let everything steep for an hour or more to get a really good infusion.  Once infused, pull out the big chunks of pineapple rind and core with a slotted spoon, discard, then run the tea through an fine strainer and into a container.  The tea can be served hot or over ice. The leftovers can be bottled and stored in the refrigerator for up to a week.

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Where Yuca Comes From and a Yuca Fries Recipe

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Everytime I cook with yuca I’m taken back to a very special time in my life.  Exactly a year into my Ecuadorian adventure a friend of mine and I were invited to spend some time visiting our friends who own a cacao farm in Mendez which is a small jungle town located in the southern portion of the Ecuadorian Amazon.  I had been to the jungle before, lots of times, but this time was going to be truly different, something I had dreamed of since I got here, a real experience.  Any other time that I had traveled to or through the rain forest something that always caught my eye were the humble homes made of slats of wood, sitting on their stilts, far off the road, framed by the impressive local flora and fauna.  What would it be like to live there, work there and prepare food there?  My very good friends were about to give me an education that I would never forget.

After a peaceful night’s rest and a hearty country-style breakfast it was off to get dressed up in my work clothes, for today I would learn how to harvest cacao, among other things!  Despite the heat and humidity it was important to protect yourself from the sun and bugs so I started rifling through a big bin of clothes to find some gear, a bandana for my head and neck, a baseball hat, a t-shirt and a collared button-down shirt, sturdy work pants and of course rubber boots.  And with that we were off to find out where chocolate comes from!  Once we arrived to the plantation my friend’s mom got out her machete and got to work.  That’s right, I said MACHETE.  That jungle-mama started wacking and hauling big bunches of cacao over to us.  She split each one in half so that we could harvest the seeds, or cacao beans, but in the mean time we learned that it wasn’t just the seeds that are edible.  The juicy, citrusy, cotton candy-like fruit that surrounds them is simply divine!  So there we sat, on the floor of the Amazon, filling buckets full of organic cacao beans and indulging on the fruit as much as we could.  The beans would soon be sent off to Germany where they would be processed and packaged into a high-quality bar.  But at that moment I couldn’t imagine enjoying that cacao any other way – so close to it’s inception.

After we had gathered enough cacao we packed up the truck and went in search of other jungle delicacies.  As we traveled along, evey once in a while the truck would stop and my friend’s brother would disappear into the forest, with a machete of course, and return a couple minutes later with the loot.  At one point we all stopped and went in search of yuca.  Little did I know at the time that this implied going in search of what looks to be a small tree, the Cassava Plant.  Upon identifying it, my friend’s teenage bro bent down the thick stem and started pulling and tugging on it.  After struggling for a few minutes he eventually cried uncle, or should I say mommy, begging the help of his jungle-mama (that lady was awesome and quickly became my hero)!  Between the two of them, out popped a root network which sprouted several nice-sized yuca tubers, ready to nourish us and replenish the energy we had expended that day in the hot Amozonian sun, not to mention delight us with it’s earthy and creamy flavor and texture.

These days when I get the urge for some yuca I just run up to the market at the corner of my street, but preparing it still takes me back to that day.  I love how a chunk of yuca comes encrusted in the soil it was planted in and how even in my apartment I can still get my hands a little dirty when peeling and cleaning it.  I love how that soil turns into mud in my sink because it makes me feel close to the earth and all it has to offer us, so many edible gems, ready to be explored.

There are some things to remember when chosing and preparing yuca.  First, in my experience, it seems that the thinner chunks of yuca are softer and easier to work with.  You want the yuca to be bright white on the inside and plan to prepare it within a couple days of buying it for the tastiest result.  When peeling yuca, I like to stand it up on it’s widest end and slice down.  Off will come a strip of it’s woody outer peel.  From there you will see a division between the peel and the white edible portion.  When the yuca is fresh you can use a paring knife to seperate the peel from the white portion and from there take the peel off in one piece by hand or little-by-little seperate with the knife and pull secitons off by hand.  The most important part is that all that is left is the white part of the yuca, nothing purple, or any other part of the peel.  Yuca also has a small but visible string running down it’s core.  It is best to chop around the string or remove it when chopping.

