“Over the mountain tops we go…EE-AY-EE-AY – adios!”
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On a pleasant Sunday afternoon in April 2018, I joined a handful of other cooks to sling food at Taco Takedown 2018. At stake were bragging rights and a few nice kitchen tools. Just a chill afternoon of culinary fun in Brooklyn serving food to judges and the public.
I had initially considered serving the Ruby Taco. It was certainly far more a traditional taco using a spicy chili sauce, a bit of sweet-sour topping, and queso fresco. It also would have been hell to serve to a crowd.
Serving at a food fest is a never-ending struggle to keep up with the crowd coming to your table. For Taco Takedown, this was doubly important as the day was billed as “all you can eat” and there were People’s Choice prizes on the line. I decided the better gameplan was to keep it simple: tortilla, meat, one topping. I would remix the Sweet Bird Of Truth sandwich into a taco and kick up the heat with candied jalapenos.
A word about candied jalapenos versus pickled jalapenos. While technically they are both pickled, the brine for candied jalapenos is sweet. Candied jalapenos also need a few days to cure before they get a sweet-heat balance. Three days minimum but they really get great at about a week. So, if you’re planning to make this taco, you’ll need to plan ahead.
Adding candied jalapenos to the BBQ sauce allowed for a bit less sugar and added a touch of heat to the chicken. Replacing the slaw’s bread & butter pickle and pickle juice with jalapeno and jalapeno juice allowed me to add spicy, sweet, savory, and creamy all in one topping. In two simple steps, I was able to assemble a taco with all the flavors and keep up with the crowd.
Honestly, once I saw the other teams, I was fairly sure I went TOO simple. There was a vegan taco with al pastor jackfruit, salsa, and vegan sauce. Next to my table was chicken tikka marsala with chickpea chicharron and yogurt sauce. Seriously, how was a simple two-ingredient Hillbilly taco going to compete with that?
Quite well actually. I got 1st Place from the judges and 2nd Place People’s Choice. The vegan taco beat me out for People’s Choice. That’s fine. I came home with a Cuisinart, a new saute pan, and some new friends. Plus a confirmation that simple sometimes is the best method.
SWEET BIRD OF TRUTH (TACO REMIX)
Candied Jalapeno BBQ chicken and Jalapeno Pickle Slaw on a corn tortilla
Makes 16 tacos
Candied Jalapeno BBQ Chicken (see recipe below)
Jalapeno Pickle Slaw (see recipe below)
Heat the tortilla. I prefer to keep my corn tortilla on the soft side so I use a skillet with a touch of oil to lightly fry them. They are warm and still pliable. You, of course, should do what suits you. Place 2 ounces of chicken on the tortilla and top with a tablespoon of slaw. Get plenty of napkins as it can get messy.
CANDIED JALAPENO BBQ CHICKEN
Makes 1 quart
4 pounds of chicken thighs, deboned and skin removed (save to make chicken stock)
1 tablespoon paprika
11/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups Candied Jalapeno BBQ sauce
1/2 large onion, sliced thin
NOTE: I buy bone-in skin-on chicken thighs as they are cheaper and the trimmings and skin can be used to make a delicious homemade chicken broth. If you do not want to trim your own thighs, 7-8 boneless skinless thighs will work.
Preheat oven to 325°F
In a small bowl, combine paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and black pepper. Mix well.
Place trimmed thighs in a large bowl and coat with the spice mix.
Spray an 8×12 baking dish with cooking spray. Take a half cup of sauce and pour it into the dish to coat the bottom. Arrange thighs in the dish on the sauce. Cover with half the remaining sauce. Layer the sliced onions next. Then finish with the last bit of sauce over the onions. Cover with foil and place in the oven for 70 minutes. Remove from the oven and let rest with the foil open for 15 minutes.
Transfer chicken and onions to a bowl and shred with a fork. Pour the sauce from the baking dish into a small pan and reduce by half on medium heat. Pour reduced sauce over shredded chicken and mix well.
Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
(from the Cha Cha Hut BBQ Cookbook)
Yield: 2 quarts
For the brine
3 1/2 cups white sugar
1 1/4 cups brown sugar
2 cups cider vinegar
3 cups white vinegar
4 teaspoons mustard seed
2 teaspoons celery seed
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
3# jalapenos, sliced 1/4” thick (as fresh as possible)
Slice the jalapenos in 1/4” rounds without de-seeding. Place the slices in a large bowl and salt liberally. Mix the salt & jalapenos to combine. Cover bowl and set aside for at least one hour.
Once the jalapenos have rested for at least an hour, combine all of the brine ingredients in a saucepan. Whisk to dissolve the sugars and bring to a boil. While the brine is heating, rinse the jalapenos and place them in a jar or container. When the brine comes to a boil, pour over the jalapenos. Use a spoon or chopstick to combine and submerge the jalapenos in the brine.
Let the jalapenos sit, uncovered, on the counter for an hour. Cover and place in the refrigerator.
These will mellow the longer they sit in the brine. They are ready to eat after three days but really come together after a week or so.
CANDIED JALAPENO BBQ SAUCE
Makes 2½ cups
11/2 cup ketchup
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup candied jalapenos, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon butter, small cubes
1 tablespoon hot sauce (Frank’s, Red Devil, Texas Pete’s, etc.)
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Combine all ingredients in a heavy bottom saucepan. On medium heat, bring to a boil whisking to make sure butter melts and everything is thoroughly combined. When mixture boils, reduce heat to low and simmer 15 minutes, stirring often to avoid scorching.
Let cool to room temperature before using.
JALAPENO PICKLE SLAW
Makes 3 cups
10 ounces green cabbage, shredded fine
1 medium carrot, shredded
1/2 cup chopped candied jalapenos
1/2 cup mayo
2 tablespoons jalapeno brine
½ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
In a medium bowl, toss cabbage, carrot, and jalapeno together. In a small bowl, combine mayo, jalapeno juice, sugar, garlic powder, salt, and pepper and whisk until thoroughly combines. Pour dressing slaw mix and toss to coat. Place it in an airtight container and let rest in the fridge at least an hour before using it.