The real thing worth paying attention to here is the sauce, Tomate Frito. It has noting to do with the abomination that is the Frito. Frito, in Spanish, means fried. So when you're eating those chips, you're eating Fried. Which likely makes it the most accurately titled processed food product ever. 'Cause whatever it is, is very much Fried, but there ain't much in the way of actual food in it.
A classic Tomate Frito is a really versatile thing. Cook it down alot and it's a great sauce for fish, pork or chicken. I use it on omlettes, fried eggs, bacon. Cook it down just a little, add a touch of lime juice, and it's a crazy good salsa. We're going Yucatán-style with this, which means there's gonna be some Habanero going on, but that doesn't mean you gotta be punished by heat. I'll take you through how to get the piquancy of the habanero while controlling the heat to your liking. I've tried a number of versions of this in a quest to make it all chef-y. I've tried some of my own invention and tried out a passel of recipes I've found online. The Yucatecan culture is ancient. It's been doing this for a long time. Not surprisingly, then, the simplest, hardly any ingredients version of the sauce is, hands down, the best. For the simplest, most straight forward version of this sauce, I'd go with the version from Rick Bayless.
In this recipe, I'm putting it on chicken, but we'll also cover how to alter the cooking and ingredients just a little so it functions as a standalone salsa.
For the Spice Rub
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon whole allspice
1 tablespoon red-chile powder
½ teaspoon whole cloves
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 chicken breasts
1 lemon, zested and juiced
Salt and ground black pepper
For the Tomate Frito
4 medium to large tomatoes (10 if using Roma), stemmed and cored
1 small white onion, diced (or 1/2 of a big white onion)
1 tbsp olive oil
First, we're going to get the chicken a-marinating. Liberally salt and pepper both sides of each piece. The Spice Rub ingredients may look familiar to you if you do a lot of Mexican cooking. It's pretty much the Spice mix used for Cochinita Pibil. The only things missing are Mexican Oregano and garlic. I liked the chicken better without those two. Which pains me to say. Because garlic is awesome and flawless. I hang my head in shame.
Take all the Spice Rub ingredients (even the already ground ones) and throw them in a spice grinder. When I say we're grinding, I mean, we are by-God grinding. We want a powder here. So, put one hand on the switch for the grinder and with the other pop open Facebook on your phone. Start grinding and don't stop until you've liked five photos of friends children/grandchildren/nieces/nephews/dogs/cats. That should get you the right consistency.
BIG ASS IMPORTANT NOTE (BAIN) #1: Don't have a spice grinder? I'm betting you got a coffee grinder. Give it a really good wash to knock down the coffee flavor permanently burned into it. Throw the spices in there. Don't have a coffee grinder? Use a mortar and pestle and get some good exercise and aggression therapy and really pound and grind the beejeesus out of it. Don't have a mortar and pestle? I guess you can use pre-ground everything. Cut the amounts of the cumin, peppercorns, allspice and cloves in half. But I'd recommend getting a grinder. I thought it was snotty foodie pretentiousness when I'd read about using whole cumin seeds or cloves or whatever. Then I tried it. The flavors are so much more vibrant. If you don't have a grinder, it's cool and this will still taste good. But it could taste a whole lot better if you drop $15 on a cheap spice grinder.
Rub both sides of the chicken with the spice rub. Don't be shy about applying it. Still, you should have plenty of the rub leftover. Put it aside and use it in the next few days on anything. Seriously...it's really good and you'll like it. I sprinkled some on a turkey sammich. It rocked.
Put the chicken in a gallon freezer bag and add the lemon zest and juice. Squeeze the air out, seal it up, and throw it in the fridge until you're well on your way cooking the Tomate Frito. This should be 20-30 minutes.
BAIN #2: Do NOT make the mistake of thinking that if 20-30 minutes is good for marinating, then 2-4 hours will be better. This actually holds true most of the time with chicken and pork but not in this instance. The reason is the lemon juice. The acid in it starts to "break down the meat" as the chef types say. What that means is that it starts cooking it. For the most part, Pork is dense enough to hold up to extended time in the presence of citric acid (except for the tenderloin). Chicken isn't. If you go up to 45 minutes, you're probably cool. But beyond that it really starts cooking the hell out of the chicken and with the low fat content of most chicken breasts you're setting yourself up for an overcooked, dried out piece of poultry by the time you're done.
Turn your broiler on and let it get really hot. While that's happening, stem and core the tomatoes. Generally, you don't have to core a Roma (or plum) tomato. A regular Beefsteak or Heirloom or otherwise bigger, rounder tomato, you'll be happy you did. Wrap a baking sheet in foil (it just makes the cleanup easier). Place the four tomatoes on the sheet. In this session I used two red and two golden heirlooms I got at the farmer's market. Just 'cause. Don't freak out over it. Generally, since we got the habanero lurking in the background, go with the ripest, sweetest tomatoes you can get your hands on. If the only ones you can find aren't super-ripe or sweet, just add some honey to the Tomate Frito, a tablespoon, when the sauce is about done cooking.
Put the sheet in the oven, as close to the broiler as you can get it. 4-5 minutes. Pull it out. Flip the tomatoes and back in for another 4-5 minutes. You want them to blacken and blister to get a nice smoky flavor in them. When they're done, set them aside and let them cool. Reduce the oven setting to 400 degrees.
