Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Chicken breasts with Hatch chili verde and Colombian arepas

Mesquite. Just repeat this word. Mesquite. Chunks of Mesquite. Glowing hot coals, sparks, smoke. This is how Hatch chilies should be blistered. As their skin blisters, cracks and darkens the smoke filters in, permeating the flesh. Bringing a hint of the wild, another level of flavor, the song of coyotes singing in the moonlight.

Now imagine chili verde made with this manna. A dash of heat, a soupçon of smoke, the tang of tomatillos, essences of herbs and garlic. A desert chorus like the smell of sage and flowers wafting across the desert on the night wind. Then a new element, perhaps an herbal bite of cilantro. A crispy, cheesy arepa lightly coated in green. Neutral white rice that carries the other flavors around your palate in a celebratory tango.

The Chicken.
Very simple. The chicken doesn't get, need or want any special treatment. It's just there as a meaty foil for the sauce.
  • Boneless chicken breast
  • Salt
  • A bit of oil for a quick saute.
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 425°. Ready a baking pan and a sheet of parchment paper.
  2. Salt the chicken, then sauté it, skin side down in hot oil.
  3. Once the chicken has browned a bit, flip it over briefly to sear the other side, then slide it onto the parchment paper and pop the sheet in the oven for about twenty minutes, depending on how thick the breast is and if you decided to pound it before cooking (I didn't).
  4. When it's done, put it aside in a bowl to cool a bit.

The Sauce.
Get some Hatch chilis, straight from New Mexico. This year, they showed up stacked in a pile at the supermarket. Buy a case. Like chili verde? Buy more. They'll cook down, or you can make a few ristras for decoration and chili powder.
  • Blister the chilis over mesquite, let them steam a bit. Peel, seed and core them. Chop them up.
  • Pick some tomatillos from your garden where they're growing with mad abandon
  • Chop up some onion
  • Chop and paste some garlic
  • Add some kosher salt
  • Have some chicken stock on hand (or pork stock, if you're doing a piggy version)
  1. Throw the onions in a pan to sauté. Add the garlic, the chopped chilis and the salt. Let it simmer a bit. 
  2. Drop the mixture in something tall that holds hot sauce and blend it smooth.
  3. Add the juice that sweated out of the chicken as it sat, blend it in. Check for saltiness, adjust. Set aside.
The Arepas
Don't use masa harina for arepas. They have their own kind of flour: pre-cooked corn flour that's not nixtamalized like masa harina. So, it's not as good for you, because nixtamalization uses lime to eat away part of the corn kernels and free up vitamins somehow. Of course, that lime also changes the flavor, and you don't want that corn tortilla taste here.
  1. The formula is simple: 1/3 arepa flour, 1/3 water, 1/3 grated mozzarella. Plus an additional dose of grated pecorino romano cheese just for fun. A bit of salt, but be careful since the cheese is already salty.
  2. Mix all this stuff together until it forms a sort of pasty dough. Set it aside a bit to equalize the moisture content.
  3. Scoop out enough to make a small ball, about 1-1/2 inches in diameter, then smoosh the ball down into a flattish disc. Smooth the edges as you go.
  4. Pop the discs into hot oil, brown one side. Flip. Brown the other. Place on a parchment paper lined baking sheet, and when it's full into the oven it goes for about 15 minutes at 425°F. 
  5. The arepas should be crispy on the outside, light and a bit chewy on the inside. They should have a light cheese flavor backed with a subtle hint of corn.

If you've timed everything right, the sauce was ready first. Then the rice. Then the chicken. Then the arepas. That way, you get chicken juice to add to the sauce at the end and the arepas are red hot. Garnish with some cilantro and serve.

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