During my short stint living in central Mexico in the mid-1990s, Oaxaca topped my list of places to visit. Sadly for me, a revolutionary leftist uprising just south of Oaxaca in Chiapas prompted tourists to vacate the region in droves. I was left to focus on central and northern Mexico, busing from Guadalajara to Zacatecas, slurping steaming bowls of pozole at open-air markets, instead of sampling the foods of southern Mexico.
I was a college exchange student, kept by a host family in the foothills of the Sierra Madre in the mid-sized town of Queretaro, where I studied Spanish and the Mexican Revolution (Viva Mexico!). I ate taquitos, hand-pounded gorditas, and watermelon aquas frescas at the local markets. During that time, I never once encountered a caper. In my mind, the small, dark green berries were destined for the tuna salads of France or the puttanescas of Italy.
So when I recently found a recipe for Oaxacan chicken in caper sauce, I lifted my eyebrows skeptically. A Mexican caper sauce was completely novel to me. Adding cinnamon and cloves was even wilder. I was unsure that briny capers and the spicy-sweet ground cloves and cinnamon would gel under the acidic umbrella of the tomatillo.
What I found was that the combo works in the same way that jazz piano might jibe with classical violin, producing a vibrant and cool new harmony. And roasted tomatillos provide just the melody to make the jam session work.
Perhaps the Spanish conquistadors brought the flowering capparis spinosa to Mexico or perhaps it has always been there. Either way, I learned recently that the caper berry, salted and pickled, has a tradition in Mexican cuisine, especially in seafood dishes of Veracruz. It seems fitting that Oaxaca, the rugged home to 16 indigenous tribes with their own native tongues, would invent the aromatic, varied, and almost medicinal blend of capers, cinnamon, and cloves.
This recipe is loosely adapted from Margarita Carillo Arronte’s tome by Phaidon, "Mexico: The Cookbook." She adds to the braise sliced potato, a hearty starch that soldiers alongside the bright, acidic tomatillos and capers. In the spirit of cross-cultural exchanges, and to add a touch more elegance, I swap the potato for queso fresco polenta, which sops up the juice nicely and avoids a mushy reheating. In this version, origins and cultures melt into a piquant, savory bite.
Oaxacan Chicken with Caper Sauce and Queso Fresco Polenta
12 pieces of skinless, bone-in chicken (thighs or a mix of thighs and drumsticks)
4 cloves of garlic, skins on
4 large shallots, sliced in half with skins on
1 cup capers
½ teaspoon ground cloves
10 tomatillos, peeled and washed
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup of pitted green olives
2 tablespoons pickled jalapeños
1 small bunch of cilantro leaves (optional)
For the polenta (see below):
1 cup Bob's Red Mill polenta
1/4 cup (rounded) diced queso fresco
Salt to taste
Preheat the oven broiler to “high.” Line a roasting pan with foil and broil the peeled tomatillos and the skin-on garlic and shallots for eight minutes, then remove the pan and rotate the tomatillos so they get color on the bottom side and broil for four more minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and let the vegetables cool. Then, skin the garlic and shallots.
In a Cuisinart with a blade attachment, add the roasted tomatillos, peeled shallots and garlic, ground cloves, cinnamon, oregano, and capers. Blend the mix until it becomes a smooth sauce.
In a large Dutch oven, heat two tablespoons of olive oil and pour in the tomatillo sauce. Let simmer for about two minutes and then nestle the pieces of chicken into the sauce (some of the meat will still be exposed but the chicken will give up a good amount of liquid after about 10 minutes). Cover the Dutch oven partially and simmer on low for 30 minutes, occasionally stirring and rotating the chicken pieces so they are fully immersed in the sauce. Add the green olives and simmer for another 10 - 15 minutes.
Meanwhile cook the polenta according to the package instructions, until thick and creamy, adding the queso fresco halfway through the cooking time. Spoon the polenta on the plate and top it with chicken pieces, caper sauce, jalapeños, and cilantro.