While said orbs of tomato-y goodness are cooling, dice up the onion. It's a rough dice you're going for here. You want some good sized onion chunks in the sauce. In the ingredients list I said to use one small or 1/2 of one large white onion. If the onion is the size of tennis ball, use the whole thing. If it's considerably larger than a tennis ball, use half of it. Really, use the white onion. It's what's mostly used in Mexican cooking ('cause that's, historically, the onions that were grown in Mexico) and it has a sharper bite to it than a red. If you can't find a white onion or you're opposed to them on political/religious grounds, use a red onion. Whatever you do, don't use a yellow onion. They'll turn to mush and the texture will be kinda gross.
BAIN #3: If you want to use this as a standalone dipping salsa, put a fine dice on it. The onions will stay on the chips that way.
Get a skillet going over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil. Usually on a Mexican dish you're gonna use vegetable or canola oil, or if you can find it, lard. I've played around with all of those and I just like the taste better with a good extra-virgin olive oil. I've heard all the chef-types hold forth about how EVOO breaks down with heat. I've never heard a coherent definition of what that means. While, sure, olive oil doesn't have its full flavor after you cook for awhile it still tastes better. So, screw it, I'm going with the EVOO. That said, if you don't have any but you got some veg or canola oil in the pantry, use it. It's still yummy.
Throw the onion in and add a little salt and pepper. Just to start building some flavor. Give it a stir and let it ride for awhile, 7-8 minutes until you're seeing some browning.
While the onions are browning your tomatoes should have cooled pretty nicely. Take the skins off (they'll fall right off - if you find you need a paring knife to remove them they're not cooked enough - get them back under the broiler for a couple more minutes) and throw them in a food processor or blender. Fire it up and let it run for awhile. You want a coarse purée. Pour the tomato love into the skillet with the onions. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Stir in a little more salt and pepper. You want a low simmer, here.
And now to the topic of habanero. You may be thinking a habanero is too hot and you'll step down to a Serrano or jalapeño. I'm begging you not to. I'm not a huge fan of way spicy food. I'm on the border of being a heat wimp. Habaneros, underneath that heat, have a fruity, earthy thing going that is complex and delightful. You really can't replicate it with something else. You can't even get close. So, here's what you do.
I HATE HOT FOOD = throw the whole habanero, stem intact, into the sauce. You'll get the slightest touch of heat but all the rest of the habanero goodness. Since the habanero is intact, the seeds won't break out into the sauce. That's where the searing heat comes from. When the sauce is done you'll remove the habanero.
I LIKE HOT FOOD BUT I AM AFRAID TO CRY IN FRONT OF OTHERS = keep the stem in but make a really small slit in one side of the habanero. Like, about half the length of the thing. A few seeds get exposed. You'll get enough heat to feel like a badass without risking crying like a frightened child. When the sauce is done you'll remove the habanero.
I'M BRAVE BUT IN A JULIA ROBERTS IN ERIN BROKOVICH IMMA TAKE ON THE MAN THAT'S HOLDING ME DOWN KINDA INTELLECTUAL BRAVE SORTA WAY = cut off the stem and cut the Habanero in half. Throw both halves into the sauce. This is how the Yucatecan people make this sauce and they invented it so you'd think they know what they're doing. There's a piquant heat but it ain't that bad. When the sauce is done you'll remove the habanero.
I AM A HEAT NINJA AND I LIKE IT WHEN THE INSIDE OF MY MOUTH IS REDUCED TO SO MANY LAYERS OF SEARED FLESH: Cut off the stem. Mince the habanero, seeds and ribs intact, dump it into the sauce. Stir it really good before you wimp out and change your mind. You can't get that habanero outta there at this point any more than you could remove the olive oil. You're stuck with it. I wish you the best.
Let it go for about 20 minutes, simmering all the while. Remember to stir it every now and then so nothing scorches and sticks to the bottom of the pan.
Put a glug of olive oil in a baking dish and add the chicken. Pour the marinade from the bag on top of the chicken.
Throw it in the oven. If you bought you some really good free range chicken at a farmer's market you probably only need to cook for 10 minutes. If, like me, you're using the weirdly outsized chicken breasts you get in most supermarkets, you're probably gonna need to go 15-20 minutes. Get a good meat thermometer and check it after 10 minutes. I pull the chicken out once the internal temp hits 155 and then tent it with foil and let it finish cooking in its own heat. That usually brings the internal temp up to 165 which is what the FDA recommends for safety. Pretty sure if it gets to like 162, you're good. But, since I don't want to run afoul (yeah - I did that) of the gummint I'll swear I never touch it unless it's at 165.
Turn the heat off on the stove. Remove the habanero. Give it a taste and add more salt if you think it needs it (with the habanero you will not need anymore pepper).
BAIN #4 - TO MAKE A STANDALONE DIPPING SALSA: Everything stays the same but only cook the mixture for 10 minutes. You want it to be less thick. With about two minutes left in the cooking time, add 2 teaspoons of Mexican Oregano (if you have it, regular oregano works fine if you don't). Put it in a bowl, add the juice of 1 lime, about 1/4 cup of chopped cilantro, and little more salt. Cover it and put it in the fridge for an hour. Take it out, give it a stir, and grab you some chips.
Put the bird on a plate and use two heaping spoonfuls of the Tomate Frito over the top of the dish. Dig in. It's really good. The spice rub of the chicken provides a really nice undercurrent of earthy, savory flavors to balance the sweet heat of the Tomate Frito.
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