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Aji amarillo is a South American pepper that's essential to Peruvian cuisine; though the name translates to "yellow pepper," fully mature peppers are a deep orange. Joshua Marrelli, chef at Bakersfield Wood-Fired Grill in Westmont, who was challenged to create a dish with aji amarillo by Bill Walker of the Kennison, describes it as "not super spicy . . . more of a mild, fruity pepper." Compared to hotter peppers like the jalapeño or Fresno, he says, the flavors are more complex.
Marrelli already had some dried aji amarillo powder on hand, but he wanted to try every version of the peppers he could. Finding aji amarillo paste was easy, and his spice purveyor was able to get him the dried peppers. The fresh version, however, was more of a challenge. "I had to call one of my specialty produce guys; it took him about a week to track it down," Marrelli says. "By the time we got it, it wasn't fresh . . . it was definitely flown in from overseas. It had, like, a two-day shelf life." After tasting the peppers raw, Marrelli diced them up, freeze-dried them with liquid nitrogen, and ground the chunks into powder.
Peppers in hand, Marrelli had to decide what to do with them. "We were looking at ways they use it in classic Peruvian cuisine," he says. "We were thinking about a grilled chicken dish, turning the aji amarillo into a sauce." He decided on octopus instead of chicken, but did use the traditional Peruvian method of using ground walnuts to thicken the sauce he made for it—a zippy vinaigrette rather than a heavy cream sauce. "We're using our live-fire grill to get a nice char on the octopus, and then that sweet, fruity spice to offset some of those char flavors."
After cooking the octopus sous vide with dried aji amarillo peppers, white wine, lemon and lime zest, shallot, and garlic for several hours, Marrelli cooked it on the wood-burning grill for a few minutes until it was just slightly charred. He served it with pommes puree (because boiled potatoes are traditional in Peruvian cuisine), the aji amarillo vinaigrette, a cilantro vinaigrette with freeze-dried aji amarillo, tiny potato chips made from fingerling potatoes, walnut pieces, and fresh baby cilantro. To finish the dish, he sprinkled a little more freeze-dried aji amarillo powder over the top.
"We wanted to see how many times we could repeat some of the same flavors to reinforce them," Marrelli said. The finished dish isn't overwhelmingly spicy, he said: "With something sweet and charred like the octopus, having a little spice to cut through it but not be so overwhelming that's all you taste, it's nice to reinforce the seafood and char flavor."
Marrelli has challenged David Park, chef at Hanbun (also in Westmont), to create a dish with yuzu kosho, a fermented paste made from chile peppers, yuzu juice and zest, and salt.