I first started cooking from Rick Bayless cookbooks almost 10 yeas ago (!). I forget how I discovered my first, Mexico One Plate At A Time, but I did at any rate and I loved it. My beans came out perfectly, as did my homemade chorizo. Since then I have acquired all of his books, along with an intense longing to eat at one of his restaurants.
But alas I knew no one in Chicago, and when finances are pinched like ours are, vacations usually revolve around who is opening their doors to us to save on lodging.
So thank goodness for U2 touring on more levels than just the obvious, eh? Because Frontera Grill was everything I could have expected and more. It was swinging, it was authentic, it was delicious and actually, thanks to the little plates, trying a small bite or 2 (or more) of a lot of things was quite affordable. Especially with 6 of us. Several people have asked me what we had, so skip ahead if this would bore you (alas the lighting was dim and not at all cell phone camera friendly, so no pics): a Mexican mojito made with tequila–YUM, shrimp/squid ceviche (possible the best thing we tried), a tuna ceviche and a whitefish ceviche (both just as outstanding–the waiting in line was worth the ceviches alone), chips and guacamole (sublime), jicama salad (everyone loved but me, as I don’t care for jicama), shredded duck taquitos in a chile sauce (outstanding), a chicken in green mole with pumpkin seeds in a tamale (amazing), sweet plantains with crema and queso fresco (to die for and my big I-am-so-jealous-I-did-not-order-that item), tacos al pastor (my favorite taco, a spit roasted pork with pineapples that was excellent), re-fried back beans (very good), pinto beans simmered with poblanos and bacon (every bit as good as that sounds), queso fundido made with cheddar and some meltingly tender shredded beef (good but the only mis-step as we all felt the cheddar was not melty enough–but the beef was wonderful), black bean soup (so good I literally could not figure it out and tweeted Rick Bayless himself to ask about it–and yes he did answer), and finally–I may have forgot a few–Mexican hot chocolate (not cocoa) with Creme de Metzcal (smoky, sweet, alluring). Oh yeah and my sister got some sort of empanada that I was also completely jealous of but since she ordered it I don’t remember what was in it.
So I guess you know I am recommending you head over to Frontera Grill if you get the chance. Just be aware that thanks to him winning Top Chef and being Obama’s favorite chef, the line starts forming outside of his restaurant literally over an hour in advance. Once again, worth it.
When I got home I was still dreaming of Bono, er I mean Mexican food, but I had no energy, so I pulled out Rick Bayless’s answer to tired, time-starved cooks who love Mexican food: Mexican Everyday. Now you should know that because I was only tired, not time starved, I did not pan cook boneless, skinless chicken breasts, but instead roasted a combo of breasts and legs because I strongly prefer shredded chicken. So feel free to cook the breasts that way directly in the final pot (dicing afterwards) if you wish to save time and dishes. Also know that I added cumin and zucchini.
Arroz con Pollo y Frijoles y Calabacitas (Chicken and Rice with Beans & Zucchini)
Adapted from Mexican Everyday, Rick Bayless
1 – 1.5 lbs chicken parts of choice, bone in and skin on
1 T olive oil
2 T ancho powder, divided
salt and pepper to taste, as called for below
1 t ground cumin
1 medium white onion, chopped
1 small-medium zucchini, diced
1 cup rice, rinsed and drained dry
5 garlic cloves
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 15-oz can beans of choice, rinsed and drained (I used homemade Vaquero from Rancho Gordo)
2 T chopped green onions
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Sweet tomato relish for garnish
Mexican hot sauce of choice (we like Tapatio)
queso fresco (I had none or I would have used)
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Pull the skin partially off of the chicken and sprinkle half of the ancho powder (1 tablespoon) under the skin, along with salt and pepper. Place the skin back over the chicken. Sear the chicken in the pan, skin side down, for 5-7 minutes. Flip over, sear for 2 minutes, and then place the skillet into the oven and roast until the chicken is cooked through. When it is done, remove from oven and let cool until you can shred the meat off of the bones. Set the meat aside–save the bones for stock. In the meantime, drain the fat from the pan through a sieve into a prep bowl.
Heat a large pot over medium high heat. Add as much of the flavored chicken fat/oil as you want, at least 1 1/2 tablespoons. Add the onion and stir for 3 minutes. Add the rice and stir for another 4 minutes, until the rice starts to look dry and opaque. Add the garlic, zucchini, cumin and remaining chile powder and stir for another minute. Add the broth and up to a teaspoon of salt (I did not use any salt since I was using commercial broth), and stir well. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to medium-low, cover, and let cook for 10 minutes.
Uncover the pot, and add the chicken and beans. Re-cover the pot and cook for an additional 12 minutes. Taste a bit of rice and make sure it is only barely not done–if it is less done than that, cover and cook another 5 minutes. When barely not done, uncover, stir in the green onions and cilantro, then remove from the heat and let sit, covered, for 5 to 10 minutes. Taste for salt. Serve with garnishes.
**If you wish to double the recipe (as I did), only use 2 1/2 cups broth and, after the initial 10 minutes of cooking, bake it in a 350 F oven for 20-25 minutes. Make sure you use a wide pot to encourage even cooking fo the rice (10-12 inches across).