Yuca can be used in many different ways but I find this recipe is a great intro to yuca and oh SO satisfying ever single time!

YUCA 1 B

 

IMG_1392 (2)Two 8-10 inch pieces of yuca
1 T olive oil (aceite de oliva)
sea salt (sal marina)
black pepper- optional (pimienta negra)

Preheat over to 200° C/400° F.  Peel and rinse yuca.  Chop into medium sized fry-shaped pieces, making sure to chop around or chop out the string at the core of the yuca.  Add the yuca to a pan of boiling salted water.  Boil for 15-20 minutes or until just soft enough to easily smash with the back of a fork.  Drain the yuca and toss it in olive oil and a couple of generous sprinkles of sea salt.  Add a dash of black pepper if desired.  Place the yuca fries on a baking sheet ensuring that they are not touching or overlapping.  After baking for 10 minutes, flip each yuca fry over and continue baking for 10 more minutes.  The yuca fries should be golden and crispy on the outside yet soft and creamy on the inside.  Top with a sprinkle of smoked paprika, fresh flat-leafed parsley and yogurt and garlic sauce.

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Sweet and Spicy Green Pepper Salsa

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Almost everyday somebody asks me if I like living in Ecuador.  My answer is always, “of course!”  Inevitably the next question is, “what do you like most about living here?”  One of my top reasons for feeling so fortunate to live here and for never wanting to leave is the food!

One of the HUGE advantages of living in Ecuador is the awesome availability of so much fresh and affordable produce.  And when I say fresh I mean, sometimes I find snails or other even less appealing creepy crawlies in my lettuce, fresh.  Ok, breathe, it’s just a slug, it won’t bite me and guess what?  It means this stuff is SUPER organic.  It’s fresh picked and trucked into town that morning and packs a nutritional and not to mention tasty tasty punch.  So, you’re at your local organic market and you cannot help but pick up of one of these and some of that and oooooh I think I’ll take one of those too!  And before you know it your shopping bag is over-flowing to the point where you’re losing feeling in your arm lugging it home and the best part?  You probably spent about 5 bucks!  The thrill of shopping locally, organically and affordably will never ever wear off for me…no matter how long I live here!

Most of the local produce, especially veggies, are easily identifiable but every once in a while something sneaks into your shopping bag that is new to you.  For instance, this recipe features a hot green pepper called rocoto verde which is very common in the markets and supermarkets of Cuenca.  Have you seen it around but were usure how to use it?  Something to remember is that it’s spiciness should not be underestimated .  I prefer to work with gloves when chopping and deseeding this powerful little pepper and adding it slowly to my dish in order to control the heat.  Once you have the level of spiciness where you want it this Sweet and Spicy Green Pepper Salsa is ready to drizzle on just about anything you can think of!  Think tacos, fried eggs roasted potatoes or white pizza!  If rocoto verde is not available in your area you can substitute it for jalapeno.

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2 green onions including about half of the green part (cebollín)
2 green peppers (pimiento verde)
1 rocoto verde (or jalapeno)
1 cup cilantro (culantro)
1 cup parsley (perejil)
2-3 cloves of garlic (ajo)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (sal marina)
1 tablespoon olive oil (aceite de oliva)
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

Rough chop all vegetables except for rocoto verde.  Add chopped veggies, sea salt, olive oil and apple cider vinegar to a blender.  Pulverize these ingredients.  Carefully, with gloves and without touching your face or eyes, deseed, devein and cut the rocoto verde into 8 chunks. Add, 1 small chunk at a time, pieces of the rocoto verde to the blender.  Blend and taste after adding each chunk.   Bring the salsa up to your desired level of yummy spiciness. 

Recipe makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Store salsa in the refigerator until ready to use.  Will keep in a covered container for up to one week.

 

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