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The Virtual Gourmand No. 23: Mango Chicken!

May 29th, 2017

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This is an unusual recipe in many ways, not the least of which is that it is a perennial family favorite. It's the one dish that my college-student son requests whenever he is home. It is a fusion recipe, meaning that it’s a combination of preparation methods and ingredients from two or more cultures. In this case, it combines a Cajun preparation method with a number of spices reminiscent of a more Southwestern flavor. The original recipe came from the late chef Paul Prudhomme’s cookbook (as well as being featured on his television series), Chef Paul Prudhomme's Fiery Foods That I Love (William Morrow & Co., 1995, ISBN 0-688-12153-5 – readily available on the used book market).

It is Cajun in its preparation, which is interchangeably termed as ‘smothered’ (‘étouffée’), ‘fricassee’ (French for ‘braised’) or, in the normal Cajun parlance, ‘stew’. The spices involved include a number of chile peppers from the Southwest, and common in Tex-Mex and Mexican cuisine. Don't let the source fool you. It is not very hot. (But if you are sensitive to heat, you might want to substitute jalapenos for the serrano peppers, or omit them entirely.)

Furthermore, this isn't a cheap dish due to the amount of spices required. I made several adjustments to the recipe that I prepare, but it is still one of those ‘empty the spice cabinet’ dishes. I keep a huge number of spices on my blog – more than the average home cook. But this recipe still remains about the only one I make that uses mace. Mace is actually the ground outer shell of the nutmeg kernel. It tastes nothing like nutmeg, but I believe it is crucial to round out the flavor of the dish.

I will first present the ingredients list as written from the book. Next, I will list the adjustments I personally use to make the dish. Then, I will walk you through the preparation process. My first piece of advice is that you prep all of your ingredients before starting to prepare the dish, because timing can interfere if you are prepping the ingredients while cooking. This is referred to as a ‘mis-en-place’ approach, or ‘setting the stage’, though it’s more commonly known by the vernacular ‘meez’.

Here is the recipe as originally written:

Seasoning mix:

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2T lightly packed light brown sugar (dark brown will work too)
2t salt
1-1/2t onion powder
1-1/2t ground dried chipotle pepper
1t ground cumin
1t dry mustard powder
1t white pepper
1t ground guajillo chile pepper
1/2t cayenne pepper
1/2t garlic powder
1/2t ground mace

Other ingredients:

1 (3-4 lb.) chicken, cut into ten pieces (2 legs, 2 thighs, 2 wings and 2 breasts, the latter of which are cut in half)
2T vegetable oil
1-1/2C chopped onions
1-1/2C finely diced red bell pepper (green or yellow will do as well, but red is nice as it adds more color)
2 bay leaves
8 finely diced serrano peppers (this is the heat of the dish, so substitute or omit or reduce)
3-1/2C chopped, unpeeled eggplant
1-1/2 C chicken stock
2T tamari (a specific soy sauce, sub regular soy sauce if necessary)
2 large or 3 small ripe mangoes, diced into small cubes
2C heavy cream

My suggested alterations to the recipe:

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1. Quadruple the amount of ingredients in the spice mix. Sounds like a lot (and it is), but I find the original recipe's amount doesn't fully coat the chicken.
2. Instead of the whole chicken, substitute 5 leg quarters. Separate the legs from the thighs by cutting through the fat line on the back side, through the joint. You can remove the backs from the thighs if you wish (this makes it easier to eat with a knife and fork), but this isn't necessary. Remove extra fat globules from the thigh, and trim the skin so there isn't excess fat or skin hanging over the meat.
3. Add an extra mango to balance the spice with the sweet.
4. Just buy a large eggplant and dice it accordingly. Don't worry about being strict in the measurement.
5. Dice a large onion and a large bell pepper. Don't worry about being strict in the measurement.
6. Be prepared to add more chicken stock than listed in the recipe. The braising aspect of the dish requires that the ingredients in the pot be covered.
7. Roughly double the amount of oil in the dish. I specifically recommend vegetable oil because it has a higher smoking point, and you are going to be sautéing a lot of vegetables after the chicken is browned off. You're working with relatively high heat, so adjust your temp as you go to keep the spice mix from burning on the bottom while it creates a nice ‘fond’ – a name used to describe the Maillard Process, which creates a crust on the bottom of the pan. It is a chemical process that caramelizes sugars as well as allowing the other spices to combine. This is central to the dish's flavor. You do not want this to burn.

OK? Do you understand why I adjusted the recipe? It is said that you have to alter at least four ingredients in a recipe – not simply in amount, either – to call it your own.

Despite my alterations, this is really still chef Paul's recipe, may he rest in peace. In his youth, after opening a burger stand in Opelousas, Louisiana (his home town) and subsequently closing it due to lack of business, he traveled the world to learn about spices and how different cultures blended them to achieve flavors. After being hired as the top chef at Commander's Palace in New Orleans, he started to blend spices in bulk for the restaurant, and eventually developed this pursuit into a multi-million dollar business, which is still in operation and labeled as ‘Chef Paul's Magic Seasonings’.

Now, here's how you prepare the dish. Including prep, cooking and braising, this should end up being about a two hour process.

Combine all seasoning spices, using your (dry) fingers to break up any lumps.

Prep the meat and vegetables.

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Season the chicken on all sides with roughly ½ of the seasoning blend.
Heat the oil in a heavy, 5 quart pot over medium-high heat. When it shimmers or begins to smoke, it is ready.

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Brown the chicken on all sides, skin side down first. This will likely require 2 batches and 2-3 minutes on each side. Be sure not to overcrowd the chicken in the pot. Remove the chicken and place it on a platter.

Add about a cup of the onions, a cup of the bell peppers, and the bay leaves. Sauté these ingredients, until the onions start to become translucent, while continuously scraping the fond from the bottom of the pot. You won't get all of it in this phase, but you will get much of it. Keep it moving to avoid burning, and adjust the stove temperature accordingly. If it looks like it may start to burn, reduce the heat and keep going.

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Add the eggplant, 1 cup of the stock and the tamari. This is the point where the fond should fully release from the bottom of the pot – also known as ‘deglazing’. Keep stirring and scraping for about 4 minutes, adjusting the heat as you go. The eggplant will absorb the rest of the oil quickly.

Add the mangoes, the rest of the onions, peppers and the remaining seasoning mix.

Return the chicken to the pot, along with any juices on the platter. Reduce the heat to low after it reaches a simmer and cover, stirring occasionally for about 12 minutes.

Add enough stock to cover the chicken and the heavy cream, and simmer covered until the chicken has reached an internal temperature (away from the bone) of 165 degrees F. You can continue to simmer it until the chicken is falling off of the bone (at about 185 to 190 degrees F).

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Remove the bay leaves and serve the dish over rice.

I've noticed this recipe makes enough sauce so that you run out of meat before you run out of sauce. It's perfectly OK to serve any leftover sauce over rice the next day. In fact, I think giving the spices in the sauce extra time to ‘marry’ their flavors is actually even tastier – much as a gumbo that is better the next day.

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BigO (Jason Clabaugh) hails from the north suburbs of Atlanta. He is the Owner/Publisher of Cigar Weekly Magazine. Outside from that, he is a stay-at-home dad, managing and maintaining the household.

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