Wednesday, June 17, 2009

It is wise to pay attention

I have this friend, Chris, who makes really amazing salsa. He also makes really amazing drinks, but then again he is a bartender and is quite skilled in the arena of liquor. Having spent time in both southern California and Texas, Chris is somewhat of a Tex-Mex/Mexican/Southwest/Baja culinary enthusiast, bringing those life experiences to bear on some damn fine dishes, including the aforementioned salsa. It is legendary stuff: he makes it in large batches and then brings it to his bar to distribute to the well-informed, in-the-loop salsa lovers of our small town. The people appear, belly up to the bar, order their drinks, then say something like, "I heard you had salsa."

So a few weeks ago when Chris was talking about the tacos he makes that remind him of what he used to eat in Baja, I listened. It is wise to pay attention when Chris is talking tacos. Because, as shameful as it is, tacos for me usually involve an envelope of seasonings blazoned with the words "Old El Paso." I do doctor up my taco mixture, adding onions and herbs and additional spices, but still: the backbone of the tacos that emerge from my kitchen is, alas, store-bought. No wonder Husband isn't such a big fan.

As Chris described how he poaches the chicken for his tacos in a bath of stock, cumin seed, pickled jalapenos and various aromatics -- and then wraps the shredded meat and toppings in two layers of corn tortilla -- I started dreaming of a better taco way. He relayed the ingredients and method to me via text message and I got to work.

Just a little while later, Husband and I found that we had consumed an untoward number of tacos. And yet we didn't feel like we had to go put on our spreadin'-out clothes. These tacos are delicious, and light, and fresh, and perfect. Though we ate ours with a healthy dose of Chris' proprietary salsa, if you can't get your hands on any of that, your favorite quality -- or favorite homemade -- salsa will suffice. (When there is no Chris Salsa in my fridge, I use Rick Bayless' Frontera brand.)

That said, I highly recommend that you get in with Chris. Because when you're in with Chris, you are tipsy and full of salsa. And who doesn't want that?


Recipe from Chris O'Hare, Salsa Magnate

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 large white or yellow onion, cut into chunks, plus 1/2 c. onion, diced
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
2 tomatoes, cut into chunks
1/3 c. pickled jalapenos
2 T. cumin seeds
2 T. dried cilantro
Pinch kosher salt
6 1/2 c. chicken stock (you can use half stock and half water, if you wish)
20 corn tortillas
1/2 c. fresh cilantro leaves
Your favorite salsa, to taste
2 avocados, thinly sliced
Sea salt, to taste

Place the chicken breasts in a large soup pot or Dutch oven. Add the onion chunks, carrots, tomatoes, jalapenos, cumin, cilantro, kosher salt and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. Remove the chicken from the poaching liquid and set aside. (You will be tempted to think of ways to reuse the lovely broth that results from this poaching; a few suggestions follow below.*)

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, shred it into bite-size pieces. Place the corn tortillas, two at a time, in a dry skillet for about 30 seconds, to warm and soften them.

Assemble the tacos: fill two warmed corn tortillas with chicken, diced onion, a few cilantro leaves, a few avocado slices and salsa to taste. Sprinkle with just a bit of sea salt. (If you are wondering why the two tortillas: Chris says that using two insures against breakage. And of course, he is right. As corn tortillas don't bend very easily, having a second one there is a little insurance policy that your taco won't fall apart.)

Eat. Then make yourself another one, and another, and another.

*Note: Strain the leftover stock, reserving the liquid and discarding the spent vegetables. Store the stock in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 5 days. Chris has informed me that he uses the leftover stock to poach pre-cooked turkey sausages. He says it adds lots of flavor to the sausages and makes them a lot less dry. He would be correct. It also adds a nice spiciness to the sausage, a welcome flavor addition at breakfast-time. Additionally, you can use the leftover stock to poach another batch of chicken for more tacos -- or any meat, for that matter, that you'd like to have a flavorful, spicy kick.

Makes 10 tacos, which serves 3-4 people depending on the level of hunger. In my kitchen, this recipe serves more like 2-3. I'm just not going to lie to you.


Arlene Delloro said...

I, too, am weaning myself off Old El Paso and trying to bring more authenticity to our Tex-Mex meals. I love the idea of poaching the chicken in this aromatic mix. As to corn tortillas--and Tyler recommends using 2 as well--I just don't care for the taste outside of enchiladas. I think I'll revert to the flour ones. Shh, don't tell.

Unknown said...

you can't keep talking about how great Chris is. He's going to want larger tips if you keep it up

Dianne said...

You know, Father, you make a good point. As usual.

Dianne said...

Arlene, I'm sure they'd be great with flour tortillas, too -- the ingredients are so flavorful they'd be good wrapped in almost anything!

Dianne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laura said...

Your dad should have a blog too--he's funny. I see where you got it. Your blog is one of the only ones I read where I make sure to read the comments too. :)

I love all things taco. This looks fabulous.

Unknown said...

Chris - when you are ready to market your wares.... call me!!

Dianne said...

Laura, you really are inflating Dad's ego. He totally thinks he is all that! But seriously, thank you for the compliments -- of Dad and of the blog. I'm glad you enjoy the comments, too!