Monthly Archives: May 2012

Flank Steak with the Elusive Aji Sauce

A couple of years ago, I made a recipe from Bon Appetit for Flank Steak with Aji Sauce.  It was terrific!  Unfortunately, since then I have tried recreating that Aji Sauce several times with no luck.  Perhaps we just had too much wine that night.  But the same recipe has yielded completely different results every time.  So of course I have been trying to recapture that magic with the Aji Sauce ever since.

Now to be completely honest, the version in this post is not exactly the magic I remember, but it is the closest so far.  So I’m posting it in the hope that someone else will have better luck than I (and share their recipe!).

Here is a link to the original recipe from Bon Appetit:

Scroll down in the recipe and click on the Aji Sauce link.

Now Bon Appetit included this Aji Sauce as part of a Colombian meal.  I found several references online claiming that Aji Sauce was a staple of Peruvian cuisine.  The recipes are all quite different, but overall, it seems that Aji Sauce is similar to the Argentinian Chimichurri sauce.

The problem with the Bon Appetit recipe is the onions.  If you follow the recipe exactly, it tastes like onion sauce.  I have tried using only mild, sweet onions – same result.  I tried reducing the onions by half – same result.  For this recipe I dropped the onions completely and it was much better.  The essence of the Cilantro and the Jalapeno with the Lime juice was a nice accompaniment to the meat.  Here is the recipe I used:

Aji Sauce

1 bunch of Cilantro – destemmed

2 Jalapeno Peppers – cored and seeded

Juice of 1 Lime

Sea Salt

2 TBL Olive Oil

I placed the Cilantro, Jalapeno and Lime Juice in a food processor and processed them until they were smooth.  Then I added a couple of pinches of Sea Salt and about 2 Tablespoons of Olive Oil.  I played a little with the Salt and Oil until it tasted right.  Then I put the Aji Sauce in a plastic container, covered it and put it in the refrigerator so the flavors would meld together.

Flank Steak

Flank Steak is very good, but sometimes it can be a little tough.  So I usually take a service fork and “stab” it all over several times to break up the fibers in the steak (this is also a great stress reliever – but do be careful).  Next I rub the meat with Olive Oil on both sides, then add the seasoning.

For this Flank Steak I decided to use an Urban Accents blend called Mesa Rosa Chipotle.  It is a little spicy and has that wonderful Chipotle flavor.  I wanted something spicy to go with the cooling and refreshing flavors of the Aji Sauce.  I coated the Flank Steak with the seasoning and let it rest.

I prepared the grill and when it was hot, put the Flank Steak on the grill.  I typically use the initial heat of the grill to sear one side, then flip the meat to sear the other side.  I generally cook red meat until a thermometer reads 130 degrees (the lowest level of Medium Rare).  I then pull the meat, cover it and let it rest.  This helps the meat retain it’s juices and it finishes up cooking.

The best way to cut a Flank Steak is “with the grain”.  This gives you the most tender results.

Serve the Flank Steak with the Aji Sauce.

The Wine

Now, not many wines go as well with beef as a Cabernet Sauvignon.  The fat in the meat is offset by the Tannin’s in the red wine.

What is Tannin you ask?  Well, think about a time when you were having tea, and you let the teabag sit in the water too long.  Remember that drying sensation in your mouth?  That is Tannin.  Tannins come from the grape skins, which are left soaking in red wines during the wine making process.  They are important to the aging potential of a red wine.

So I picked out a 2005 Behrens & Hitchcock Cabernet Sauvignon #13 from Napa Valley.  I wanted a wine that still had some good fruit flavors, but that had mellowed a little with age, so a 2005 seemed about right (just a guess but it worked out).

The Verdict

Well first off, the steak and the wine went really well together.  The spicy seasoning on the steak stood up to the strong fruit flavors of the wine.  The Aji Sauce was much better than my last attempt.  However, the Lime juice was a little overwhelming.  Next time I think I would start with the juice of 1/2 of a lime, then add more gradually until it tasted right.  The Cilantro flavor also was a good match with the spicy flavors of the meat and worked somehow with the wine.  I also might add back in just a little chopped onion, maybe just a small bunch of green onions.  Whatever onion additions I do however, will start with just a little, adding more as I go along.

Overall, as close to the original Aji Sauce magic as I have come so far.  But I will keep trying.  You should too, and let me know if you find the magic combination – then share!



