Recently, I had the most difficult final during my time at Le Cordon Bleu. Past finals were nerve-wracking enough: make 3 sauces in an hour; make an entree in 45 minutes; make a souffle in less than 30 minutes. But my international cuisine class takes the cake on stress and complexity: make an amuse bouche of foie gras with brioche topped with an apple gastrique (25 minutes), make an appetizer of duck confit with fried potatoes and sauteed spinach (20 minutes), and make a composed entree (main component with at least two sides) of a culture/region you draw out of a hat (30 minutes). In all fairness, we got to know a few days ahead of time what region’s cuisine we’d be cooking. Think Chopped or Iron Chef but with the most unskilled people imaginable. You know how when you’re watching these shows and you’re screaming, “Hey Stupid, don’t put your potatoes in ALREADY boiling water! How did you even get on this show?!” Yeah, sometimes I’m that idiot.
When I drew my given region out of the hat, I prayed for anything but Italian. The thought of creating and rolling out pasta dough in 30 minutes or less made my stomach do jumping jacks. I ended up being lucky enough to get Latin American cuisine — it opened up the door to so many possibilities. My immediate thought was to make tamales and black beans, and frying tortillas formed into cups to hold roasted salsa verde and pico de gallo, which we learned to make a few weeks prior.
But I felt that was too obvious.
I wanted something a little different, something I had never made before and something I didn’t think anyone else would try making. So I did some research and selected components for a Peruvian-inspired dish: citrus-marinated grilled chicken with a side of cilantro rice and tostones, or twice-fried green plantains. I figured, who else in class would bother breaking down and marinating a chicken within our limited time frame? Fortunately, it was a success: the chicken was super juicy and bright, complemented well by the savory but not-too-strong rice, and crunchy fried goodness of the plantains. The Peruvian chicken recipe is below, along with recipes for the side components (which, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, are also linked to in this paragraph).
Grilled Chicken with Peruvian Marinade (adapted from Food & Wine):
Prep time: 5 minutes; let marinate 1 hour
Cook time: About 10 minutes
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
2 oz white wine
6 garlic cloves, pressed
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
4 chicken breasts, boneless and skinless
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Whisk all ingredients except the chicken, salt and pepper — vegetable oil, lemon juice, white vinegar, white wine, garlic, paprika, cumin, turmeric and cayenne pepper (if desired) — in a bowl or pan large enough to hold the marinade with chicken. Add chicken breasts, cover with plastic wrap and let sit in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, no longer than 4 hours.
2. Just before cooking, season both sides of the chicken with salt and pepper. Grill on medium-high heat until just done, about 4-5 minutes on each side.
Prep time: 5-10 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
1 bunch fresh cilantro, stems removed
2 cups water
2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/4 yellow onion, chopped
1.5 tablespoons cumin
1 cup long grain rice
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1. In a food processor or blender, puree cilantro and garlic with 1/2 cup water.
2. Heat oil in a saucepan. Over medium heat, add onions and gently cook until fairly translucent, about 2 minutes. Mix in rice, coating well with oil and onions. Add cumin, and a pinch of salt and pepper.
3. Pour in the cilantro-garlic puree and the water. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to simmer, about 8 minutes. Stir, then cover on very low heat, 15 minutes. Turn off heat and let the covered rice rest for at least 5 minutes (though no longer than 20 minutes). Fluff with a fork and serve.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 6 minutes
2 green, or unripe plantains
1 cup vegetable or canola oil
1. In a pot, heat oil to 350 degrees. Either use a thermomenter, or test the heat by dipping the handle of a wooden spoon into the oil. If the oil starts steadily bubbling, it’s hot enough.
2. Peel the plantains and cut into 1-inch slices. Fry until light golden brown, about 2-3 minutes. Remove and drain. (Leave the oil on heat!)
3. When the plantains are just cool enough to handle, about 2-3 minutes, flatten them into discs. Ordinarily, you’d smash them using a tostonera, but you can just use the bottom of a metal or heavy bowl.
4. Fry them again, until golden brown, about 3 minutes. (You’ll know it’s the right color when you start salivating.) Remove and drain. Salt immediately and serve.
What’s different about the chicken marinade: I did a number of things differently on all these recipes: For the chicken, I used distilled white vinegar and white wine instead of white wine vinegar because white wine vinegar is too hard to find in groceries. I also added a tad more turmeric, used sweet paprika (since you’re probably more likely to have this kind as opposed to hot paprika in your cupboard) and added cayenne pepper. The result is incredibly juicy chicken with a bright lemony punch and lively spices.
What’s different about the cilantro rice: The biggest difference in my recipe is that I used water instead of chicken broth to cook the rice. Why? You’re cooking out all the liquid, anyway. Plus, this recipes calls for so many yummy aromatics – cilantro, garlic, onions, cumin – it doesn’t need a more-expensive but still-neutral cooking liquid. So save a few bucks and just use water.
What’s different about the plantains: Not much, other than my instructions. It’s a basic recipe with the only additional ingredient being salt. The most important thing here is making sure your oil is hot enough but not too hot. And of course, don’t overcook the plantains!