Paying Homage to South American Cooking

July 11, 2021

I lived in California for over fifteen years. It’s a place I called home for almost a third of my life. I met my wife there, landed my first executive chef job there, and met some amazing people from all over the globe. It’s also where I was exposed to some of the greatest food I’ve ever eaten. When you think about San Francisco, the first thing that comes to mind is the food scene. During my time, there were over three thousand restaurants crammed into seven square miles. This is not an exaggeration. You had global cuisine at your every beck and call.

What many don’t realize, is that there is also a myriad of restaurants in San Francisco that are as equally as amazing as Michelin-starred restaurants which don’t carry names like Michael Mina, Alice Waters, or Nancy Oakes. These are little hole in the wall Taqueria’s that are all over the area but mostly located in The Mission District. I worked in the Mission for over three years. You can find any cuisine that starts from the top of Mexico down to the tip of South America.

Mexican, Peruvian, Honduran, and Salvadorian restaurants were my most favorite but you also had some Spanish Tapas restaurants that served cheap and amazing food. I’ve always have had an affinity for meats, spices, and vegetables from Mexico and South America. I worked in a restaurant that had cooks from six different countries working in my kitchen.

I was exposed to those amazing Salvadorian meat or cheese-filled griddle cakes called Papusas. My friend’s wife from Mexico introduced me to a meat and hominy soup that blew my mind called Posole. I learned how to make a proper hot salsa from my Mexican cooks. I had Beef Tongue for the first time. It was a life-altering experience that I never would have enjoyed unless I made the trek to California and I will be forever thankful for what I’ve learned while on my culinary journey in that incredible state. I do miss it.

The great thing about being back home is having friends who share the same enthusiasm for Latin/Hispanic food. Chris Mundy who in his own right, loves to dabble in this simple fare. But there is nothing simple about the flavors. Smokey, salty, acidity, spicy, and above all, fresh comes to mind when creating and eating this food. Chris is no slouch. If anyone has ever seen his “Jam Band” dinners, you realize he puts a lot of research and effort into what he prepares. Every meal seems carefully executed. I admire that.

This will be our second collaboration. Both have South American themes. In no way am I trying to replicate exact dishes of any specific country, but it’s more of an homage to the ingredients utilized to create dishes that I’ve learned from my friends in California and will always appreciate.

Chris made an Aji Verde sauce. Traditionally, the sauce comes from Andean countries like Columbia, Bolivia, and Peru. It is a mayonnaise-based sauce with cilantro, jalapeno chiles, red onion, and lime juice that is pureed and served as a condiment over fish, chicken, or beef. In Chile, they substitute lemon juice and is called Aji Chileno.

I made the ultimate trip to Jungle Jim’s, warned my knees about the size of the place and my brain about the hordes of people I’d encounter. I took and deep breath, and pushed the cart through the door! Yay! First step!

The place is huge but I had my list and made just a short pit stop by the wine department. I picked up various items for our dinner including Mojo seasoning which is a Cuban meat seasoning that I thought would go great with the chicken because of its citrus properties. I also picked up a cast-iron skillet. Yes, I always need this in my life.

The base of our meal was Peruvian beans, white onion, diced tomatoes, garlic, white wine, paprika, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Though Jungle Jim’s didn’t have Peruvian beans, white and red beans were a suitable substitute. I also topped the beans with sauteed arugula with fresh lemon juice, garlic, and sea salt.

I purchased a whole Amish chicken which I deboned into quarters. Dusted the chicken with the Mojo seasoning and pan-seared it in the cast iron skillet. I transferred the chicken to the oven at 350 degrees for a half-hour and then in a heavy pot, added olive oil, and brought the heat up to high. I sauteed the onions, added garlic to sweat then deglazed with white wine. I add the beans and tomato and then slowly incorporated the paprika and salt. Adding salt early and reducing the sauce of the beans can make the beans very salty. I finished with lemon just a put aside.

I did a quick saute of olive oil, garlic, arugula, lemon juice, and sea salt. Mounded the beans on the plate, topped with the sauteed arugula, arranged the cooked chicken over the beans and arugula, and topped it all off with Chris’s great Aji Verde sauce. He also brought a seared Halloumi cheese with mint and watermelon and the whole dinner was amazing. Cheers!

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