I’ve been using the hell out of my Goodwill vacuum sealer lately, and have been shopping the sales for meat and fish to portion out and freeze. This is one of my favorite things to do when I have the time – it is very relaxing and feels so productive. But I can get a bit out of hand. Yesterday, while cleaning out the freezer, I realized that I had about 10 boneless chicken breasts, 2 bone-in chicken breasts, 5 or 6 deboned chicken thighs, 6 whole chicken leg quarters, two bags of bones and scraps for stock, one small quart ziploc of pork fat from a shoulder, three or four dinners worth of salmon, portioned out into fillets, half of a red snapper in fillets, one 12 ounce portion of catfish, two bags labelled “ugly fish scraps for soup”, and a flank steak.
So. I decided to defrost some chicken and do something with it.
I poked around in the cupboard and found a bag full of dried chiles and my mind went to tacos. I figured I would marinate and cook the chicken in a Chipotle-style red chile marinade. Sort of like these chicken and chorizo tacos, but simpler (and better, I think).
Dried chilies are easy to work with and a good pantry staple to keep around. All you have to do is cut them open, shake the seeds out, and soak them for half an hour in boiling water. After they’re softened, they can be pureed into a smooth salsa or marinade. Dried chiles have a deliciously subtle smokiness (especially if you use guajillo chiles, double especially if you use chipotle chiles, which are smoked jalapenos), and a different flavor profile than fresh chiles. Often at good Mexican restaurants, there will be at least two table salsas: a fresh chile one (like pico de gallo, or a roasted tomato salsa) and a dried-chile one, which is usually looser and spicier.
Again, let me talk about how much I love my immersion blender. I love it. Get one. You can find them at Goodwill for less than $10. There is no reason not to have one of these in your kitchen. I use mine almost daily for sauces, soups, vinaigrettes, lassis, and drinks.
When you’re serving tacos, keep the garnishes fairly sparse, just like when you’re topping a pizza or composing a salad. I usually go for one salsa (either cooker or fresh), one or two crunchy vegetables (usually thinly sliced radishes and cabbage, but one or the other is fine), and a creamy component (sour cream or crema) and/or a strong, salty, crumbly Mexican cheese. Here, I made pico de gallo, which served double-duty as a dip for chips before dinner. When you’re making any salsa, it’s important to remember to make it pretty salty and pretty acidic. Since they’re served cold, salty and sour flavors will be more muted, and since you’re using the salsa as an accompaniment to the main dish, it should be strongly flavored, so it can help season the dish.
Finally, a word on dicing tomatoes for salsa (or anything): I like to “fillet” my tomatoes like so:
This way, you can easily remove the seeds and, more importantly, easily slice it into strips and then into fine dice. I try to keep my knives sharp, but even a sharp knife can sometimes be difficult to use with a thick-skinned tomato. I like to use a small, sharp serrated knife, which cuts through the skin handily.
Red Chile Chicken Tacos with Pico de Gallo
- 2 ounces dried New Mexico chiles or Guajillo chiles (or use a mix) – about 8-10 chiles
- 1/2 red onion, in big chunks
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus 1 tablespoon for cooking the chicken
- 6 cloves of garlic, peeled
- 2 teaspoons ground pepper
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican oregano
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- (optional) 1 canned chipotle chile in adobo
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon unseasoned rice vinegar or white vinegar, if needed
- 1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- corn tortillas, for serving
- sliced radishes and/or shredded cabbage, for serving
- chipotle crema, for serving (recipe below)
- pico de gallo, for serving (recipe below)
- finely crumbled feta, queso anejo, or cotija cheese, for serving (optional)
Using a clean pair of scissors, cut off the ends of each chile and slice them down the middle so they open like a book and remove the seeds. Cut or tear each chile into a few chunks. Place the chiles in a small bowl and cover with 1-2 cups of boiling water. Place a plate over the bowl to retain the heat and let the chiles soak for 30 minutes. Drain the chiles, reserving the soaking liquid.
Using a blender, immersion blender, or food processor, combine the drained chiles, optional chipotle chile 1/2 cup soaking liquid, vegetable oil, onion, garlic, spices, and salt. Blend until completely smooth, adding more soaking liquid if necessary to keep the mixture fairly loose. Taste the mixture: it should have a good balance of salty, spicy, and fruitiness/sweetness from the chiles. If it tastes a little flat, add the vinegar and/or a little more salt.
Combine half of the chile mixture in a Ziploc bag with the chicken, and set the other half aside. Smoosh all around and marinate in the fridge for at least 30 minutes and up to 12 hours.
When you’re ready to eat, drain the chicken and wipe off most of the marinade. Preheat a large skillet over medium high heat until almost smoking. Add 1 tablespoon of oil and the chicken. Cook, undisturbed, for about 3 minutes, or until well-browned. Flip them over, reduce the heat to medium, and continue to cook until the chicken registers 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 5 more minutes. Remove to a clean plate and tent with foil for at least 5 minutes. While the chicken is resting, warm up your corn tortillas in a microwave or in a dry, hot skillet.
After the chicken has rested, cut it into 1/4 slices against the grain and toss with the remaining chile sauce (the stuff that you did NOT marinate the chicken in). Serve in tortillas, making tacos with a few pieces of chicken and the garnishes.
- 1/4 cup sour cream
- 1/4 cup heavy cream (or use all sour cream and a little water or milk to thin it out)
- juice of 1/2 lime
- big pinch of salt
- 1 chipotle chile in adobo, minced
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to allow the crema to thicken. Before serving, taste and adjust seasonings: it may need more acid, salt, or spice.
Pico de Gallo
- about 4 medium tomatoes, preferably plum tomatoes, seeded and diced into 1/4 inch pieces
- 1/4 red or white onion, diced into 1/4 inch pieces
- handful of fresh cilantro, finely chopped
- 1 jalapeno, seeded if you like, and minced small
- 1 clove garlic (optional), minced or pressed
- juice of 1/2 lime, plus more if needed
- big pinch of salt
Combine everything in a small bowl. Taste for seasoning: it may need more salt and/or lime.