September 2, 2010 12:30 PM
Deliciously Sweet: Chicken with Tamarind, Apricots and Chipotle Sauce

It seems that many people find chicken boring.

I happen to find it fascinating.

Not only because chicken is friendly enough to let you take it wherever your imagination can go and because it can be the juiciest and crispiest meal, but also, because of that story my mother told me when I was growing up. 

When my mom was about 10 years old, my grandmother who came to Mexico from Austria in her early twenties having survived years of war, turbulence and the loss of most of her family, taught my mom a serious lesson: you can survive most hardships in life if you know how to cook, she had said, and mostly, if you know how to cook chicken from scratch.

Cooking from scratch really meant from scratch. No nonsense. So my mom learned how to kill, pluck and cook chicken a thousand ways.   

I have that dissonant image of them plucking those birds, because if you had met my grandmother, you would have probably thought, like me, that she was one elegant and classy lady. Here's an old photo I found (do excuse my 80's bangs and shoulder pads...) 

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Ok, now that I was going through old albums, I found this other one. And I think that my mom happens to be a classy lady too... (aside from the bangs and shoulder pads, I am wearing one of those Wang Chung vests, remember?)

Tamarind Chicken 3.jpgMy Lali, as we called my grandmother, was an extraordinary cook. I could write down pages and pages listing the dishes she made that I loved. My favorite ones always had a sweet spin to them. The roasted duck with the plum sauce, the chicken paprika with sweet pimientos, the stuffed cabbage with that heart warming sauce...

If I could have my Lali over for Rosh Hashanah next week, I would treat her with the Chicken with Tamarind and Apricots I learned to make from Flora Cohen right before I got married. A cookbook writer and teacher from Syrian ancestry, who like my grandmother, was an immigrant who made Mexico her home bringing along exotic flavors from her birthplace. Flora was known to turn ignorant brides, who did not know how to boil an egg, into competent cooks who could bring bliss to the tummies of their new husbands (hey, at least my husband didn't starve in those first years...) 

And just like many of my Lali's dishes, from Austria, Flora's Syrian meals took a joy ride with Mexico's native ingredients.

People wonder about the existence of Jewish Mexican cuisine. This dish is but one example. After I was asked to teach a class on Jewish Mexican cooking, I realized it could have been an ongoing series. Just a small window into the fascinating twists and turns that foods take on as they travel through the world in unimaginable kinds of luggage and intermingle with their new homes... 

But for now, I leave you with this chicken, which can become a staple in your home. That's how good it is. 

After you rinse and pat dry the chicken pieces, sprinkle with salt and fresh ground pepper... 

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Don't remove the skin! PLEASE!! It WILL turn crispy and it will also help the chicken be extra moist and flavorful.

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Heat the oil in a large and deep skillet over low heat. Place the chicken skin side down. You don't want the chicken pieces to be cramped on top of each other, if they are, use two skillets.

The chicken is going to brown for an hour. I know this sounds like a lot of time, but you can make the rest of your dinner during that time, like your rice, pasta or salad.  Browning the chicken like this, flipping it once or twice in between, makes the skin crisp and the fat underneath the skin melt. Slowly, deliciously. It makes the chicken so juicy and soft, it practically comes off the bone!

After about an hour the chicken looks like this.

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It is already flavorful as it has basted in its own juices... Now lets take it a step further.

Pour the water over the chicken, raise the heat to medium-high, and bring it to a simmer.

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Pour the tamarind concentrate. You can easily make the concentrate at home, or buy it in most Latin or International stores. If you don't find concentrate, but find tamarind paste, dilute 2 tablespoons of the paste and 1 tablespoon of sugar in 3/4 cup warm water. The tamarind brings a rich and tangy flavor to the dish... 

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Add a couple generous tablespoons of apricot jam.

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Spoon the Chipotles in Adobo sauce, or f you want it more piquant, drop in a couple whole Chiles in there too... Their smoky and sweet flavors complement the rest of the ingredients.

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Stir in the chopped dried apricots. I found some Turkish ones at the store, with a deeper brown color. They were so meaty...

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Stir it all and bring it to a steady medium simmer, for about 35 minutes more. The sauce will have thickened and become outrageously sticky (sticky in a really good way). I love the chunks of apricot in there.

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A Sephardic dish with a Mexican influence. Perfect for holidays, this chicken dish is a crowd pleaser. A bit spicy, a bit sweet, a bit tangy, crisp and moist... It can be one of those safe cards to play, just like that passed down brisket recipe...

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Now, I didn't have to kill and pluck a chicken, but I think my Lali would be pleased. I learned my lesson well, and I am trying to learn to cook chicken, in more than a thousand tasty ways.

Serves 8

1 whole chickencut into pieces, plus two more pieces of your choice, with skin and bones
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground, or to taste
1/2 cup safflower or corn oil
4 cups water
1/2 pound dried apricots, about 3/4 cup, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons apricot preserves
3/4 cup tamarind concentrate, can be store bought or homemade (recipe follows) or substitute with 2 tbsp tamarind paste mixed with 1 tbsp sugar and 3/4 cup water
2 tablespoons chipotles in adobo sauce, or more to taste, add chiles if you please

Thoroughly rinse chicken pieces with cold water and pat dry. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

In a deep extended skillet, heat oil over medium heat until it is hot but not smoking. Add chicken pieces in one layer, bring heat to medium-low, and slowly brown the chicken pieces for one hour. Turn them over every once in a while, so they will brown evenly on all sides.

Pour water over the chicken, raise the heat to medium-high, and bring it to a simmer. Incorporate the apricots, apricot preserve, tamarind concentrate, chipotle sauce and salt and stir, and keep it at a medium simmer for 35 to 40 minutes more. You may need to bring down the heat to medium.

The sauce should have thickened considerably as to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Taste for salt and heat and add more salt or chipotle sauce to you liking.