Do you ever overcook chicken breasts? It can happen in a flash, right? Do you like the dark meat, but are not such a fan of the white, or vice versa? I’m not touching that one. Do you have a dozen jars of random preserves in the fridge, each with two or three tablespoons languishing in the bottom? If not, can I come over and borrow some fridge space? Do you like tacos? Who doesn’t? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, have I got the recipe for you. Read on, MacDuff.
I invented this recipe last summer, when I was visiting friends down in Maryland. With both parents working busy full-time jobs and a 2 year-old daughter to raise, weeknight dinners had to be simple: my friend confessed to me that they were living on grilled chicken and salad every night of the week and that she could really use some menu inspiration. I made a huge vegetable curry, an early summer greens frittata, and this clean-out-the-fridge barbecue braised chicken.
Boneless chicken breasts can overcook in the blink of an eye on a hot grill; leftovers continue to dry out in the fridge until they are about as enticing as takeout styrofoam. Similarly, we’ve all, at one time or another, been forced to slightly overcook the breast meat on a whole roasted chicken in order to ensure the rest of the bird is cooked through. In my house, we prefer the white meat to the dark, so when I roast a bird, the dark meat tends to languish in the fridge until I do something with it: add it to a soup or stew, stuff it into pasties, or, make tacos. The good news is that you need not suffer through eating less-than-stellar chicken when you can rejuvenate it through a long, slow braise in a sweet-savory sauce.
The process is simple: start with some onion & garlic, punch up a sweet or smoky BBQ sauce with a bit of vinegar & cayenne, add cooked chicken meat (although it works just as well with raw), and braise, braise, braise away. Dried out white meat will become meltingly tender, dark meat will lose that slightly slimy texture as it shreds, and all of the meat will become infused with the sweet-savory flavor of the sauce, while the sauce itself gains complexity and umami notes from the meat. The best part of this technique? While I specify a basic “pint of barbecue sauce” below, I will actually toss any old thing into the sauce, just making sure to balance sweetness & acidity.
Last night’s version contained a half-pint jar of BBQ sauce (peach guajillo, to be exact), but also a dollop or two each of cranberry chutney, strawberry rhubarb amaretto sauce, spicy plum sauce, cranberry orange sauce, and kumquat habanero marmalade. I didn’t measure: just emptied out jars to my heart’s content, then balanced flavors with red wine vinegar, salt & pepper and ground cayenne. After an hour or two of braising, the flavors all blend & mellow, and you can do a final adjust right before serving. So, not only do you rescue less-than-thrilling chicken from the bin, but you get to clear half a dozen jars out of the fridge, and you’ve made a fantastic dinner. #winning
- 2 tbsp olive oil or schmaltz
- about 1 and ½ lbs cooked chicken, skinless (I pulled the meat off the bone, and reserved bones for stock)
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ cup vinegar (I like red wine or cider)
- 1 pint barbecue sauce (or combo of sweet & savory preserves)
- salt & pepper, to taste
- ½ cayenne pepper, or to taste
- 2 tbsp honey, or to taste
- corn tortillas
- 4 Brussels sprouts, shredded
- 1 carrot, grated
- 1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
- fresh parsley or cilantro, chopped
- fresh lime or lemon juice
- Make sauce. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan or medium Dutch oven, bring oil to a shimmer over medium-high heat. Add onions and garlic to the pan, reduce heat to medium-low and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add vinegar, barbecue sauce and a bit of salt and pepper. Mix well, taste and adjust flavors as necessary, and bring back to a simmer.
- Braise chicken. Add chicken, which should be mostly covered by sauce (if not, add a bit of water, stock, wine or more BBQ sauce). Cover pot, reduce heat to lowest setting and braise, stirring once every half hour or so, until meat is falling apart tender, about 1 and ½ to 2 hours. Taste sauce, adding honey or vinegar as necessary, adjust seasoning, and if necessary continue to simmer, uncovered, to thicken sauce.
- Build tacos & serve. Pile vegetables, herbs and some chicken + sauce onto a tortilla, spritz with a bit of citrus, dollop with salsa as you like, and enjoy.
Yields enough meat for tacos for 6 – 8 people.
- Chicken may be white or dark meat, on the bone or boneless, cooked or uncooked. If starting with raw chicken, brown meat in batches prior to adding the onion & garlic. This is an excellent use for breast meat that may have been a bit overcooked, or leftovers that have dried slightly in the refrigerator: the long braise tenderizes the meat and rejuvenates flavor.
- You can also leave cooked or uncooked meat on the bone, and simply braise until it is falling-off-the-bone tender, then remove bones and shred meat for tacos. This will add even more savory flavor to your sauce, unless you want to reserve the bones for stock, like I did.
- As suggested above, any number of sweet & savory preserves can go into the sauce: simply focus on balancing sweetness and acidity, and taste and adjust.
- Obviously, not the most conventional taco fixin’s list on the planet: just the crunchy veg that I had in the house. Feel free to use whatever add-ins you like, remembering that the chicken will already be rather sweet, so balance with something bitter, spicy or acidic.
Refrigerated, for up to 5 days.