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.