Thursday, 30 May 2013

Pollo en salsa de cacahuates (chicken in peanut sauce)

A peanut-sauce is something most British people associate with Asian cuisine (think of satay, for instance).

But peanuts, like chiles, are a New World crop, and were brought to Asia from Central and South America by Spanish and Portuguese traders.

A sauce like this is equally unfamiliar to Americans, because most Mexican food in the US is based on Northern Mexican cuisine, whereas this sauce seems to be more Central/Southern Mexican.

For example, I got this recipe from Laura, who runs the Meetup group All Things Mexico in London. She was inspired to share it with the group after a visit to her native Veracruz State, where this dish is a local speciality. Diana Kennedy, the Julia Child of Mexican Cuisine, writes of a similar dish in she had in Mexico City.

As soon as I read Laura's recipe, I knew I had to cook this. Apart from being delicious, it's actually quite simple to prepare.

But most importantly it represents an important aspect of Mexican cuisine that doesn't get the attention deserves.

I read once that archaeological evidence suggests that nuts and seeds were what first prompted ancient Mesoamericans to settle in what is now Mexico.

Peanuts were being sold in the markets of Tenochtitlan when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century.

Laura's recipe was:

  • 2 chicken breasts
  •  150 g peanuts, shelled and skinned (I used salted peanuts and added less salt when seasoning)
  • 120 ml cream (I used single cream)
  • 1 onion (I used half a large onion)
  • 1 chipotle
You can buy dried chipotles from Sainsbury's and sometimes Tesco. Probably the best place to get them is the Cool Chile Company though.

There are also lots of chipotle pastes for sale, but I wouldn't use a bottled chipotle sauce for this dish.

To prepare, put all the ingredients except the chicken into a food predecessor and blend to a smooth sauce. (I ground the peanuts in my molcajete first, because I like to make things harder than they have to be.)

Meanwhile, cook your chicken. I poached mine for about 20 minutes with the rest of the onion, a toasted avocado leaf, and ten black peppercorns.

When your chicken is done, heat some oil in so pan and fry the sauce for a few minutes. It reduces and darkens to a lovely medium brown colour. And it smells delicious.

Now put the chicken on a plate and cover with the sauce.

Laura recommended serving with white rice, but I had just bought some blue masa harina, so I served them with blue corn tortillas instead.

I did NOT turn this into tacos, however. Tacos are antojitos; this is a plato fuerte.

The chicken was tender and juicy from the poaching and the sauce is easily the most delicious thing I've cooked in a long time.

I served the rest of the sauce in a bowl on the side and Mrs MexiGeek and I happily finished it off in one sitting.

There are a couple things in particular I find interesting about this recipe.

First: nothing gets roasted on the comal. It's a very "light" sauce in terms of colour (though, as you can imagine, very rich as well).

Second: only one chipotle. Although I'm an infamous chile-head, one misconception about Mexican food I'd like to set straight is that all Mexican food is blow-your-head-off spicy.

It's not. There are some hot chiles in Mexico, and some very picante dishes; but the role of chiles in Mexican food is to enhance flavour.

This sauce has so nice "afterglow" (to use Diana Kennedy's phrase). The smokiness of the chipotle in particular gives it a depth of flavour and makes it very different from an Asian peanut sauce.

And lastly, this is so quick to make you could have this any night of the week.

If you make the sauce while the chicken and rice are cooking this dish probably represents about 45 minutes from prepping to plating.

And how awesome is it to cook an authentic Mexican meal mid-week, especially one that's a world away from fajitas and other pseudo-Mexican food?