Sunday, 7 October 2012

(¿)Carnitas de Pollo(?)

Apparently the Spanish for "WTF" is "WTF", and that is exactly what I'd expect Mexican and Mexican-American readers to think when they see the title of this post.

This is a dish I learned from Two Cooks and a Suitcase. I have no idea if it's really Mexican. It's not that I expect there is no shredded chicken in Mexico; it's just that the Spanish word carne usually seems to refer to non-poultry meat, and carnitas (the diminutive plural) in particular refers to slow-cooked, shredded pork (or "pulled pork" in the UK).

Obviously, from a purely technical and scientific point of view, the flesh of birds (as well as fish, reptiles, and amphibians) counts as meat or carne in Mexico just as it does in the rest of the world. And tomatoes are technically fruit, as we all know. But we still think of them as a vegetable, and I suspect Mexicans still think of carnitas as pulled pork, not chicken.

Also, "shredded chicken" in Spanish is pollo deshebrado. It's related to hebras, which are "strings". In Mexico, cheese which hace hebras ("makes strings") is highly prized.

Having said that, this is certainly a clever construction: having seen carnitas all over the place in Mexico, the authors of Two Cooks clearly thought "Hey, why not do the same thing with chicken?" And indeed, why not?

Also, it's delicious. I've used this as a filling in tacos, burritos, even tamales. It's never gone wrong, and, with good, tender chicken breasts, is certainly quicker to make than the traditional carnitas.

Our story begins when I ran out of epazote just as The Cool Chile Company got their fresh tomatillos in stock. Normally I would just get epazote from Lupe Pinto's, but I decided to take the opportunity to do a bulk order from the Cool Chiles, as I mentioned in my last post. When it arrived it looked like this:

The tortillas, by the way, were a suggestion from Chilli and Chocolate by Isabel Hood, who recommends you always keep a pack of Cool Chile Company tortillas on hand (they freeze and defrost well) in case you ever want to whip up some tacos for a quick meal. Hood writes that she only uses masa harina for making non-tortilla-based corn antojitos like tamales, sopes, etc. When I read that, it was like a revelation. In many ways I'm guilty of taking the hard road when it comes to cooking (for example, I'm peculiarly attached to roasting and grinding seeds by hand). But even I have been put off making tacos because I couldn't be bothered making homemade tortillas. It is a lot of work for something like a taco, which is meant to be a simple and hassle-free meal (or snack, really).

Plus, Hood reminds us that, except maybe in rural areas, most Mexicans don't make their own tortillas anymore either. Think of it like this: do you bake your item bread every day, or do you leave it to the professionals?

I will do a proper review of these tortillas soon. For now let's just say these are the best tortillas you can buy in the UK, and easily hold their own against any I've bought or tasted anywhere else.

Now, fresh (or non-stale) tortillas are usually used for tacos, and obviously that's what the so-called carnitas de pollo were for. However, tortilla and filling are only two of the three components of a complete taco. Any taquería with it's masa would also provide you with at least two or three salsas to put on your taco (self-serve, your choice and at your discretion), and one of these is invariably a salsa verde, which is a kind of green version of more familiar Mexican salsa, using tomatillos in place of tomatoes

Having just received half a kilo of fresh tomatillos, it was really the salsa verde that inspired me to make this dish. Until then, I had only ever made it with tinned tomatillos.

Any common Mexican salsa has a number of acceptable variations in ingredients, and I read quite a few recipes before I decided how I was going to make mine. Because I was using fresh tomatillos, I had three options:

1) use them raw
I decided against this after trying one on its own. Tomatillos are related to the Cape Gooseberry, and as such are very tart, without a large quantity of natural fructose to balance it out.

2) boil them until "just tender"
Two things stopped me doing this. First, how the hell do I know when they're "just tender"? And second, I imagine they would come out, taste- and texture-wise, a lot like tinned tomatillos, which are heat-treated after all.

3) asar-roast them
We have a winner. I am, as you know, a major proponent of asar-roasting, and I feel very comfortable with the technique. Also, I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that this style of roasting would concentrate the sugars and yield a superior flavour.

But let's start with the carnitas de pollo.

For traditional carnitas you would marinate pork shoulder in a spice mix, slow-cook it for the better part of a day, cool it, shred it, then fry it quickly before serving. It's delicious, but you need a lot of planning. With a couple of tender chicken breasts you could be eating carnitas de pollo in under an hour.

Chicken, in Mexico, has traditionally been more economically valuable as an egg-layer than as a meat source, usually not being killed until they have reached the end of their laying life. In addition, the chickens usually got more roaming space, so they could be quite "muscular".

