When the 18 Reasons event organizer told me that over 50 people had RSVP’d for the Aji de Gallina Peruvian Pop-up dinner, I knew that cooking this dinner would take a lot of extra planning and patience. Fortunately, those are two things I enjoy about cooking. But to make sure the dish tasted just right and was ready on time, I was particularly mindful about 5 things: scaling the recipe, having the right cooking gear, prep and cooking time, presenting the dish properly, and most importantly, cooking with love.
My recipe for Aji de Gallina yields about 8 servings, so I had to apply advanced math skills to make it yield 50 servings. Since most of the ingredients were measured or weighed, that involved pretty straightforward multiplication, but for items such as a yellow onion that is diced, I actually measured the volume of the diced onion to get a sense of how much I was really using. Similarly, I measured the volume of the slices of bread soaking in stock. That way, I was confident about scaling the recipe and keeping the flavors balanced.
The first time I used the commercial kitchen at 18 Reasons, I felt lilliputian, as if I had wandered into a kitchen used by a family of giants. With oversized pots that were hung far above my reach and wooden spoons the length of my arm, it took some getting used to. But this time, I felt at home. I knew where everything was, and when I needed a pot, I just pointed and said thank you. If you are going to cook for 50 people you are going to need really big pots.
If it takes 20 minutes to shred one poached chicken by hand, it’s going to take two hours to shred six chickens. But what about poaching six chickens, does that take six times as long as poaching one chicken? No, prep time and cooking time scale differently, specially when you are using big pots. The key then is to test for doneness, say when poaching the chicken or cooking the stew. It also really helps when the Bi-Rite butcher cuts the chickens for you ahead of time.
In the end, it took me about 12 hours of total prep and cooking time spread over three evenings to be ready to serve the Aji de Gallina dinner by 7 pm on Wednesday June 6. At the plating station, the rice was in one pot, and the chicken in another, next to a tray with the cooked potatoes, eggs, olives, and parsley. One by one until 9 pm, we plated servings while live Flamenco guitar hinted at the Spanish origins of this dish. And I enjoyed bringing the dish out to the tables and presenting it to my friends and dinner guests.
Towards the end of the night, three Peruvian women walked in and looked incredulous at the menu. They knew Aji de Gallina was a very special dish that required much patience to cook properly so they asked for a sample before placing an order. After each taking a small bite, they approved the authentic taste of the dish, and sat down at a table. As I served them their plates, they smiled and asked me in Spanish, are you the cook? How did you prepare the dish? I smiled back and replied, con mucho amor — with lots of love.
A special thank you to the event organizers, volunteers, kitchen staff, and Bi-Rite butchers for all their help, I could not have prepared this dinner without you. I am also grateful for the wonderful Flamenco music, and to my favorite baker at Tartine for donating the bread I used in the recipe. My brother, the Sommelier of the family, takes the credit for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wine pairing that evening. And lastly, thank you to all my friends who came to the dinner, and to the 18 Reasons community who seems to love Peruvian food as much as I do, it is a real pleasure to cook for you.