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I'm entering a bit of unusual territory with this week's Food Lab. While I generally limit the repertoire of my explorations to existing dishes in the American and International canons, today we're going a bit off the map with a dish that's in part inspired by the chile verde* of the American Southwest, and in part by the white chicken chili that, like some other iconic American comfort dishes, seems to have come from both nowhere and everywhere all at once.
We're taking the intensely rich, smoky, and hot chile sauce from the former, the comforting bean stew aspect of the latter, and adding to it my own personal touch: a perfectly braised piece of chicken; deep flavors, crisp skin, and all. If you're into heat, beans, and chicken, it's about as comforting a dish as you can hope for when the hot summer days start to slowly transition into cool fall evenings.
*We've had words here in the past about chili vs. chile as the proper spelling of the word. Both are acceptable and our house style is "chili," but as the dish we're discussing today is New Mexican-inspired, I'll be using the Spanish spelling in deference to their particular vernacular.
You'll never get the citizens of Hatch, New Mexico to admit this, but Hatch chiles are really nothing more than a branding term for the Anaheim (a.k.a. New Mexico) chiles that are grown in their particular region. True, they have a love for chiles that is unmatched perhaps anywhere else in the world, and their soil might produce chiles that are tastier than the county down the road, but if I can make pizza sauce using tomatoes that weren't grown in volcanic soil in the Valle del Sarno in Italy, then I sure as heck can make great green chile using Anaheim chiles grown outside of Hatch, NM.
Let's just leave it at that, shall we?
The more important question: How to maximize their flavor?
Head down to Hatch during chile season (that'd be right about now), and you'll smell it long before you see it. The aroma of chiles charring over gas flames as they tumble around in large perforated metal cylinders is inescapable.
The idea behind the roasting is twofold: First, it adds a rich, smoky flavor to the chiles. Secondly, as they roast, vapor builds up between the skins and the flesh, causing them to puff out, which makes them easy to peel.
At home, the process can be done either under the broiler, or preferably directly over the flames of a gas burner or an outdoor grill.
Once the chiles are charred on all sides, I place them in a bowl with a tight fitting lid to let them steam until the skins are very easy to remove (some folks like to use a tightly folded paper bag, which works just as well).
What you end up with is something that looks like this. The prospect of peeling it is not all that daunting; after all, it's just one chile.
But what happens when you find this on your cutting board instead?
Peeling chiles by hand is a time consuming chore, and I'm generally not one to do things the old fashioned way just for the sake of it. So what are our alternatives?
The most immediate thought is why not just peel them under running water?
It's certainly faster and easier—heck, the water does more of the work for you—but as any chile-head will tell you, you end up washing away lots of flavor in the process. I made a couple of batches of chile sauce side by side (using a working recipe that included sautéed onions and garlic, and a touch of cumin, all pureed with enough water to thin it out), one made with chiles painstakingly peeled by hand and the other with chiles peeled under running water. Confirmation achieved: The dry-peeled chiles were more flavorful.
But as I was peeling the chiles, I realized something: what about all the great flavor packed into those skins and seeds? I mean, I understand not including them in my sauce for textural reasons, but the loose skins I was throwing into the compost bins sure smelled flavorful to me. Could I somehow harness that flavor?
Rather than peel the chiles under running water, I thought to myself, what if I peel them in a bowl of water instead?
It certainly made the chiles easier to peel (though not quite as easy as under running water), and as I peeled them, I noticed the liquid in the bowl getting deeper and deeper green, almost like a chile tea, if you will.
Could this be the solution to the problem?
For my next batch of sauce, I replaced the water in the recipe with this batch of roasted chile skin "tea," reducing it down a bit on the stovetop to intensify its flavor. The result was the darkest, smokiest, most intense chile sauce of the batch; A clear winner.
All that was left for the sauce was to adjust aromatics. The onions, garlic, and cumin stayed, along with a dash of ground coriander (I made sure to toast the spices in the hot fat to let their flavor develop before adding the liquid). To brighten things up at the end, I blended in some chopped fresh cilantro leaves and a good squeeze of lime juice.
Now that we've got our chile sauce settled, let's take a look at the beans.
I'm a strong proponent of canned beans and, to be perfectly honest, they'll work just fine in this recipe. But I rarely pass up an opportunity to engage in a bit of casual culinary myth-busting, so bear with me here.
There are only two people in the world who I trust implicitly. One of them, I'm married to and I don't actually have much choice in the matter. The other is Mr. Wizard (a.k.a. Don Herbert), who unfortunately passed away a few years ago. Notice how chefs and grandmothers don't make the cut. I've got nothing against them personally, but boy, do they love spinning yarns.
Take this one, for instance: Don't salt your beans until after cooking or they won't soften.
It's a "fact" I've been fed by multiple chefs (I even knew a cook who claimed you could fix over-cooked beans by salting them sufficiently). Over on Michael Ruhlman's blog, he has a pretty exhaustive discussion of the idea with several chefs and writers weighing in, none of them agreeing on much other than that the old wisdom is not exactly accurate.
