Peruvian-style grilled chicken is one of my favorite summertime meals (and from the emails and photos folks send me, it's probably one of your favorites as well). The spice- and vinegar-rubbed, slow-grilled chicken is great on its own, but add some of the this-s#!t-is-good-on-everything creamy jalapeño sauce and you've got a meal that guests are gonna insist you share the recipes for.
The only downside is that grill-roasting a whole chicken is pretty time-consuming. This was the conundrum I found myself in the other day in the late afternoon when I really wanted that chicken now. So rather than prep and plan for the next day, I came up with this simple sandwich version I could eat right away.
The first step was to ditch the idea of roasting a whole chicken and instead focus on getting the same flavors into quick-cooking chicken cutlets that I cut from boneless skinless chicken breasts.
I know that boneless skinless chicken breasts get a bad rap. I used to be one of those folks who dumped on them. But here's the truth: If you think boneless skinless chicken breasts are dry or flavorless, it's only because you have never had them cooked properly. With a bit of carefully-considered technique and a good marinade or rub, chicken breast meat can come out absolutely as tender and juicy as a pork chop, with plenty of flavor, too.
For the marinade, I used the exact same one I make for the my original Peruvian-style grilled chicken recipe—a combination of salt, cumin, paprika, black pepper, garlic, vinegar, and vegetable oil. The only thing I do differently these days is that I make my marinade in a mortar and pestle. I start by pounding the garlic and salt together until the garlic is completely broken down, then I add the remaining ingredients and work it into a thick paste that really sticks to the chicken.
The advantage you get from a mortar and pestle is mainly in the flavor department. The pestle is a much better tool for crushing garlic cells and releasing their aromatic contents than a knife or a blender, and I know of no other method that produces a similarly thick texture in the final paste. The one that I use at home has gone up in price, but there seem to be a number of other well-reviewed options on Amazon.
Next I add my chicken cutlets to the marinade and turn them to coat well. The flavors of the marinade mostly stick to the surface of the chicken, but the salt in the marinade performs another role: dry-brining. Even in the short window of time the chicken marinates before it hits the grill, the salt will break down some muscle protein, allowing the chicken to retain more moisture as it cooks. (See more on the science of brining here.)
I set the chicken aside while I make my green sauce, a simple no-cook blend of jalapeños, cilantro, garlic, mayonnaise, sour cream, vinegar, lime juice, and a touch of extra-virgin olive oil. If you want to go the more authentic route, you could get yourself a jar or two of aji amarillo paste, made from distinctively yellow hot Peruvian chilies.
To cook the chicken cutlets, I went with my go-to grilled chicken technique: unilateral cooking. That is, cooking it almost all the way through from one side only. Why this method?
Well, as meat cooks, its muscle fibrils tighten up, squeezing out moisture. This is a problem with all meat, but particularly true of chicken breast, which has very little extra fat to protect it from drying out. At the same time, we need to let the chicken cook long enough to brown properly if we want to get any flavor from that grill. The typical way to cook chicken would be to let it cook for a relatively even amount of time on both sides. The result is chicken that's not particularly well-browned on either side, and probably a little overcooked all the way through.
By letting the chicken spend most of its time on a single side, you get very deep browning on that side while maintaining plenty of moisture inside. The result is chicken that's juicy and flavorful, no tradeoffs required.*
* Psst: The same technique works for any thin, grilled, or seared meats like thin burgers, pork chops, or fish fillets.
With the sauce made and the chicken cooked, all that was left was assembly. To start, I grilled up some sliced crusty buns until crisp and lightly charred. (I used the finish-at-home ciabatta buns from La Brea bakery, available up and down the West Coast.) Even though our chicken is juicy and our sauce has some fat in it, I felt like the sandwich could use a little more richness so I layered the bottom buns with some smashed avocado.
On top of that I laid down some thinly sliced red onions and some fresh, crisp romaine lettuce leaves.
Next went the chicken (two thin cutlets per sandwich!), and the top bun, slathered with plenty of that green sauce.
And there it was. All those flavors of the Peruvian grill-roasted chicken in a fraction of the time, all in a convenient hand-held format.
You know how to make it even more delicious?
Cut it into triangles. At least that way you've got a clear plan of attack.