With Easter just past, we now look forward to the next big holiday (in the state of Texas, any way): Cinco de Mayo. I don’t have much experience living in other parts of the country, but in Texas Cinco de Mayo is a big deal. The holiday is apparently not widely celebrated in Mexico outside of the Mexican state of Puebla (where the Mexican army defeated Napolean’s army on May 5, 1862). Despite the widespread festive commemoration of the anniversary of an important military victory for Mexico in the United States, most people mistakenly believe the date marks Mexico’s independence from Spain. In reality, the date marks the triumph of the ostensibly outmatched Mexican army over well-trained and equipped French forces Napolean sent to help him establish a monarchy in Mexico. Regardless of the reason for the importance of the date Cinco de Mayo, the celebration of that date has grown in popularity in our country since I was young. It’s a day on which Americans consume millions of pounds of guacamole; celebrants drink millions of cases of tequila; and Americans celebrate the Mexican culture in the United States. Fortunately, tequila (not that I drink it often) and guacamole are gluten-free!
We have a slight problem with equating margaritas entirely with the Mexican culture, however. The majority of tequila produced in Mexico is exported and consumed by people outside of Mexico. The United States, alone, imports 80% of Mexican produced tequila. Thus, Americans drink more tequila than do Mexicans. Moreover, the use of salt and lime with tequila is an American phenomenon; Mexican’s generally don’t follow this practice. We’re a little more on stable ground by eating guacamole to celebrate Mexico; it’s origin is linked to the Aztecs, who made their guacamole similar to the way we presently make it. Also, we import the majority of our avocados from Mexico. A holiday that allows people to enjoy elements of another culture is fun to celebrate, even if some of the foods or drinks related the celebration are only loosely related to the culture celebrated. It’s still a reminder of the influence cultures have on one another. Because I live in South Texas, I have the benefit of living in an area where the Mexican and American cultures are so fused as to be almost inseparable. Together they form a hybrid culture. Tex-Mex food arises from this blending of cultures.
As a Texan, my cooking throughout the year naturally reflects the influence of Mexico in the ingredients and flavor profiles I choose. Spring is an especially apropos season to allow that influence to prevail in my kitchen. Before we get to Cinco de Mayo, the city of San Antonio celebrates Fiesta, which is essentially a ten day party held the last week of April every year. Events are scheduled throughout the ten day period, and all the area schools even close on the last Friday of Fiesta for the Battle of the Flowers parade. The perfect foods for this time of year in South Texas are those that reflect the influences of Mexico and Texas, such as tomatillo chicken in home-made taco bowls. Now, I need to point out here that hard taco shells are an American invention. In Mexico, tacos are made with soft corn tortillas. What we’re going for with our food is influence, not exactly authenticity. If you don’t want to mess with making the tortilla bowls, just serve your chicken in soft corn tortillas and make chicken tacos!
A note about the taco bowls: Be sure to check the ingredients listed on the back of packages of corn tortillas. Not all corn tortillas are gluten-free; some companies add wheat flour to their corn tortillas to soften their texture. Look for packages of tortillas that have gluten-free written somewhere on the package. Home-made tortilla bowls are not my creation. You can find blogs all over the web with instructions for making them. Most bloggers direct people to spray the corn tortillas with oil to soften them for shaping. This step is unnecessary. Simply steam the corn tortillas, four at a time, in the microwave and then place them on the back of the muffin pans while they are still warm and pliable.
Cocoa Tomatillo Chicken Taco Bowls
This recipes balances the tartness of the tomatillos with the sweetness of orange and the richness of cocoa to create a delicious chicken filling for taco bowls.
- 2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons cumin
- 2 teaspoons ancho chili powder
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 2 tablespoons grated piloncillo (or brown sugar)
- Pepper to taste
- 3 tomatillos husks removed, washed, and chopped into small pieces
- 2 poblano peppers chopped into small pieces
- 1 medium yellow onion peeled and chopped into small pieces
- 1 blood orange (or navel orange) zested, peeled, and sectioned
- 1/2 cup cocoa nibs roughly crushed
- 10 gluten-free corn tortillas
- 8 oz package shredded red and green cabbage
- 1 bunch cilantro
- queso fresca cheese crumbled
For the Chicken: Place the chicken thighs in a single layer on a piece of wax paper or a baking sheet. Sprinkle the two teaspoons of salt evenly over the chicken. Let the chicken sit for at least thirty minutes at room temperature to allow it to absorb the salt. In the meantime, remove the husks from the tomatillos. Wash them well to remove the sticky residue that may be left when the husk is removed. Chop the tomatillos into smallish pieces. Wash the poblano peppers and chop into smallish pieces. Peel and chop the onion into smallish pieces. Zest two tablespoons of blood orange (or navel orange) peel. Remove the rest of the peel from the orange; be sure to remove the pith as well. Section and chop the orange into small pieces. Place 1/2 cup of cocoa nibs on a cutting board or in a plastic bag. Using a rolling pin, roughly crush the cocoa nibs by applying slight pressure to a rolling pin as you roll it back and forth over the nibs.
Thirty or more minutes after salting the chicken, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the chicken thighs in a Dutch oven or other covered casserole dish. Sprinkle the cumin, cinnamon, piloncillo or brown sugar, ancho chili powder, and pepper over the chicken.
Next, sprinkle the chopped tomatillo, poblano peppers, and onion over the chicken. Sprinkle the blood orange (or navel orange) zest over the onion. Add the peeled and chopped orange sections to the chicken. Sprinkle the roughly chopped cocoa nibs over the chopped orange. Place the lid on the Dutch oven or casserole and place in the oven. Bake the chicken at 350 degrees until the meat is tender enough to shred with a fork, about 45 - 60 minutes.
For the Taco Bowls: Remove the chicken from the oven when it's finished baking and raise the oven temperature to 375 degrees. Allow the chicken to rest while you make the tortilla bowls. Place four tortillas on a microwave-safe plate. Place a damp, but not drenched, paper towel over the tortillas. Microwave the tortillas for 10 - 15 seconds. Immediately fit each tortilla between four tins on an upside down muffin pan, fitting them carefully to prevent tearing (see photo in blog post). Bake in a 375 degree oven until the tortillas barely begin to brown around the edges, and have hardened. Remove the tortilla bowls from the upside down muffin pan and repeat with the remaining tortillas.
Assembly: After the taco cups are finished baking, remove the chicken and vegetables from the pot with a slotted spoon. Using a fork and knife, shred the chicken and vegetables. Divide the shredded chicken - vegetable filing evenly among the ten taco bowls.
Mix together the shredded cabbage and chopped cilantro. Divide the mixture evenly among the ten taco cups, placing it on top of the chicken filling.
Top each taco bowl with crumbled queso fresca cheese.