Why It Works
- A mortar and pestle creates the most flavorful and aromatic marinade, though you can speed things up with a blender.
- Grilling the chicken mostly on one side guarantees good browning without overcooking.
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 around 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've 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.
The Best Marinade Starts With a Mortar and Pestle
For the marinade, I use the exact same one I make for 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 with 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 them 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.
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 in which 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.)
How to Make the Spicy Green Sauce
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 ají amarillo paste, made from distinctively yellow hot Peruvian chiles.
The Grilling Technique for Perfectly Cooked Chicken Cutlets
To cook the chicken cutlets, I use 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 it's 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 trade-offs required.*
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 Peruvian grill-roasted chicken, in a fraction of the time, all in a convenient handheld 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.
How to Cut Chicken Breasts Into Cutlets
For the Chicken:
3 medium cloves garlic, roughly chopped
4 teaspoons (15g) kosher salt
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons paprika
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons (30ml) white vinegar
2 tablespoons (30ml) vegetable or canola oil
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (5 to 7 ounces/140 to 200g each), cut into 8 cutlets
For the Sauce:
3 whole jalapeño chiles, roughly chopped (see notes)
1 tablespoon (15ml) ají amarillo pepper paste (optional; see notes)
1 cup (1 ounce) fresh cilantro leaves
2 medium cloves garlic
1/2 cup (120ml) mayonnaise
1/4 cup (60ml) sour cream
2 teaspoons (10ml) fresh juice from 1 lime
1 teaspoon (5ml) distilled white vinegar
1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 sturdy buns, such as telera or ciabatta
2 ripe avocados, halved, pitted, and flesh scooped
Thinly sliced red onion
Crisp lettuce leaves, such as romaine
For the Chicken: In a large mortar and pestle, pound garlic and salt until a smooth, sticky paste forms. Add cumin, paprika, black pepper, and vinegar and grind them together to form a paste. Drizzle in vegetable oil while grinding (see notes). Transfer chicken and marinade to a large bowl and massage with your hands until all the chicken is coated in the marinade. Set aside at room temperature while you make the sauce, or cover and place in the fridge up to overnight.
For the Sauce: Combine jalapeños, ají amarillo (if using), cilantro, garlic, mayonnaise, sour cream, lime juice, and vinegar in the jar of a blender. Blend on high speed, scraping down as necessary, until smooth. With blender running, slowly drizzle in olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sauce will be quite loose at this point, but will thicken as it sits. Transfer to a sealed container and refrigerate until ready to use.
To Cook: Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Alternatively, set half the burners on a gas grill to the highest heat setting, cover, and preheat for 10 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate.
Place chicken directly over the hot side of the grill, cover, and cook, rotating the pieces occasionally (but not flipping them), until the chicken is almost completely cooked through and only a few pink spots remain on the top side, about 4 minutes. Flip chicken and cook on second side until just done, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a large plate.
To Assemble: Place buns cut side down over the hot side of the grill and cook, moving and rotating them occasionally, until well toasted and starting to char, about 1 minute. Transfer to a large cutting board. Use a fork to mash half an avocado on each bottom bun. Sprinkle with a little salt. Top with red onions, lettuce, and 2 pieces of chicken each. Spread top buns with sauce and close sandwiches. Serve immediately, with any extra green sauce on the side.
The marinade can also be made by combining all ingredients in a blender, mini chopper, or food processor and blending until smooth, though the flavor won't be as good as the one made with the mortar and pestle.
For a less spicy sauce, remove the ribs and seeds of the jalapeños before puréeing.
Ají amarillo is a Peruvian yellow pepper paste that can be found in most Latin markets. It can be omitted.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 75g||96%|
|Saturated Fat 12g||62%|
|Total Carbohydrate 46g||17%|
|Dietary Fiber 15g||54%|
|Total Sugars 5g|
|Vitamin C 26mg||128%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|