Roasted chili cumin chicken with pickled red onions
Inspired by Mexican street food sweet, tangy pickled red onions and chopped cilantro give roasted chili cumin chicken a lively, fresh finish.
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.Skip to next paragraph
Terry Boyd is the author of Blue Kitchen, a Chicago-based food blog for home cooks. His simple, eclectic cooking focuses on fresh ingredients, big flavors and a cheerful willingness to borrow ideas and techniques from all over the world. A frequent contributor to the Chicago Sun-Times, his recipes have also appeared on the Bon Appétit and Saveur websites.
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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.