The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Kids Make Guatemalan Chicken Pepian

March 21st, 2009 · No Comments · Posted in Recipes

Just when I thought our “food appreciation” classes would be leaving Guatemala to continue our virtual world food tour our friend Grace, who works at the local library, e-mailed that she had located a Guatemalan cookbook. After paging through many intriguing recipes, I decided we must extend our stay another week so we could make this traditional Mayan-influenced dish of chicken in a spicy red sauce: chicken pepian.

The high point of this dish is the sauce, made very simply by processing (in our case grinding in the molcajete) toasted seeds, cooked tomatoes, tomatillos, red peppers, all seasoned with a bit of cinnamon. Like other Mayan dishes we love, there is no cooking oil or added fat involved, yet the flavors are a revelation.

Start by cooking a whole chicken cut into pieces (we used only wing pieces–you could use just legs or thighs as well), in three cups of water seasoned with 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cook for about 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the chicken and set aside, reserving the broth.

While the chicken is cooking, chop two ripe tomatoes and one large tomatillo. Stem and seed two large, dried red peppers (such as California pepper, guajillo, New Mexico, cascabel, ancho–anything of that sort). Place the tomatoes, tomatillos and peppers in a saucepan with 1 cup water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook about 15 minutes, or until everything is very tender.

Meanwhile, in the molcajete (or food processor) grind 1/2 cup toasted sesame seeds and 1 tablespoon toasted hulled pumpkin seeds into a fine powder. Add 1/4 teaspoon annatto paste (available in Latin groceries) and continue grinding until the paste is fully incorporated.

When the tomatoes, tomatillos and peppers are cooked, remove them from the saucepan with a slotted spoon and add to the ground seeds along with 2/3 cup French bread (or other white bread, crust removed) moistened with chicken broth and 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour. Continue grinding until everything is fully incorporated and you barely recognize any pieces of food, except perhaps some pepper skin, as shown here. (If you like a spicier sauce, you may add hot red pepper flakes to taste at this point.)

Scrape the mix into a pan, add 2 cups of the broth from cooking your chicken and 1 stick cinnamon broken in half. Cook over moderate heat until it is reduced to a thick sauce.

Next, strain the sauce either by pushing it with a spatula through a sieve or using a commercial strainer as shown here. The kids loved this part, turning the big wooden pestle round and round until the liquid had been pressed into the pot and all that remained in the strainer was a dry mass of seed and pepper skins. The finished sauce is velvety smooth, yet very rustic and exotic tasting with flavors quite foreign to our American palate. I can’t think of any better way to describe it than very Mayan.

Place the chicken pieces in the pan with the sauce, toss to coat thoroughly and cook slowly for about 15 minutes, or until the chicken is heated through and almost falling off the bone. As you can see, it almost looks like barbecued chicken, but without any of the cloying sweetness.
We served this to the kids just like this as their reward for all the grinding they did, saving the leftover sauce. That constituted a snack. Chicken pepian would make a cracking good dinner with brown rice and perhaps some steamed chayote squash. Ladle extra sauce over the chicken so that it oozes into the rice.
The kids begged for seconds. We’ve rarely tasted chicken this good.
Note: anatto is the very tough, brick red seed from the achiote tree used in cuisines around the Caribbean and also as a dye. Its smell is pungent, but the flavor fairly benign. Annatto can also be found as a commercial food coloring in processed foods such as cheese and margerine.

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