I’m hoping that your first thought is something along the lines of “This looks delicious!” But I’m guessing that among the more practical set, it’ll probably be something more like “Just what in the heck is “piloncillo“?
Also known (perhaps more commonly) as panela, it is actually super-dense, rock-hard, unrefined sugarcane solids. The cane juice is boiled away, and then what’s left is compacted and sold in a variety of shapes. I’m guessing that piloncillo simply refers to the “pylon” shape in which it’s commonly sold in Mexican markets. The flavor is similar to that of light brown sugar, it’s inexpensive, and it lasts pretty much indefinitely in the pantry. There are probably endless applications, but this is the first time I’ve ever used it. It’s available in Latin specialty markets, and online here or here.
Mexican food is a big, big deal in my family. Having grown up in Colorado, my sister and I developed our addictions early. My mom can’t live in a house that doesn’t have a bag of good tortilla chips in the pantry. My father was famous for his margarita parties on the back deck. And now that my sister is married to a half-Mexican surfer from Carlsbad, and now that my heart belongs to a man that lives within walking distance of a great carnicería, well, it’s just gotten out of hand for all of us. Almost all of our family gatherings these days involve food that winds up in a tortilla or on a chip. But the best part about Mexican food is that it goes so far beyond the tortilla. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with tacos and burritos, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
On the weekends when I am cooking for clients, I often have public television’s cooking shows on in the background. They’re far better than anything on the Food Network these days, and the public channels tend to really celebrate ethnic foods, so I always feel like I’m learning something. For Mexican food, I always enjoy New York-based chef Daisy Martinez, who inspired my “Arroz Con Pollo” post, as well as superstar Chicago-based chef Rick Bayless (though I find his delivery somewhat affected & annoying…). A few weeks ago, however, I was introduced to Washington D.C.-based chef Pati Jinich via her show Pati’s Mexican Table, where she proceeded to spend an entire half hour on one of my most favoritest vegetables ever: the tomatillo. Pretty much the only thing I’d ever done with tomatillos is turn them into salsa verde, so when she showed me a rustic, comforting dark meat chicken recipe that paired the tanginess of a tomatillo with the smoky spice of chipotle peppers in adobo, and added a hint of sweetness by way of the panela, I had to try it. And, well, it’s utterly delicious. The chicken falls off the bone and the flavors couldn’t compliment each other more beautifully. I can’t wait to show it to my family next time we’re together.
For the tomatillo salsa:
6 large tomatillos, husked, rinsed in warm water to remove any sticky residue, and quartered
1/2 medium onion, washed, peeled, and cut into chunks
1 jalapeño or 2 serrano chiles, washed, halved, stem, ribs, and seeds removed
1 large clove of garlic, washed, smashed, and peeled
Big handful of fresh cilantro leaves, washed and dried well
Drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
For the rest of the recipe:
Neutrally-flavored oil, such as vegetable or canola
3 chicken leg quarters (or 3 drumsticks and 3 thighs), with skin & bones, rinsed briefly under cold water and patted dry
1 medium onion, washed, peeled, halved lengthwise, and sliced into thin half-moons
2 medium cloves of garlic, washed, smashed, peeled, and minced fine
Tomatillo salsa from above
4 tbsp. piloncillo, coarsely chopped (NOTE: You can substitute light brown sugar if you like.)
1 chipotle chile from a can of chipotles in adobo, plus a bit of the adobo sauce if desired (NOTE: I added about a teaspoon of the sauce.)
2 cups unsalted or low-sodium chicken stock (homemade, if possible)
Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
Small handful of fresh cilantro leaves, washed and dried well, for garnish
1. Place quartered tomatillos, chunks of onion, the jalapeño or serrano, the smashed garlic clove, and the handful of cilantro leaves in a food processor. Pulse until the ingredients make a nice, textured salsa. (You don’t want to process it so much that it just becomes a runny liquid.) Add a good drizzle of olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.
2. Place a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. (NOTE: I used a cast-iron skillet, which worked great.) Season the chicken liberally with salt & pepper. When the pan is nice and hot, add just enough of the neutral oil to coat the cooking surface. Carefully place the chicken pieces in the hot pan, skin side down, and brown well. (NOTE: This will work better if you don’t check it constantly. Just leave the chicken alone for a good few minutes until you notice the browning starting to happen around the edges.) Flip the chicken pieces over and brown on the other side. Remove chicken and reserve on a clean plate.
3. Turn the heat down to medium-low, and add the sliced onion to the pan, stirring immediately to coat with the oil/chicken fat. Cook until translucent and soft, about 1-2 minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook for about 20 seconds. Add the tomatillo salsa, stir to incorporate, and scrape up any bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spatula. Allow this mixture to simmer gently for 6-8 minutes.
4. Add piloncillo, chipotle and adobo sauce, and the chicken stock. Stir to incorporate and bring back up to a simmer. Return the chicken to the pan, and simmer for 15 minutes. Flip the chicken pieces over, and simmer for 15 minutes more. Arrange chicken on a serving platter, season the sauce to taste with salt & pepper, and spoon the sauce liberally over the chicken. Sprinkle with fresh cilantro leaves and serve immediately with rice, beans, a salad, sliced avocado, etc.
Yield: Cena para 4-6 personas. By the way, if you have any leftovers, pull the meat off the bones and use for tacos or quesadillas. You could even spoon over some of the leftover sauce, too. Yum!