Inspired by Mexican street food (channeled by Rick Bayless), sweet, tangy pickled red onions and chopped cilantro give roasted Chili Cumin Chicken a lively, fresh finish. Recipes below.
At some point, I’m not sure when, Mexican restaurant food became relegated to comfort food status for us. Something we could count on to be reliably good, filling and cheap, but no longer something we got a hankering for. It wasn’t always this way. At one point, Marion and I ate at a Mexican restaurant in our neighborhood at least once a week for a year or more. In fact, we went there on our wedding night, before going barhopping with my mom and my brand new sister-in-law.
Now, though, it’s comfort food. And that in itself is not a bad thing—sometimes, the baskets of chips, the familiar flavors and friendly, relaxed atmosphere that are part of the package deal are exactly what you want. Add some friends and cocktails and you’re set for a good evening.
What’s changed for us is not so much Mexican food (at least as practiced by many, many, many restaurants in the US)—it’s what we expect from dining out. Anything beyond comfort food or fast food or cheap take out, we want some single bite of whatever we’re eating to stop us in our tracks, to make us interrupt the conversation at the table with “Omigod.” Quickly followed by “You have to taste this.” That’s what we weren’t getting from Mexican food.
Until Marion went to XOCO. To be fair, Chicago chef Rick Bayless has long fought stereotypes of Mexican fare with his popular upscale restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. And with his cooking shows and numerous cookbooks. But it’s XOCO (SHO-co), his take on Mexican street food, that’s been exciting everyone since it opened in September 2009. So much so that the thought of the typical lines and crowds at Bayless’s restaurants kept us away until recently (well, Marion, that is—I still haven’t gotten there).
There, she had one of those “omigod” bites, her first taste of the Gunthorp Chicken Torta, wood-roasted red chile chicken with pickled white onion, black beans, avocado and tomatillo salsa. To my great good fortune, the “Mexican submarine sandwich,” as XOCO’s website calls it, was too generous for her to finish. So she brought it home, and I was treated to my own “omigod” moment.
These flavorful chicken thighs, inspired by Bayless’s heavenly torta, fall somewhere between comfort food and “omigod,” I think. More kind of a “Wow, this is good. Really good.” Their big spicy (but not hot) taste doesn’t quite match the complexity—or authenticity, I’m sure—of the wood-grilled chicken on the torta, but there is a lot going on with them flavorwise. And the crunch and sweet tang of the pickled onions adds a welcome freshness and brightness to this lively main course.
The inspiration for the onions came from all over. It began with the pickled white onions on the torta, of course, but my mind immediately jumped to a post Laura had written over at What I Like on The River Cottage Preserves Handbook. And we just happened to have a copy of it, courtesy of the library. Kevin at Closet Cooking, Elise at Simply Recipes and our man in Paris, David Leibovitz, all had interesting takes on them too. As usual, I read them all and then smooshed together my own version.
This is one of those fresh pickled dishes that doesn’t require sterilized jars, airtight seals or weeks in a dark cellar. I threw this together in about ten minutes in the morning, and we were enjoying it on the chicken that evening. And by the way, the beautiful rose color comes strictly from the onion—no colorings were added.
Roasted Chili Cumin Chicken with Pickled Red Onions
Serves 2 to 4 (depending on chicken thigh sizes)
For the pickled red onions
1/2 cup white vinegar (I used white balsamic vinegar)
1/4 cup water
1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
1 star anise
1 medium red onion, halved lengthwise, peeled and sliced
For the chicken
2 teaspoons good chili powder (see Kitchen Notes)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
4 large chicken thighs (or drumsticks and thighs—see Kitchen Notes)
Make the pickled onions. Combine all ingredients except the sliced onions in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add onions and simmer for about 30 seconds, stirring constantly to coat them evenly and cook them slightly.
Remove from heat and transfer to a bowl to cool. When onions are completely cool, transfer to a clean lidded jar and refrigerate. Can be made ahead. The onions will keep refrigerated for up to a month, but some recipes say they’re best in the first week.
Marinate the chicken. In a large bowl, combine the chili powder, cumin, cayenne pepper, salt and a generous grind of black pepper. Add the olive oil and whisk to combine. Add the garlic slices. Trim the chicken of excess skin and fat and pat dry with paper towels. Add to the bowl and toss with your hands to coat the chicken evenly (a messy but simple task). Transfer the chicken to a large zippered plastic bag. Pour the remaining marinade over the chicken, seal the bag and massage it to distribute the marinade evenly. Marinate the chicken in the fridge for at least 4 hours and up to 8 hours, turning the bag occasionally.
Roast the chicken. About a half hour before cooking, remove the chicken from the fridge to come to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Remove chicken from marinade, shaking off any excess and taking care to remove any garlic slices (they love to burn in the oven). Arrange chicken thighs skin side up in a lightly oiled baking dish large enough to not crowd them. Roast the chicken on the middle rack of the oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until an instant read thermometer registers 160ºF in the thickest part of the thigh. Remove chicken from oven, transfer to a platter, tent with foil and let rest 5 to 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, coarsely chop some cilantro leaves. Serve, passing the cilantro and pickled onions in separate bowls.
Choosing your chili powder. First, yeah, buying dried chiles, roasting them and grinding them is a great way to get wonderful flavor. I tend to compensate by using real good chili powders. Here, I mixed equal parts of ground Sweet Ancho Chile Pepper and New Mexican Chile Pepper, both available at The Spice House.
Choosing your chicken parts. Honestly, for this recipe, you can use whatever chicken parts you like. I chose thighs because they’re nice and meaty and tend to remain juicy when roasted. By increasing the amount of marinade, you can bump up the amount of chicken you prepare and even do an entire cut up chicken.