Salmon with Smoked Paprika and Preserved Lemons

This is one of my most favorite dishes, and it is a regular meal in my house, at least once every couple of weeks.  It is fast and easy to make and is at it’s best when there is fresh salmon at the market.  The flavors are so good and it pairs really well with wine, particularly a Pinot Noir.

I start with a good piece of salmon.  I ask the person at the fish counter (a fish monger perhaps) for the “top part” of a fresh looking salmon filet.  I find that the “top part” is more uniform in thickness, so it cooks more evenly.  If you have the “tail” section, it gets really thin at the end, while the “mid” section is thicker.  So you generally overcook the thin side trying to get the thicker section done.  I generally have better luck with “Fresh” salmon versus “Previously Frozen”.  I also find that the more fat in the salmon, the better the dish is.

The Salmon

For this meal I picked a King salmon filet that was fresh and farm raised.  The only reason being that it looked the best and most fresh of the salmon in the case.


First I rub the salmon with a lemon olive oil.  I found a really good one produced by Agrumato at an Italian market that has amazing lemon flavor.


Next, I coat the salmon with smoked paprika.  Coat is the key word here, I literally cover the salmon in smoked paprika.  I personally like the flavor of smoked paprika and for me more is always better.  If you have never tried smoked paprika, you must.  It is only slightly spicy, like normal paprika, with a nice lightly smoky flavor.


Preserved Lemons are made by curing lemons with salt for several days.  It seems to be a fairly easy process, though I admit that I just buy them at a local Whole Foods Market.  If you want to try making them, here is a recipe from Simply Recipes:

I take a Preserved Lemon and slice it, placing each slice on the salmon so that it is covered.

I also sprinkle the salmon with a smoked sea salt.  I use either Alderwood (Salish) or Applewood (Yakima) smoked sea salt.  Both Alderwood and Applewood are used to smoke salmon in the Pacific Northwest and both add a great nuance to salmon.

I place the salmon on a piece of foil and place it on the grill over medium heat.  The amount of time on the grill depends upon your grill and the thickness of the salmon.  I generally cook it until fat starts to form on the top of the fish (the white, thick creamy looking stuff).  Then pull it off and let it rest.


Asparagus with Tarragon

While the salmon was cooking, I prepared a side dish.  I trimmed some asparagus spears and placed them in a glass baking dish.  I sprayed them with olive oil and sprinkled dried Tarragon leaves on them.  I covered the dish with plastic wrap and placed it in the microwave.  I cooked the asparagus about 6 minutes total.  Stopping at 3 minutes to check them.  I like the asparagus to still be a little firm and crisp when they are done.


The Wine

One of the worlds great wine and food pairings is salmon with Pinot Noir.  These two flavors go great together.  If you want to try a Pinot Noir, try it with salmon and you will fall in love.  I picked out a 2006 Kosta Browne Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast.  The Sonoma Coast is an area north of San Francisco and West of Sonoma county.  It is a rugged area with lots of wind, cool temperatures and generally harsh conditions.  I find wines from the Sonoma Coast to have bigger flavors than wines from other Sonoma areas.  This wine was no exception.  It was fruity and complex with dark berry flavors, but with that unmistakable Pinot Noir flavor.  Pinot Noir typically has a fair amount of acidity (that feeling in your mouth when you bite into a lemon).  This acidity in the wine counteracts the oiliness of the fish, making them nice compliments to each other.


The Verdict

I have made this meal so often that it is really hard to mess it up.  The Salmon tasted great and was done just right, still moist and tender.  The addition of Tarragon to the Asparagus provided a nice compliment.  Tarragon has a slight anise flavor and somehow it worked really well with the Salmon and Smoked Paprika.  I also added a little more of the Alderwood smoked sea salt to the Salmon at the table.  The flesh of the Preserved Lemons gets a bit of a smoky flavor from the grill and the Smoked Paprika.  Eating a little of the lemon flesh with Salmon is also really good.  And the wine rounded out the meal just right.  A great meal.

I think you are going to love this dish.  Give it a try and let me know what you think.



