Looking back at the past year, I smile thinking about the intimidating lows and revitalizing highs I have experienced. I’ve been tested in many ways, for sure, but I have made it through learning a valuable lesson—always stay true to yourself, who you really are. What a cliché, right? Think again.
Without a doubt, the biggest highlight of 2011 was my participation on MasterChef, FOX’s amateur cooking competition with chef judges Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot, and Joe Bastianich.
During my first audition, I was given the opportunity to cook one dish that would represent me well, my signature dish. It was hard to choose; my repertoire includes dishes from all over the world. I wanted to stand out from the crowd and impress the judges. It became clear that I had to head to South America, back to my roots, so I picked a Peruvian dish, Camarones Salteados, to showcase sazon with an eclectic style.
I cooked using the same kitchen tricks and flavors I had learned from my mother when I was young. I also created an interpretation of the dish to reflect my cooking philosophy: fresh, figure-friendly, bold, and nutritious. The judges said it was me on a plate and that it was the best dish they had tried all day!
The challenging nature of the competition made some situations difficult. And the one thing that always worked, that got me through the toughest times, was sticking to my guns. “My Mama raised me right!”
Being on the show was an amazing experience. I had the opportunity to demonstrate my cooking skills and got validation from giants of the culinary world. That was the catalyst for a career change.
In this exhilarating year, I have gone from office to kitchen, starting a new chapter of my life with food at the forefront. At times it’s been scary, but to anyone out there facing a career change, whether by choice or circumstance, have faith in yourself. If you find something you enjoy doing, and you do it well, success will follow.
During the last few months, I have been fortunate to receive invitations to do public appearances on shows like Access Hollywood Live and interviews with magazines like InTouch Weekly.
I was very excited to appear on Café CNN, CNN Espanol’s morning show, where I had the opportunity to do a cooking segment in my native language, Spanish, alongside Venezuelan host Alejandra Oraa. I received instant support from viewers all over Latin America—it was great to experience this connection and feel the love of my people!
One of the latest, exciting opportunities of 2011 was staging at Picca Peruvian Cantina. Chef/Owner Ricardo Zarate kindly allowed me to enter his kitchen for a week, letting me work with his highly skilled staff and experience a restaurant from the inside out. The ingredients and aromas in the kitchen made me feel right at home.
Chef Zarate was the recipient of Best Chef of 2010 by Food and Wine Magazine. Proud of a fellow Latino and inspired to become a Chef, I reached out to him expecting nothing but a few words of wisdom. But the cultural ties amongst Latinos are always strong and I lucked out.
At the beginning of this post I mentioned highs but also lows. Judging by the way it started, I never expected 2011 to end the way it is. By January of this year, I had been officially unemployed for two years and without any hope to secure a contract as a consultant.
The last couple of years had been trying, without a steady source of income and many financial obligations. I strived to find alternative sources of income but ultimately relied on my husband and the support of our families to make it through.
On this last day of the year I am taking the time to reflect on all those challenging times. I know they have made me a stronger person. I know that if it wasn’t for my mother and family, my culture and roots, I wouldn’t be here today.
I am so thankful for the highs, for the opportunities and all the unbelievable experiences that 2011 is leaving me. I cherish every one of them and do not take them for granted. I know how the lows feel like.
I am excited beyond limits to return to Venezuela this Spring. I’m finally going home after three long years. Knowing that very soon I will be with my family makes 2012 look SO good already! I will make sure to share notes from that trip, as usual.
Here I am in San Diego, working on the very last day of the year. No time to lose, right? I guess I am too excited about what’s to come. I have been working so hard and, given the results so far, I am ready to tackle the New Year with lots of energy and motivation.
I will be returning to Atlanta in early January to visit Café CNN for a “New Year’s Resolution” cooking segment. I will also be traveling to New York to explore some promising opportunities. Check out www.alejandraschrader.com/press-media to find out more!
For now, I leave you with my last recipe of the year. Considering the year just wrapped, I’m inspired to share my interpretation of the first Peruvian dish I ate growing up, Chupe. I hope you enjoy it!!
Sending all of you positive energies for an amazing 2012!
Happy New Year!
Chupe “Risotto” with Spiced Shrimp and Aji Amarillo
This is an interpretation of Chupe, a Peruvian chowder made with shrimp, seafood, or chicken. Although it is traditionally served as a soup, I have recreated it with less liquid and more rice. The reference to risotto comes from the texture and creaminess of the dish, not from the preparation method. Despite its decadent look, this dish is still butter and cream free!
Yield: 2 servings
- Olive oil
- Coarse sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 12 large shrimp, peeled and deveined (approx. ½ lb)
- ¼ tsp chili powder
- ¾ cup red onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 ½ tsp aji amarillo paste*
- ½ tsp ground cumin
- 2 cups fish stock
- ½ cup long white rice, rinsed
- ¼ cup green peas
- ¼ cup white corn kernels
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- 2 tbsp queso fresco, crumbled
- 2 tbsp flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
- Pinch of cayenne pepper
- 2 Eggs
- Freshly squeezed lemon juice
* Aji amarillo paste can be found at most Hispanic markets. Queso fresco is available at most supermarkets. See note below.
In a medium bowl, combine shrimp with ground coriander and chili powder. Season with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil and toss to coat. Let marinade for a few minutes.
Heat olive oil over medium heat in a medium saucepan or casserole. Sauté onions and garlic for 2 minutes, stirring; then add tomato paste and aji amarillo. Cook, uncovered, for 7 minutes, until onions are soft and translucent. Add fish stock and bring to boil; adjust seasoning. Add rice and reduce heat. Stir gently and simmer, covered, for 7-9 minutes. Remove lid; add peas, corn, and evaporated milk. Increase heat to medium and bring to a boil.
Add shrimp and queso fresco, stir making sure to cover shrimp completely with mixture. Reduce heat to low one more time, cover with lid, and let it simmer until shrimp are pink and cooked through, approximately 4 minutes. Serve immediately.
Spoon some of the Chupe “Risotto” on the bottom of 2 large bowls, add 6 shrimp to each plate. Top with chopped parsley and, if desired, sprinkle a little cayenne pepper. I love to drizzle some fresh lemon juice and a little olive oil right before eating!
As you see in the picture, this dish can be served with a sunny side-up or poached egg (more traditional) or with a poached egg yolk.
1) Aji Amarillo is hard to substitute as it has a very unique grassy flavor and aroma. I highly recommend that you try to find it. However, if your only choice is to find a substitute, try combining 1 roasted yellow pepper with ¼ tsp of cayenne pepper in the food processor along with a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt.
2) Queso fresco is hard to replace; I am sure some people would think of feta but the strong flavor would overpower this dish. If you can’t find it, get some Muenster cheese and give it a try.