Blue Eggs, Home Food, No Sunday + Recipe for Pollo en Ajo-Comino
By Ali Berlow
Senora Sanchez revealed to her only daughter Maria, her secret recipe for Pollo en Ajo-Comino (chicken in garlic and cumin) on the day her daughter married that no-good gold miner, Ernesto Nunez. The Senora also gave young Maria her best breeding stock of Araucana chickens – prized for their bluish-green eggs — to take with her to America. She told Maria that those chickens would become her fortune and that she’d never go hungry, even married to that fool with dreams of gold in his eyes. The Senora was convinced that all gold miners were liars standing in holes in the ground. After Maria and Ernesto left for the Sierra Nevada foothills of California, the Senora lit a candle and said a prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint.
Maria and Ernesto’s place is just a few miles southwest of Yosemite National Park – it’s past the bad curve, at the bottom of the dip in the road –marked by a stand of ponderosa pines and a hand-painted sign that reads ‘Blue Eggs, Home Food, No Sunday’. Or you can just find it by the scent of Maria’s cooking.
Six days a week she grinds cumin seeds and peppercorns in her mortar and mashes in cloves of garlic and salt. She simmers bunches of dried ancho chilies to breathe life into their crinkled, reddish-brown skin and then blends them into a thick paste. Pieces of chicken roast in a pan over a wood stove till they’re crisp and then she adds the garlic to fry for a minute or two. But if you breath in too deep when she stirs in the chile paste — you could set a fire smoldering down deep in your lungs.
Senora Sanchez was right about those chickens – Maria and Ernie (as he’s known in America) never went hungry. Maria’s roadside food caught on quick with the ranchers and she sold her share of hard-boiled blue eggs to picnicking tourists — while Ernie went off to dig in the dirt and pan for flecks of gold in the icy waters of the Merced River. The chicken flock grew and soon the birds took over the place — scratching and pecking at the red clay and fighting over any stray tarantulas.
The day Maria was busy cooking a huge batch of chicken to sell at the county fair – Ernie let out a scream from out back where he was butchering birds. ‘A fine time to chop a finger’ she thought, 'what with all the work they had to do'. But when she got to Ernie he was standing there holding the biggest gold nugget that she’d ever seen and since Maria had never seen one, it did look extraordinary.
The gold had dropped out of a gizzard, right there on the cutting board. It turned out that that those chickens had been scraping and tugging at the earth to give up its gold – better than any one man could do in a lifetime. It’s safe to say that that nugget wasn’t the last of the gizzard gold for Ernie and Maria.
The Virgin of Guadalupe had watched over them when they settled down in that gulch and that night they sang, prayed, lit candles and even recited poetry to the Virgin. They also said a prayer to the patron saint of chickens, even though they weren’t really sure there was one.
Pollo en Ajo-Comino
Adapted from The Essential Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy
4 ancho chiles, veins and seeds removed
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon salt, or to taste
1 whole clove
4 garlic cloves
3 1/2 cups of water (approx.)
3 tablespoons peanut oil or vegetable oil
4 1/2 pounds large chicken pieces
garnish: lime wedges, fresh cilantro
optional: 1/2 – 3/4 cup long grain white rice
Split chiles and remove veins, seeds and stem. Cover the chiles with water and simmer for about 5 minutes, then leave to soak for another 5 minutes. (Do not over soak or all the flavor will be lost to the water.)
Drain – reserving liquid and transfer chiles to a blender or food processor with 3/4 cup of the chile water. Blend until smooth and set aside.
In a molcajete (traditional Mexican mortar and pestle – the tejolote) or small food processor grind the cumin, peppercorns, salt and clove. Mash in garlic and gradually add 1/4 cup water. Set aside.
Wash and pat dry the chicken pieces. Salt and pepper.
Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large frying pan. Heat until slick – but not smoking.
Fry the chicken – start skin side down – about 7-9 minutes each side. Fry only a few at a time so they don’t touch.
When all the chicken is cooked – set aside and drain off excessive oil and fat from the pan. Reheat pan over medium heat and add garlic mixture. Fry for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Then add the chile paste and fry for another 3 minutes stirring constantly. Add remaining water – (about 3 cups) stir and bring to simmer and then add cooked chicken and any juices they ran.
Cover and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring as needed.
If your adding rice – do it now. Add more water if necessary. Cover and allow to simmer – about 20 – 30 more minutes. Check liquid, adding more if needed. The rice will absorb a good amount and the sauce should be liquidy when done.
Serve with tortillas and black beans on the side. Garnish with lime and cilantro. Any leftovers will be even better – and thicker.