Ají de leche. I've been craving ají de leche lately, the kind of thick, creamy milk-based hot condiment that they put on everything in Trujillo, one of the Andean states in my home country, Venezuela. I have yet to create a recipe that does justice to those flavors I hold dear in my memory.
Besides lacking some of the ingredients for a recipe, I also lack a taparo, or taparita (a special container made in Venezuela and Colombia from the fruit of a taparo or totuma tree) to store the ají de leche. These taparos or taparitas are usually sealed by a lid made of a piece of dry ear of corn, called tusa.
Whoever has yet to try an authentic ají de leche from Trujillo does not know what they're missing. It's something in it's own category, something inexplicable in how much of an experience it is. When my cousin Juana María Espinoza Godoy sends me the taparito she bought me in Valera and I can make my ajicero as it's mean to be made, you'll all be the first to know.
Until then, we make due with this incredible recipe by chef Giorgio Rapicavoli (Eating House y Glass & Vine), one of Miami's top chefs, from the same generation as José Mendín (Pubbelly Group) and César Zapata (Phuc Yea), who've transformed the local gastronomical scene in South Florida.
I went to eat at chef Rapicavoli's Coral Gables restaurant, invited by the Fuertes con leche campaign. Once there, I tried a spectacular fish stew that was out of this world, topped with ají de leche. It tasted like heaven, and as I praised Rapicavoli's food, he recognized my accent and explained the ingredients of the ají as well as imparting the sweetest saying: "surely, this is something you ate at your grandma's house."
Well, the answer is yes and no. My grandparents were from Margarita Island, where the ajíes (hot peppers) are kept in glass jars and are pickled in vinegar. That being said, he brought to mind the combination of milk with garlic and spices only found in the Andes, a delightful mixture where one can even find hints of oregano and cilantro.
And of course I loved it! So much, that I've gotten into the habit of keeping a small bottle of ají de leche in my refrigerator. To my pleasant surprise, it doesn't run out as fast as I would think. Not that it lasts a long time, however: this ají de leche is the perfect topper for a pisca andina soup, carabinas (corn tamales similar to hallacas but stuffed with black beans and wrapped in plantain leaves), and, of course, it matches perfect with arepas.
Ají de leche | Ingredients for 4 Cups
3 cups of whole milk
4 seedless jalapeños, deveined and thinly sliced
6 scallions, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 bundle of cilantro, chopped
2 teaspoons of salt
1 teaspoon of sugar
1. Blend the ingredients together in a blender or food processor until a purée is formed.
2. Pass the mixture through a strainer and press on the solid bits with a wooden spoon to better extract the liquid.
3. Keep the bottle in a sterilized jar with a lid and refrigerate.