Smoked Tri-Tip

Several years ago while living in Columbus, OH, we had a tradition called “Smokin Sundays”.  We would get together with friends, throw some type of meat on the smoker and drink wine until it was done, then drink more wine while we ate it.  It was always a great time, until Monday morning came around…

Some of those Columbus friends introduced me to a cut of beef called the Tri-Tip roast.  It is a triangle shaped piece of beef that you find at the bottom of the sirloin and usually weighs 1 to 2 pounds.  It is lean, tender and very flavorful.  The secret is to not overcook it since it can become dry and tough.  This is especially challenging because the “pointy” end is much smaller than the other end, so it is a balance to get both sides to an acceptable “doneness”.  But with a little seasoning or marinade and a quick flash on the grill, it is outstanding!

The Tri-Tip roasts cannot be found everywhere just yet, though as they become more popular they are beginning to show up in more grocery stores.  It is best to ask your butcher for one.  I have been finding them regularly at some Whole Foods markets here in Maryland.  They are also less expensive than many cuts of meat (usually just a little higher than a flank steak).

I was curious to see how a Tri-Tip roast would do with a slow smoking treatment, so I  decided to re-start the “Smokin Sunday” tradition here in Maryland, and smoke a Tri-Tip roast.  To pair with the smoked Tri-Tip, I wanted something cool like a simple potato salad and of course some wine.

Smoked Tri-Tip Roast

First, I started preparing the smoker.  I pulled out some maple wood chips and soaked them in water for about an hour.  I filled the smoker bowl with water and added about 3 large sprigs of rosemary.  Then I started the smoker (I have an electric smoker) and let it warm up for about an hour so the chips would begin to smoke.

I used a 2 lb Tri-Tip roast and rubbed it all over with olive oil.  Next, I coated the roast with San Juan Sazon spice blend from Urban Accents.

If you haven’t tried the Urban Accents spice blends, you should, they are amazing.  They have great flavor combinations and most blends do not include salt.  (I highly recommend the Bayou Barbeque on a ribeye steak!)  Here is the link to Urban Accents:

Anyway, the San Juan Sazon blend has a nice blend of sweetness and heat, with sugar, paprika, and turmeric, so I think it works well on smoked meats.

I let the meat sit for about an hour with the spice blend on it, then placed it on the smoker.  It took about 2.5 hours until the meat registered 130 degrees (medium rare) on a meat thermometer.  I pulled the meat off the smoker, tented it with some foil and let it sit for about 10 minutes.  Then I sliced it.



Potato Salad with Cilantro

While the meat was smoking, I prepared a simple potato salad.  I peeled about 6 Yukon Gold potatoes and cut them into 1/2 inch cubes.

I placed the potato cubes in a microwave safe dish, added a Teaspoon of water, some salt and pepper.  Then I covered it and cooked the potatoes in the microwave on High for about 10 minutes total, stopping every 3 minutes to stir the potatoes.  Once the potatoes were done, I drained them and let them cool.

I diced 1 small sweet onion  and added it to the potato mixture.

Next I took about 3/4 of a bunch of cilantro and stripped the leaves from the stems.  I minced the cilantro leaves and added them to the potato mixture.

I stirred about a cup of mayonnaise into the potatoes and mixed it in.  Everyone’s taste for mayo is different, so I usually add a little and mix it up, then try the potato salad.  I keep doing this until it tastes good to me.  I added a little more salt and pepper, covered it and put in the refrigerator until the meat was done.  I pulled it out when the meat came off the smoker so that it would warm up before serving.



Since the meat was smoked, I wanted a wine that had some “smokiness” to it.  You usually get that from the wine being aged in charred oak barrels.  The amount of smokiness depends upon the type of barrel and the level of “toast” on the barrel (how much it was charred before use).  I also wanted a wine that would pair well with the spiciness of the seasoning on the meat.  So I picked a Syrah.  Syrah wines have a spiciness to them and are usually sturdy enough to stand up to very flavorful food.  I picked a 2005 DuMol Syrah from Russian River.

The Verdict

The whole meal was just fantastic.  The meat had a wonderful sweet, smoky flavor with a little spiciness.  It paired really well with the wine too.  The potato salad offered a nice contrast to the meat.  I had never made potato salad with cilantro before, but I really like cilantro and it made the potato salad a little different.  It also helped it stand up to the strong flavors of the meat.  Overall a great meal and a wonderful way to restart Smokin Sundays.

Try out a Tri-Tip roast on the grill or a smoker and definitely check out the Urban Accents spice blends.  Let me know how it goes.



