Vanilla Beanery and Chicken: Pollo Papantla

Elaine Louise\'s Pollo Papantla

I first discovered my love for the vanilla bean about a year ago, when I made Jamie Oliver’s torta di more. His recipe required the real deal, not the small bottle of extract from my spice cabinet. After splitting the long pod and patiently scraping the seeds away from its skin, I was soon enthralled by its aroma and flavor. From that moment, whether I made torta di riso or panna cotta, I automatically reached for a real vanilla bean instead of extract.

Then last month I came across Elaine Louie’s One Pot recipe for pollo papantla in the New York Times. The article described a Mexican dish of chicken legs simmered in a sauce of orange juice, cider vinegar, garlic, cayenne pepper, and finally, vanilla bean. The recipe was adapted from Zarela Martinez of Zarela restaurant in midtown Manhattan. She advises that the dish is almost better on the second day, when the flavors have soaked into the chicken.

The vanilla bean was cultivated by the Aztec Indians, who used it to flavor their cocoa-based drink called xocolatl. It is native to tropical America and is produced by a specific orchid that opens only one day per year. Mature pods take almost a year to mature, and they then endure a 3 to 6 month curing process that includes a boiling water bath and repeated sweat sessions while wrapped in blankets. Their fermentation process sounds oddly familiar to a day at the spa.

From my past experiences I’ve found that these One Pot recipes make enough food to feed a small army. So instead of 6 chicken thighs I used 4, and I slightly reduced the rest of the ingredients as well. I cheated and used Tropicana instead of fresh orange juice; I just couldn’t deal with squeezing fresh juice from a sack of oranges on a weeknight after work. 

The chicken emerged from the pot sweet and smoky, browned and savory. By the second day the vanilla and citrus flavors had indeed sunk into the poultry’s flesh, leaving little extra sauce after I warmed up the chicken. In retrospect I probably didn’t need to reduce the amount of sauce in the recipe. While the chicken was not dry by any means, a little sauce to sop up would have been nice. Regardless, my little bean didn’t let me down.

Recipe for Pollo Papantla (adapted from Elaine Louie’s April 30, 2008 recipe in the New York Times)

  • 4 chicken thighs, legs split from the thighs
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1/3 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
  • 3/4 tablespoon of butter
  • 1 1/4 cups orange juice (no pulp)
  • 1 vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped from the pod
  • chopped cilantro, for garnish

Rinse the chicken under water, then pat dry with paper towels. Season both sides with salt and pepper. Heat canola oil in a large skillet or deep sided Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the chicken pieces skin side down, and brown on both sides. This takes about 5 minutes per side.

When chicken is browned, pour excess oil and fat from the pan. Sprinkle cayenne and a little more pepper over the chicken as evenly as possible, to your taste. Add garlic, sauté for 1 minute. Add vinegar, butter, and orange juice. Add scraped vanilla beans, and then add the pod itself. Stir all of the ingredients together.

Cook the chicken skin side up, uncovered for about 20 to 30 minutes. Baste occasionally with the sauce, which will gradually reduce into a thick glaze. Garnish with cilantro, and serve with tortillas or rice. If you are eating this the next day, warm up the chicken in a covered pot at 350 degrees in the oven for about 15 minutes. Serves 2-3 people. Enjoy!

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3 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Jonathan said,

    i can’t believe i haven’t commented on this. this looks amazing and extremely unique – my type of recipe! i’m bookmarking this one for later. wow.

  2. 2

    Christina said,

    Thanks, Jonathan! Let me know what you think of it. If you can, check out the response to the recipe over at The Wednesday Chef as well; Zarela Martinez has offered some recipe alterations for those who fear the recipe is too sweet. We liked it as is, but it’s always interesting to see what other people think!

  3. 3

    Lydia Hicks said,

    I thought your story is lovely…


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