As the weather warms, my menus tend to go from simmered to steamed and from protein to produce. It’s partially because my body craves rich foods less, but it’s also a practical matter of keeping the apartment cool. Still, there are times when I crave some melty tender meat and these braised chicken tacos fill that need without taking the kind of apartment heating time a whole pork butt would require.
The braising liquid gets it’s sweet, earthy flavor from caramelized onions and a puree of dried ancho and guajillo chiles. It’s similar to the red sauce you’d find on an enchilada, only sweeter and with more flavor, thanks to the onions and tomatoes. The chicken cooks until you can easily shred it with a fork, this creates a matrix of tender chicken fibers that the sauce can cling to.
With street tacos, the meat is where it’s at, with the tortilla serving as a way to get it into your mouth. Condiments are filler at best, and at worst they can be a way to cover up the questionable nature of the meat. These chicken taco’s don’t need any condiments, in fact I could have eaten the chicken with a fork sin tortilla. I did want a little more richness though, so I sliced up some avocado and snuck them in. Flavor aside, if you close your eyes and take a bite, you could be fooled into thinking you were eating pork belly.
If you have some leftover chicken just add another can of chopped tomatoes and a can of your favorite beans for a chicken chili. This also freezes well so you can make a bunch ahead of time and freeze it in serving sized portions so you can have braised chicken tacos all summer long without having to run your air conditioning full blast.
Braised Chicken Tacos
makes 16 tacos
2 pounds whole chicken thighs
3 small onions, sliced thinly
4 cloves of garlic, minced
3 dried ancho chiles, stems and seeds removed
3 dried guajillo chiles, stems and seeds removed
14 ounce can of chopped tomatoes in juice
2 cinnamon sticks
1 bay leaf
juice of 1 meyer lemon (or juice of 1/2 regular lemon)
salt to taste
Generously salt and pepper the chicken on both sides. Add about 2 tablespoons of oil to a large heavy bottomed pot and heat until the oil is very hot. Brown the chicken in batches, leaving room between the pieces of chicken so they turn a golden brown on one side before flipping. Transfer the browned chicken to a plate and repeat.
Turn down the heat to medium low, add the onions and garlic to the pot, and cover with a lid for 10 minutes. When you remove the lid, the onions should be wilted and cooking in their own juices. Use a wooden paddle to scrape up all the browned bits (a.k.a. chicken flavor) from the pan, then turn up the heat to medium high to burn off the liquid. When most of the liquid has evaporated, turn the heat back down and stir and continue to caramelize the onions until they are brown and glossy (another 20-30 minutes).
Meanwhile, tear up the chiles into small flat pieces and place them in a single layer on a sheet pan. Roast in a 350 degree oven until they are fragrant, but be careful not to burn them as they will become bitter. Transfer the roasted peppers to a bowl and cover them with very hot water. Once the peppers are soft, transfer them to a food processor or blender adding in about 1/2 cup of the water they were soaking in along with the can of tomatoes. Puree the peppers and tomatoes until they form a smooth sauce.
When the onions are done caramelizing add the pepper puree, along with the chicken, cinnamon sticks, bay leaf and lemon juice. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, then reduce the heat to the lowest setting, partially cover with a lid and cook until the chicken falls apart when prodded with a fork (about 1 1/2 hours).
When the chicken is done, remove the bay leaf an cinnamon sticks, then use 2 forks to shred the meat. Taste the sauce and add salt to taste. Serve with sliced avocados, fresh cilantro, lime wedges and tortillas.