Shrimp and Grits

Growing up in the Midwest, I never had Shrimp and Grits.  I really do not recall even seeing it on a menu.  In fact I’m thinking that it would have probably been “Shrimp and Mashed Potatoes” in the Midwest.  But, since moving to Maryland several years ago and spending more time in the Carolinas, I have come across Shrimp and Grits and seem to order and enjoy them at every opportunity.  So I decided it was time to try and make it for myself.

This meal was also a good challenge to pair a wine with, more on that below.

For the Shrimp

  • 1.5 lbs Shrimp (peeled and deveined with tails on)
  • 3 links (a little less than a pound) of Andouille sausage chopped into small chunks
  • 1  Vidalia Onion minced
  • 1 Garlic clove minced
  • 2 tbl Olive Oil
  • 1/4 cup All-Purpose Flour
  • 2 cups Chicken Stock
  • 2 Bay Leaves
  • 1 tsp Thyme
  • 1/4 tsp Cayenne Pepper
  • 1/2 tsp Freshly Ground Black Pepper
  • Tabasco Sauce (about 4 shakes)

Heat the Olive Oil in a deep skillet over medium heat.  Add the onion and garlic and saute about 3 minutes until they soften.  Add the sausage and cook, stirring frequently until the sausage is brown.  Try to stir often enough so that the onions and garlic do not burn.  Sprinkle in the flour and stir  to create a roux.  Slowly stir in the chicken broth.  Once the liquid begins bubble, add the bay leaves, thyme, cayenne and black pepper.  Then add the shrimp and cook.  Be careful not to cook the shrimp too long or they will get tough.




For the Grits

I used Quick Cooking Grits (not Instant) and followed the package instructions.  The instructions called for water, but I substituted Heavy Cream for 2/3 of the liquid and Milk for the other 1/3.  I also added 2 tbl of Butter once the Grits were done (because butter makes everything better!).

I put a mound of Grits in the center of a large dinner bowl, then ladled the Shrimp, Sausage, Sauce all over the Grits and finished it with a sprinkle of Sea Salt.

Beware that this is a dish where both things cook quickly and need to get done at the same time, so it helps to have a helper!

What Went Right

Yumm, this dish was good and wholesome!  There were layered flavors and a little heat but not too much.  I was full after one serving but couldn’t stop myself from having a second.

What Went Wrong

Lack of self-control.

What I Would Do Differently

I believe adding the spices (bay leaves, cayenne & black pepper, tabasco) earlier in the process, with the onions and garlic would have given the dish more flavor.  Also, I cooked the roux for only a few minutes, so it was a light brown color.  I will probably cook it a little longer, perhaps to a medium brown to give it a little more flavor.

Wine Pairing

This meal presented a unique wine paring opportunity.  On one hand, you have shrimp, cream and grits – all mild foods you would normally pair a white wine with.  But it also had the andouille sausage, pepper and tabasco, which would normally call for a spicy red wine.  So I decided to try both and compare the two wines to see which one went better with the dish.  Here are the wines I selected:

White Wine – 2010 Tablas Creek Vineyard – Patelin de Tablas Blanc – Paso Robles, CA.  This is a white Rhone blend containing Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne.  If you have not tried Rhone white wines from the California Central Coast, I urge you to check them out.  They are great alternatives to Chardonnay and much better with food (at least for my tastes).

Red Wine – 2008 Tercero Wines – Cuvee Christie – Santa Barbara County, CA.  This is a red Rhone blend containing Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre.  These are typically called “GSM” wines and you see them from Australia, California, etc.  Again these are really great food wines and I find these wines from Tercero to be very drinkable and also a great value.  Check out their lineup here:

I was expecting that one wine would stand out and that it would probably be the red.  However, both wines were really good with the dish.  The white provided a nice refreshment from the heavy and spicy flavors, cooling the palate.  The acidity and weight of the wine kept it from disappearing when taking a bite of the Shrimp and Grits.  The red really stood up to the flavors in the dish and added a nice fruity compliment.  The acidity and soft tannins paired particularly well with the andouille sausage.   Not able to choose one winner, we had to finish both bottles with the meal (oh the price of research!)  Further proof that there are no hard and fast rules in wine and that you should experiment to find flavors you like.

Give the Shrimp and Grits a try and let me know how it turns out!  And let me know if you find other wine pairings that you enjoy with it.