It may surprise you that until recently, delicious little soft tacos of seared chicken and roasted peppers didn’t play much of a role in Mexico’s taquerías. Boneless breasts from the good-size free-range chickens that country is known for just don’t benefit from quick griddle-searing or grilling. But now that a good number of the toothsome barnyard chickens have been replaced by smaller, tenderer birds, chicken tacos are giving the classic beef ones a run for their money. It doesn’t hurt that folks see them as a healthy alternative—without any sacrifice of flavor.
- Yield: Serves 4
- 2 large fresh poblano chiles
- 2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil (divided use)
- 1 large white onion, sliced 1/4 inch thick
- 1 pound (3 medium-large halves) boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
- Ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped or crushed through a garlic press
- 12 warm corn tortillas, store-bought or homemade
- About 3/4 cup roasted tomatillo salsa or guacamole, or bottled salsa or hot sauce, for serving
- Roast the poblanos over an open flame or 4 inches below a broiler, turning regularly until blistered and blackened all over, about 5 minutes for an open flame, 10 minutes for the broiler. Place in bowl, cover with a kitchen towel and let cool until handleable.
- Turn on (or adjust) the oven to its lowest setting. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a very large (12-inch) skillet over medium-high. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until golden but still crunchy, 4 to 5 minutes. Scoop into a heatproof serving bowl, leaving as much oil as possible in the skillet, and slide into the oven. Set the skillet aside.
- Rub the blackened skin off the chiles and pull out the stems and seed pods. Rinse the chiles to remove bits of skin and seeds. Cut into 1/4-inch strips and stir into the onions. Taste and season with salt, usually a generous 1 teaspoon. Return to the oven.
- Sprinkle both sides of the chicken breasts generously with salt and pepper.
- Return the skillet to medium heat. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. When the oil is hot, lay in the chicken breasts. Brown on one side, about 5 minutes, then flip and finish cooking on the other side, about 4 minutes more. When the meat is done, add the lime juice and garlic to the skillet. Turn the chicken in the lime mixture for a minute or so, until the juice has reduced to a glaze and coats the chicken.
- Cut the chicken breasts into 1/4-inch strips and toss with the onion-poblano mixture. Taste and season with additional salt if you think necessary. Serve with the warm tortillas and salsa, guacamole or hot sauce for making soft tacos.
A Couple of Riffs on Chicken Tacos: Grilling the chicken breasts is a delicious alternative to pan-searing them, but you’ll miss the lime-garlic glaze. To solve that problem, I suggest you add the lime juice and garlic to the onions when they’re browned, cooking until the liquid has reduced to a glaze. (You may want to have a little extra lime and garlic for marinating the chicken breasts before grilling.) If chicken tenders are more easily available than the breasts, use them; cooking time will be shorter. Beef skirt or flank steak works well here too. And, of course, any of the large fleshy chiles (from Anaheims to red bell peppers) can stand in for the poblanos.
Brining for Even Better Chicken: At Frontera Grill, we use free-range chicken breasts, which might taste tough to some of our guests if we did not brine them. (Besides promoting tenderness, brining can help make ordinary grocery-store chicken breasts moister and more flavorful too.) To brine 4 chicken breasts (1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds total), mix together 2 cups water, 3 tablespoons Morton kosher salt and 2 tablespoons sugar in a large bowl. Slip in the chicken breasts, cover and refrigerate for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from the brine and dry on paper towels; the chicken breasts are ready to use.