A dish rich in tradition, taste and appearance should head the menu for a dinner celebrating Mexican Independence Day.
Such a dish is pollo almendrado (almond chicken) as served at the Cafe Vallarta in Santa Barbara. Bathed in a colorful sauce of tomatoes, almonds, herbs and spices, the chicken becomes even more appetizing when decorated with green onions, parsley and sesame seeds.
The dish's origin is northern Mexico. Restaurant owner Justo G. Gracia learned the recipe from his mother, Severina Gracia, in China, the village near Monterrey where he grew up. In that area, the dish was known as pollo en salsa (chicken in sauce) and did not include nuts.
Gracia expanded upon the original recipe to indulge his love for spices and embellished it further by adding sliced almonds. The seasoning is mild, but he occasionally slips in a chipotle chile.
For accompaniments, Gracia suggests rice, black beans and corn tortillas, then flan or the dessert his mother often serves--diced papaya in sour cream blended with brown sugar. In California, Gracia would offer a red wine--a Cabernet Sauvignon--with this dish. In Mexico, he would choose a Mexican red wine, sangria or fresh fruit juice.
5 large tomatoes
1 canned chipotle chile, optional
1/4 cup oil
2 Spanish onions, thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, mashed
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon dried basil leaves
1/8 teaspoon dried rosemary
Pinch ground nutmeg
3 bay leaves
Chopped green onions
Toasted sesame seeds
Cut up chickens and remove skin. Save wing tips and backs for broth. Separate remaining 2 wing joints. Separate thighs and drumsticks. Cut breasts in half lengthwise. Peel tomatoes if desired and cut into chunks. Combine chile and 1/4 cup water in blender and puree.
Heat oil in large skillet. Saute chicken in batches until it starts to brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Set aside. In large pot, combine tomatoes, pureed chile, onions, garlic, almonds, lime juice, paprika, cumin, pepper, basil, rosemary and nutmeg. Add 1 quart water. Bring to a boil and cook, uncovered, 10 minutes. Add chicken and bay leaves. Cover and cook 30 to 45 minutes over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until chicken is tender. If mixture becomes too thick, add more water. When chicken is done, turn heat to low and cook 5 minutes longer. Season to taste with salt during last 10 minutes of cooking time.
To serve, arrange chicken pieces in large shallow bowl. Garnish with green onions and parsley and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Makes 8 servings.