So I've been obsessed with Mexican food for the past several weeks. Living in Southern California you can't help but develop a taste for it but I've sort of gone beyond that. I've been working downtown and everyday on my commute I must pass dozens of Mexican grocery stores, carnicerias, and taco carts and at least once a week my lunch has consisted of burritos or tacos accompanied by chips and salsa. Ah glorious chips and salsa. It might be my biggest weakness.
Meanwhile Annie's birthday was slowly creeping up and since it was a bit of a landmark she hinted none to subtly that it should be a destination birthday somewhere in Mexico. The logistics of planning a weekend trip south of the border for more that 35 people quickly became next to impossible. However to make up for it, Annie's husband Pierson, and our friend Jodie decided to move the destination slightly north, to Culver City, and serve a sort of high-end Mexican street food fiesta. Yay, more Mexican food. The centerpiece of the menu was a DIY taco bar and three different fillings - sauteed mahi mahi, slow roasted lamb crusted with a fennel spice rub, and shredded chicken in a Oaxacan yellow mole.
At this point you might be wondering what any of this has to do with Chicken in Escabeche. Well I'm getting there. It was whilst doing research for the menu that I encountered this interesting recipe. I'd gone to the library to load up on Mexican cookbooks and one of the books in particular really piqued my interest. The latest by Rick Bayless, Mexican Everyday, was the most appealing in the stack. While his earlier books seem very well researched and enthusiastic, there is also something slightly offputting about them. Some of the ingredients are sort of hard to find and the preparation can be pretty lengthy. Plus the graphic design of them is just cluttered and busy. This book, however celebrates the best of Mexican cooking in an clean, contemporary yet very authentic way. The recipes are healthy, easy and relatively quick. I'll be the first to admit that my knowledge of the specifics and subtleties of all the different flavors and regions is VERY limited. This fantastic book seems to be a great gateway to a world beyond burritos, tacos, and enchiladas. This dish was so unlike any other Mexican food that I'd ever had, that I just had to give it a try.
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican
4 chicken breasts, bone in and skin on (about 2 pounds total)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large white onion, halved and thinly sliced
3 large carrots, peeled and sliced 1/4 inch think on the diagonal
4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 to 4 canned pickled jalapenos, stemmed, seeded and thinly sliced
1 cup chicken broth
In a small bowl, combine the black pepper, allspice, oregano and 1 teaspoon of salt. Sprinkle half of the mixture over the chicken breasts.
Heat the oil in a large (12-inch) skillet over medium heat. Lay in the chicken, skin side down and cook until richly browned, turning once, about 3 to 4 minutes on each side.
Remove the chicken to a plate leaving behind as much oil as possible.
Add the sliced onion and carrots to the skillet and cook, stirring regularly, until the onion is browned, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and stir for about 1 minute, then add the remaining seasoning mixture, the vinegar, jalapenos and broth.
Nestle the chicken pieces skin side up in the onion mixture, cover the skillet and simmer gently over medium-low heat until the chicken is just cooked through, about 15 minutes.
Taste the broth and season with additional salt if need be. To serve, place the chicken on a mound of rice or couscous (I used the latter), and spoon a generous portion of the onion, carrot and jalapeno mixture over the top.
It's no surprise that the chicken turned out well, flavorful, skin burnished to a gorgeous crispy brown and the flesh juicy and perfectly cooked. I've used this method of cooking fowl many times before and it's pretty much foolproof. The real surprise here is the sauce, the escabeche. It's really light but has a nice body to it, I'm sure because of using chicken with the skin on it. The flavor is tangy but with just a little heat from the pickled jalepenos. You could totally make it as spicy or mild as you prefer. Obviously the Israeli couscous is not exactly traditional, but it's really tasty (I boiled mine in vegetable stock, rather than water) and works really well in the dish, soaking up the flavorful brothy sauce.
You could easily use a combination of chicken breasts as well as thighs, but the important thing to remember is to make sure they have the skin and bones. They really add a lot of flavor. The book cleverly offers a few variations on the dish, such as replacing some of the chicken stock with white wine and using sliced fennel along with the onion, two ideas I think I'll try next time I make this. This is one of those really great weeknight recipes, as almost all of the ingredients you could pretty much have on hand at all times and it doesn't take terribly long to cook, and yet the flavor is special enough to serve for a casual dinner party. The chicken, piled on a bed of couscous would look beautiful on platter and would impress any guest.