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Grilled Chicken Breasts in Tomato-Guaje Sauce (Pollo Asado)
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    Grilled Chicken Breasts in Tomato-Guaje Sauce (Pollo Asado)

  • 1 pound (2 medium-large round, 6 or 8 plum) ripe tomatoes
  • Hot green chiles to taste (roughly 2 serranos or 1 jalapeno)
  • 2 large garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • 1/2 cup (about 3 ounces) dry guaje seeds
  • 3 cups chicken broth, plus a little more if needed
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil, plus a little for brushing on the chicken
  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro, plus a few sprigs for garnish
  • Salt, about 2 teaspoons, plus some for sprinkling on the chicken
  • 6 medium-large (about 2 pounds) boneless, skinless, chicken-breast halves.
  • I have included a dish with this simple tomato sauce thickened with the intricate nuttiness of toasted guaje seeds because the seeds are so easily available in Mexican markets in Chicago. They are from a tree that is in the legume family, one that produces pods that look like what I picked off a mimosa tree as a kid. WE use the dried seeds to make this sauce regularly at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, serving it with grilled or roasted chicken, pork, beef, or lamb.

    Sauces like this one are classic preparations from Central and Southern Mexico. I first learned to make it- and various relishy guaje salsas- in Guerrero, though this recipe is based on one from Puebla. It couldn't be simpler or the flavor more impressive; my method for searing the chicken on the grill, then baking it with the sauce, marries smokiness with the toastiness of seeds, while freeing the cook from last-minute grill duty. Serve with black beans and make Modern Mexican Chocolate Flan for dessert. You'll have a special meal, every bit of which can be done well ahead.

    1. The sauce. Roast the tomatoes on a baking sheet 4 inches below a very hot broiler until blackened on one side, about 6 minutes, then flip them over and roast them on the other side. Cool and peel, collecting all juices with the tomatoes. While the tomatoes are roasting, roast the chiles and garlic directly in an ungreased, heavy, large (10-inch) skillet over medium heat, turning occasionally, until soft (they'll blacken in spots): 5 to 10 minutes for the chiles, about 15 minutes for the garlic. Cool, then pull the stems from the chiles, peel the garlic and roughly chop the two. With the skillet still over medium heat, toast the guaje seeds, stirring nearly constantly, until toasty smelling and all have darkened a bit (most of them will pop from flat to oval in shape), about 3 to 4 minutes. Save a couple of tablespoons for garnish, then pour the rest into a blender, along with the tomatoes and their juices, chiles, garlic, and 1/2 cup of the broth. Blend to a smooth puree.
    Set a medium (4-quart) pot (preferably a Dutch oven or Mexican cazuela) over medium-high heat and add the oil. When it's hot enough to make a drop of the puree really sizzle, add the puree all at once and stir for about 5 minutes as it sears, concentrates, and darkens. Stir in the remaining 2 1/2 cups broth, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes. Stir in the chopped cilantro, plus a little more broth if necessary to bring the suace to the consistency of a light cream sauce, then taste and season with salt.

    2. Grilling the chicken. Light a charcoal fire and let it burn until coals are all very hot and covered with gray ash. Brush the chicken with a little oil and sprinkle with salt. Lay the chicken on well-oiled grill grates 8 inches from the heat and sear for a minute or so on one side (until nicely browned), then flip and sear the other side; your goal is to sear in that smoky grilled flavor without completely cooking the chicken.

    3. Finishing the dish. Turn on the oven to 325 degrees. LAy the chicken in a single layer in a baking dish (all the better is it's one you can serve in) and ladle the hot suace over it. Bake until the chicken is barely cooked through, about 15 minutes, depending on the size and thickness of the breasts. Use tongs or a slotted spoon to transfer the breasts to a warm serving platter (unless, of course, you're serving in the baking dish) and ladle the suace over them. Sprinkle them with the reserved seeds and decorate with sprigs of cilantro before carrying the beautiful dish to the table.

    Advance Preparation- The dish may be completed a day or two ahead through step 2; cover and refrigerate sauce and chicken separately. Complete step 3 shortly before serving.

    Shortcuts- Two-thirds of a drained 28-ounce can of tomatoes can replace the roasted fresh ones.

    Variations and Improvisations- A quartered, bone-in chicken may be used here: bake the leg and thigh quarters for 10 minutes, then nestle in the breasts and bake for about 15 minutes longer. Or make the sauce to serve on grilled swordfish, halibut or snapper, or red meat from pork to lamb.

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