Over the years I've tested it in numerous ways. Here's what I've found.
*Longtime readers may notice current findings are ever-so-slightly different from the working knowledge I was going on a few years ago). Such is the nature of science.
As you can see here, beans soaked and cooked in plain water (on the left) experience a bit of blow out—this happens when the interior and the skins don't cook at the same rate, stressing the structure of the bean. Beans that are soaked overnight in salted water before cooking, on the other hand, come out completely evenly cooked and smooth-skinned. Beans that are cooked via the fast soak method—brought to a boil in water, allowed to rest for an hour, then drained and simmered in salted liquid until tender—fare somewhere in the middle.
Salting the soaking water is the most effective road to tender, evenly cooked beans with intact skins. How's it work? There are three key players: magnesium, calcium, and sodium chloride (a.k.a. table salt). The magnesium and calcium act as buttresses to bean cell walls, holding them together tightly and preventing them from softening. They're tough little minerals and take long, slow cooking to work past.
Chemically, salt can play a similar role to the magnesium and calcium, fitting nicely into bean skins. Indeed, over the course of an overnight soak in salt water, some of those magnesium and calcium ions will actually play musical chairs with the salt, leaving the beans entirely to float off into the soaking liquid. Here's the thing: salt does not strengthen bean walls in the same way as magnesium and calcium, which means that beans soaked in salt water will soften more effectively than those soaked in plain water. Yeah science, b%$ch!
From this, you can also probably guess that beans cooked in hard water—water with lots of dissolved minerals (like calcium and magnesium)—will not cook effectively, and indeed I've found this to be the case—it's the main reason you should throw out your ion-packed soaking liquid and replace it with fresh water before simmering beans. If your water is particularly hard, you should buy some distilled or purified water from the supermarket to simmer your beans.
A Tough Time
Interestingly, because of the effects of osmotic pressure, beans that are soaked in salt water actually take longer to initially absorb liquid. Here's a picture of beans that have been soaked in plain and salted water for 4 hours:
The salt water beans are wrinkly, as the water has been able to work itself into the skins, but not to the interior (sort of like sitting in a bath until your fingers prune). This may well be the reason why the no-salt-until-cooked rumor got started in the first place, but rest assured, after an overnight soak, the salted beans still plump up nicely.
The other reason to soak and cook with salted water? Even seasoning. If that's not reason enough, you ought to start questioning your priorities.
For this particular recipe, my first inclination was to soak the beans overnight in salted water, then simmer them in the sauce until tender, figuring it'd take about an hour or so of cooking the next day. What happened? They never softened. Turns out that hard water is not the only enemy of beans. The other is acid, which inhibits the breakdown of pectin, the cellular glue that keeps bean skins firm.
The best solution turned out to be to pre-cook the beans in chicken stock until nearly tender, then use that same stock as the base liquid for my chile sauce. By leaving the beans ever-so-slightly undercooked in the center, I could simmer them long enough in the finished sauce to get them to soften completely, while packing them with plenty of flavor.
Chick-can You Believe It?
We're about 90% of the way there, folks. With the sauce and the beans finished, the chicken is pretty much a cakewalk. While a traditional chile would have you braise or grind the meat and incorporate it in fine pieces, I like the idea of turning this pot into a finished, plated dish with a bit more texture and flavor contrast. Something worthy of eating with a knife and fork, or at least worth putting on your pants for.
The choice between breasts and legs is an easy one. To really get the chicken and the chile to marry, you want to simmer the meat for a significant amount of time. Leg meat, which is higher in moisture-producing connective tissue, is the obvious choice for a braised dish like this one.
To maximize flavor, I know that deep browning is the very first step. The key here is a hot skillet, a small amount of oil, and some patience. Chicken skin is made of protein, fat, and water, and it takes a bit of time for that water to evaporate and the fat to render so that the proteins can begin to properly brown. Try and move the chicken during this time and most likely you'll leave the skin firmly cemented to the bottom of the skillet. Wait until it releases freely before attempting to flip: Chicken skin will lift when it's good and ready.
The number one item on my list of things not to be missed is the new season of Breaking Bad. Coming in at a close second is "flavor where you can find it."
See that brown stuff in the bottom of the pan when you pull out the chicken? That right there is found flavor.
Make sure to scrape it up good when you add the onions and garlic to sauté.
Now that I've done all that work browning off the chicken skin, there's no way in hell that I'm going to let it get all soggy again. The last step in the dish is to cook the chicken into tender submission while maintaining that crunch. I do this by nestling the chicken pieces back into the skillet, making sure that their skins stay uncovered.
After a 45 minute stay in the oven, the chicken emerges fall-off-the-bone tender and deeply flavored by the rich sauce. Likewise, the sauce takes on some of those great roast browned aromas from the chicken. Meanwhile, the skin stays as crisp as you can hope for.
I mean, just look at that. Seriously, look at it and tell me it's not worthy of a drool or two. You don't have to show me, I can tell you're salivating from here. Let me rub it in a bit more:
Someday, lad, all this will be yours. If you get cracking right now and get your beans soaking, that day could well be tomorrow.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.