This deceptively simple South Central Mexican feast gets its intense flavors from the reducing of tomatillo and green chilis, and the patina that is formed by simmering chicken with this reduction sauce in a cast iron pan. We find tomatillo sauces very seductive, smoky and exotic, and they penetrate the chicken in a nearly magical way.
Used by the Mayans and the Aztecs extensively, tomatillos are a completely unique flavor. They are the predominant ingredient of green salsa, and when fire roasted, they are sublime. Although a member of the tomato family, they are very different in taste. When young and fresh they are tart and refreshing, but when the green salsa made from pure tomatillo is simmered and reduced, something magical happens. As it darkens and acquires a deep patina, the flavors become smoky and penetrating, unlike anything else we’ve ever tasted. To add even more umami, we also use Hatch Valley chili peppers, which are fire roasted. Hatch Valley, in New Mexico, has a unique terroir that gives these chili peppers a pungent flavor a bit like wild garlic, a sweetness from the fire roasting, and although not hot like jalapeños, they have an extraordinary smokiness and depth of flavor.
The addition of black beans and fresh corn at the end brings a garden fresh quality to the deep umami flavors. A version of this meal was a staple of the Aztec culture, long before the arrival of the Spanish. Since the Aztecs domesticated wild turkeys and ducks, you could substitute turkey and duck for the chicken thighs in this recipe, and get even closer to the original. Served with rice or Aztec amaranth and some cheese on the side makes it an extremely tasty protein explosion.
The tomatillo originated in central Mexico and was hugely important to the Aztec cuisine. Their green color in sauces and the exquisite tart flavors were a perfect compliment to the fish they caught in their sacred lakes, the wild birds they tamed, as well as the beans they grew.
They would have served this feast with amaranth, which was their most important grain other than corn. Called Huauhtii by the Aztecs, amaranth supplied most of their calories, and is wonderful combined with the richness of this meal. We have also made this feast with a fish I catch in Mexican waters, and off the coast of Southern California, called Yellowtail. It is very similar in texture to chicken, dense, meaty and really delicious. Since tomatillos have a very high pectin content, the sauce thickens as it begins to cool, so it’s best to allow time for the flavors to come together before serving. There is an authenticity to these flavors, a gravitas, and we like to think it’s because of how deeply rooted it is in the Aztec people who first created this feast.
You can also make this feast with other meaty and hearty fish, like Halibut, Red Snapper, Sea Bass and Grouper. Enjoy!
8 chicken thighs, bone-in, skin on or off, well salted on both sides (we use Smart Chicken or Mary’s brand, air chilled, free range). Bone-in is always more flavorful.
1/2 cup olive oil, (we use Spanish oil for this dish, we like the richness)
10 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 large sweet onions, chopped into bite sized pieces (we like them chunky)
4 or 5 serrano or jalapena peppers, finely chopped
3 jars (12 oz each) or 36 oz of fresh tomatillo salsa, (or 2 jars tomatillo and 1 jar of Hatch Valley salsa, a distinctive fire roasted green chile pepper simmered with tomatillo)
6 limes, juiced
1 teaspoon lime zest
1 can of black beans
2 cups of fresh corn cut from cobs or 1 can of crisp sweet corn. Use the corn juice too.
1 entire bunch of cilantro, chopped, about 1 cup
1 dried chipotle pepper and 1 dried negro pepper, powdered in a grinder
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, ground
1 teaspoon coriander, ground
Using a 12 inch to 14 inch cast iron pan, add the olive oil and the crushed garlic. Slowly heat the garlic until it melts into the olive oil and sizzles. Using tongs, dip each side of the thighs into the olive oil/garlic mixture so they are all coated. Raise the heat to medium high and fry each side until seared and nearly cooked through, and then remove the chicken. It will take 12 to 15 minutes.
Add the onion and peppers to the same fry pan, which will release some of their liquids and pick up all the patina scraped from the bottom of the pan. Sauté the onions and peppers at high heat until opaque and slightly seared, about 10 minutes.
Add the tomatillo and green chili salsa, they should sizzle when added to the pan, and they need to absorb all the burnt material, including garlic, from the pan. Add the powdered peppers, cumin, coriander and lime juice.
Using a wide wooden paddle, scrape everything up into the sauce. Allow the sauce to reduce for five minutes and then add the chicken and cilantro, smothering the chicken in the sauce.
Cover the pan and simmer until the chicken is well done and falling off the bone. Add the black beans and the corn, turn the heat off and let the meal rest for a few minutes.
Serve with rice or Aztec amaranth and cheese.