By contrast, British and American chickens have largely been degraded into mere biological machines whose sole function is to produce (usually flavourless) meat.

Apart from the moral outrage, this means in Mexico you generally had to boil your chicken for hours to make it tender, while in the UK and US you don't, because the poor chicken has never actually been allowed to use its muscles before.

Having said that, I usually try to buy free-range or organic chicken, not only because the bird will have had a nicer life but also because it will actually taste of chicken. Many people think chicken is just a cheap carrier for flavour, but it was once a highly-prized food eaten only by the rich. That was, of course, before ethically bankrupt battery farming transformed chicken into the world's most affordable meat source.

So, now that you feel bad about type chicken you eat, let's get to the cooking.

The first step in making carnitas de pollo is "poaching" the chicken. This is also your first opportunity to add flavour to the dish.

Poaching chicken is basically boiling it in seasoned water. The seasonings will seep into the flesh. Also, the water can then be used as a weak chicken stock. For this recipe I used

1 tsp Mexican oregano
2 avocado leaves

You can also bung in things like roughly chopped onions and garlic or other vegetables - anything you don't mind throwing straight into the compost bin when the poaching is done.

I got the avocado leaves from the Cool Chile Company and so can you (Americans: they might have these in your supermarket, otherwise see if there's a Mexican grocer in your area). Or you can use bay leaves instead, but they won't have the subtle aniseed flavour of avocado leaves.

Put your chicken breasts in a pot, add all the seasonings, cover with about an inch of water and bring to a boil.

Turn the heat down and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Remove to a plate and cool.

In the meantime, I made rajas. To make rajas, flame-roast some chiles poblanos as if you're making chiles rellenos (which I'll write about next time). After you've cooled and skinned them, cut them into thin strips (which is what "rajas" really means).

I also chopped up some spring onions. I chopped them at an angle, Asian-style, rather than just straight across, so they wouldn't get lost next to the rajas.

When the chicken is cooled, shred it with a fork (it should fall apart quite easily).

Now heat some fat (oil, butter, lard: your choice, though Mexicans would use lard). When it's hot, add the shredded chicken and fry until it starts to colour. Then add the rajas, fry a couple minutes more, then add the spring onions.

Now turn the heat way down and add about two tablespoons of sour cream or creme fraiche (Mexicans would use their own crema fresca, but it's not pasteurized), stir it in, and provecho! You may need to add more cream, but otherwise you're done.

And since I already had some delicious corn tortillas on hand, this was a pretty hassle-free meal.

Or it would have been. But I had to make the salsa verde as well...

Salsa Verde


5 fresh tomatillos
2 fresh green chiles (I used jalapeños)
1/2 white onion
2 cloves of garlic
The stems of a bunch of coriander, plus some leaves
The juice of 1-2 limes


Tomatillos come in papery husks, so you have to take these off and then give them a good wash, because their skin is sticky.

Asar-roast the tomatillos. I used the dry pan technique, foolishly thinking they would go quickly like tomatoes (even though I know they're not actually related to tomatoes). It worked but it took a long time, and the skin didn't blacken evenly. Next time I will try the Diana Kennedy technique, where you take the rack out of your grill pan, line the bottom with foil, put the tomatillos under a hot grill until they start to get soft, then turn them over and grill the other side. I find things get mushy using this method, but the tomatillos turned out that way anyway, so you've nothing to lose.

Dice the onion and garlic. Chop the stems off your coriander and roughly chop them.

While you're still waiting for the tomatillos to roast and/or cool enough to be skinned, grind the chopped coriander stems in your molcajete or with a bloody great mortar and pestle. You need it to go down to a paste, more or less. This is really hard and takes forever. Or you can throw it in the blender and have done with it (I'm trying to keep in mind not everyone wants to cook for four hours a night).

When your tomatillos have roasted and cooled, take the skins off and add them to the molcajete (or blender) and grind them up. If you're using the blender, blend in pulses, because you want to retain a fairly chunky texture.

Now add the onion and garlic, a bit of finely chopped coriander leaf, and the juice of one or two limes (use taste and consistency as a guide. The sauce is wet enough without overdoing the lime).

I was very proud of this, because it was my first sauce made almost entirely in the molcajete. Really only the onions and garlic didn't get crushed with the pestle, and that's because they weren't meant to.

Also, Mrs MexiGeek thoroughly enjoyed it.

It was a very wet sauce, though, and reminded me once again that, delicious though they are, tacos are not "neat" food. Bring lots of paper towels to the table.