This chicken in almond sauce was the first dish I ever ate in Oaxaca, at a little stand in the Mercado 20 de noviembre in Oaxaca City. It was the start of my love affair with Oaxacan food. The sauce was rich and full of fragrant nuances I had not tasted elsewhere in Mexico — the warm nutty flavor of the fried almonds, the acidity of the capers and olives, and the sweetness of the raisins and aromatic spices, all melding deliciously with roasted garlic and onion. Later I found an even better version at the restaurant Casa de la Abuela by the corner of the Zócalo in Oaxaca City.
The original recipe called for peeling the almonds but it is incredibly time-consuming and, you can if you want, but this time I soaked and ground them without peeling and liked the slight bitterness the husks add. Substituting blanched almonds saves time but reduces the depth of flavor.
The other change I made the second time I made this dish, I added pickled jalapeno slices as shown. The chicken will actually be floating in sauce but that does not make for a good picture so I only added a bit. I served it with sopa seca and avocado salad.
One 3 1/2-to 4-pound chicken, cut in serving pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup unblanched whole almonds
Boiling water to cover (1 – 2 cups)
1 large slice (about 1 1/2 inch thick) brioche, challah or other egg bread
1 large unpeeled onion, halved crosswise, roasted
4 unpeeled garlic cloves, roasted
5 large ripe tomatoes (about 2 1/2 pounds)
I teaspoon salt, or to taste
8 cloves, or 1/4 teaspoon ground
15 black peppercorns, or 3/4 teaspoon ground
One 2-inch stick canela
1/2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
3 cups homemade chicken stock
1/3 cup dark raisins
1/2 cup pimento-stuffed green olives, ( 3-ounce jar), cut in thick slices
3 tablespoons drained capers
Season the chicken with salt and pepper. In a large Dutch oven, heat the oil until not quite smoking. Lightly brown the chicken over medium-high heat, allowing about 3 minutes per side. Remove from the pan and set aside.
In the same oil, fry the almonds over medium-high heat until fragrant and slightly darkened, about 2 minutes. Do not scorch. With a slotted spoon, remove the almonds to a small bowl. Cover with boiling water and let soak 45 minutes.
While the almonds soak, fry the bread in the same oil over medium-high heat until golden brown on both sides. Remove from the pan and let drain on paper towels. Pour off and discard about half the fat from the pan; set the pan aside.
Prepare the onion and garlic as directed above. While they roast, bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil and add the tomatoes. Cook over high heat for 15 minutes and drain. When the onion, garlic, and tomatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them and process together in a blender until smooth, working in batches if necessary.
Over medium-high heat, reheat the reserved fat in the Dutch oven until not quite smoking. Carefully add the tomato mixture — it will splatter — add 1 teaspoon salt or to taste , and cook, covered, over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until slightly concentrated, about 15 minutes.
In a coffee or spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle, grind the cloves, pepper, and canela to a powder. Process the ground spices, oregano, chicken stock, almonds, and fried bread in a blender or food processor until smooth (about 2 minutes on high setting). Add to the tomato sauce and stir to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil and add the browned chicken pieces, raisins, olives, and capers. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, until the chicken is tender, about 20 minutes.
YIELD: 4 – 6 servings.