Most of the meals I had in Panama fell into one simple category: meat on a stick. While I can’t claim to be a big fan of Panamanian cuisine; it’s very meat & starch-centric, with lots of fried food and nary a vegetable in sight; I can say that when it comes to carne en palito, Panama knows its stuff. Incredibly tender and moist chunks of chicken or beef, marinated and flavorful and perfectly grilled over an open flame: it’s enough to make me swear off vegetables and embark upon a steady diet of carne & cerveza. For a few days, at least.
I thought, when I got back home, that I’d avoid meat for a month: go back to my beloved vegetable soups and autumnal winter squash. But I found myself missing meat-on-a-stick. I can’t even hazard a guess at how many orders of cabreza de Einstein (literally “Einstein’s head,” a nickname for the neighborhood we stayed in due to the huge statue of, you guessed it, Einstein’s head), a dish consisting of skewers of marinated chicken and beef served over piping hot steak fries (papas bravas), our crew of hungry Americans went through at the local pub, La Rana Dorada. They were always excellent: tender, flavorful, gone in the blink of an eye. Granted, we were generally starving after a full day of kayaking with crocodiles, wrangling boa constrictors and singing our national team onto a top-of-the-table World Cup qualifier victory. But still: delicious.
And this version, were they as good as the cabreza de Einstein at The Golden Frog? Well, they were different. The Panamanian version was a bit sweeter, less limey, with no fresh herbs and just a hint of spice. These ones are quite good, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to duplicate the genius that is cabreza de Einstein: at least, not without a day of boa constrictor wrangling first.
Adapted (slightly) from Chuzos de Pollo in Latin American Street Food by Sandra Guittierez (look inside on pg. 208 to find original recipe)
- ½ cup olive oil
- ⅓ cup fresh lime juice, from about 3 medium limes
- 3 cloves garlic, smashed
- 2 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 2 bay leaves
- large pinch salt
- few grinds black pepper
- 1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- about 6 – 8 bamboo skewers, soaked in cool water
- In a small, deep bowl, combine marinade ingredients. Stir briskly with a fork and allow flavors to blend while you prepare the chicken.
- Slice chicken into 1-inch cubes, taking care to keep pieces as uniform in size as possible, and trimming excess fat or tendons. Add chicken to marinade, stir to coat, and refrigerate for about 2 hours (much longer and the citrus will start breaking down the meat, leading to mushy chicken).
- Prepare a very hot grill. Remove chicken from the fridge and slide pieces onto the bamboo skewers. Oil grill grates and lay chicken skewers on, crosswise to the grill lines, over a hot bed of coals with low flame. Resist the urge to turn the skewers constantly: allow to cook on one side for at least 3 or 4 minutes before checking and turning. Cook over low flame until nicely browned and cooked through, about 10 minutes in total. Serve hot.
Serves 4 – 6.
- Fresh cilantro or oregano would work just as well as parsley, I think.
- Keep the chicken chunks small, smaller than we usually see them in the States, and then you’ll be able to cook over open flame; once the outsides are nicely browned, the insides will be cooked through.
Best served immediately, but leftovers will keep for up to 5 days refrigerated.