A Home-Cooked Meal Don’t Trump Latin Loving

I’ve never considered myself the cooking type. Before picking up this column gig, tossing around a pigskin was the closest I’d come to handling cured meat.

But making a meal from scratch for a hot date still seemed an appropriate gesture from the sort of accomplished young man I pretend to be (you know, the kind of guy you take to a family dinner, and that your grandma can hug). With visions of being that pseudo-sophisticated boyfriend, I pulled on my argyle sweater and hopped online to peruse a selection of romantic recipes.

Who, you ask, was the intended recipient of my culinary spoils? We’ll call her Paula — a girl I was introduced to through a high-school friend. OK, so it was a blind date. Luckily, she passed the initial Facebook screening. From what I learned from our mutual friend and her profile, she had just returned from a semester of teaching English in Peru — meaning, of course, that she was a cosmopolitan lady with a cultured palate.

Now, to impress her with my feigned mastery of world cuisine. In order to accommodate my fledgling abilities in the kitchen, the dish needed to be complex in taste yet simple in preparation. With the given criteria, I decided to make aji de gallina — a dish Paula must have known well after her time in Peru. Aji de gallina, simply put, is chicken in a cream sauce. Its basic ingredients are skinless chicken breast, coarsely chopped onion, chopped carrots, garlic cloves, white bread, Parmesan cheese, walnuts, ground turmeric, eggs, milk and the requisite aji amarillo chili paste. List in hand, I headed down to Whole Foods Market (nothing says “cultured young gentleman” like overpriced free-range chicken) to gather the ingredients for my swoon-worthy entree.

Three hours before Paula’s anticipated arrival, I started in on the aji de gallina. First, I placed the chicken, onions, carrots and garlic in a large saucepan and brought them to a simmer with a bit of water. Once it began to really crackle, I skimmed the foam off the top, reduced the heat, covered the pan and let the chicken continue to simmer until tender. Then I removed the chicken from the pan and let it cool on a plate.

I strained the chicken stock, removed the vegetables and put them in a blender with cubed pieces of white bread and milk.

After blending until smooth, I added the walnuts and Parmesan cheese and again pureed in a cream.

Once the chicken cooled, I shredded it and discarded the bones. (After it’s boiled, chicken shreds pretty easily — even for me). Then I heated the vegetables in a separate saucepan, adding minced garlic and onions. I stirred until the garlic appeared translucent, then added the chicken and aji amarillo until the dish heated through. Finally, I threw in the bread puree and cooked it until hot, seasoning with turmeric along the way.

The divine taste of a dish, of course, is only a minor detail when it comes to blind-date strategy. Both my personal presentation — and also the dish’s — were of utmost importance. I placed the burnt-orange aji de gallina in a matching bowl and served it next to some rice and hard-boiled egg.

As for myself, I settled on a striped brown-and-orange sweater over pressed khakis, complementing the colors of the main dish without creating the illusion that my outfit was inspired by a creamy chicken breast.

Smooth.

One heavy knock later, Paula had arrived with a bottle of wine. Unfortunately — despite her best efforts — the wine, dinner and my awesome sweater were the only consolations of the night. I thought that preparing a Peruvian dish would be a nice ice-breaker in a typically awkward situation. However, the dish selection only served to remind her of her first time trying aji de gallina, when she began a fling with a strapping young lad called Paolo — who, by the end of the night, I came to know far too much about. (Turns out he gave her the real authentic South American experience.)

Now, thanks to Paula (and Paolo), I at least know it’s best to hold off on the dinner-at-home invite until the third or fourth date, after you’ve confirmed that there’s at least some semblance of chemistry at each end of the dinner table.

As for my next blind date, Domino’s and a 12-pack of PBR should do the trick.

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