Cheap Eats:
Pollo Borracho
  Drunken Chicken

One of the nice things about belonging to several food-related organizations is hanging out with other people who do food, from chefs to food writers to growers to food scientists. A few years ago, I met a small but dynamic woman at a Slow Food event, then ran into her later at a Culinary Historians meeting. Maria started asking questions about my food writing, and was very interested in my experiences in Ecuador, her birthplace. Not long after that, she asked if I’d be willing to help her with her work on a book of recipes from all over South America. The book would include a great deal of background information, from Maria’s family history to the geography and cultures of the continent, as well as more than 450 recipes.

I hesitated a little, because I’d done some work for private individuals before, and had gotten burned more than once. But Maria was insistent—she was certain that I was fated to work on the book. So I said “yes.” The project lasted for more than nine months. It was more work than I’d anticipated, but it turned out to be an incredibly rewarding experience. There were times I’d be in Maria’s office typing and doing research while she was in the kitchen, testing another recipe, or in the dining room, writing background notes. Other times, we’d just exchange documents via e‑mail. But at least a couple of times a month, and sometimes, especially toward the end, a couple of times a week, I’d be over at her house, working and, usually, sampling her latest creation.

It was a wonderful education. I got to try recipes from all over South America, from private collections, hotels, chefs with whom Maria is friends, and her own family, where meals were often huge, extended affairs, with all the relatives pitching in with the cooking. Not only were there recipes I’d never tried before, there were also ingredients I’d never tried before, including manioc, lupini beans, and a number of exotic fruits. (And as I edited her documents, I found dozens more recipes that I want to try when I have time.) Of course, while learning about the food was a treat, so was getting to know Maria. She is educated, cosmopolitan, warm, and gracious.

The thing that has been gratifying has been watching the reception the book is receiving (it just came out in October 2003). The foreword by Charlie Trotter calls it “a masterpiece.” Publisher’s Weekly described it as a seminal work and a “must have” for serious cooks. Other reviewers have called it a “gustatory tour de force,” a “magnificent gastronomic exploration,” and “the definitive word on South American food.”

Maria has worked so hard on this—she had already been working on it for 15 years when I first met her. The project had became even more important to her when her husband passed away, as he had been her primary source of encouragement during many of the years of research. Maria deserves the accolades the book is receiving. I hope the book does very well for her. So if you’re at your local bookstore and happen to see a copy of The South American Table, you’ll know now how long it took to bring it to that shelf.

South American food is an interesting blend of cuisines and cultural influences. Spain and Portugal come quickly to mind, but South America’s population also comes from Asia, Africa, and all over Europe. The food of South America reflects all these influences, though Western European, African, and Native American influences are dominant. Among the few things that permeate most of the continent’s varied cuisines are the Hispanic-influenced sofrito, a sauce that always has onion as its base, but with regional variations that can include garlic, chilies, or other ingredients, and tamales, adopted from indigenous peoples. Tamales also vary from country to country, but always involve filling and dough of some sort that are wrapped in leaves and steamed. Other than that, the foods are as varied as the cultures of South America, ranging from rustic to elegant, homey to exotic.

The following recipe is from South America, where there are many versions in many countries. It is not, however, one of Maria’s recipes—you’ll have to buy her book to benefit from her skill and wisdom. Enjoy.

Pollo Borracho
(Drunken Chicken)

One medium onion, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

½ lb. ham, diced or julienned

2 Tbs. butter

3½ to 4 lb. chicken, cut into serving pieces

½ tsp. ground cumin

½ tsp. dried sage, crumbled

2 cups white wine

Approximately 1 cup chicken broth or stock

¼ cup capers, rinsed and drained

Sauté the onion and garlic in butter until the onion is soft and becoming translucent.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Butter a heavy casserole that is large enough to hold all the ingredients. Place half of the ham in the bottom of the casserole. Arrange the chicken pieces on top of the ham, then put the rest of the ham on top of the chicken. Sprinkle the cumin and sage over the ham and chicken, then add the sautéed onion and garlic. Add the wine and enough chicken broth to cover the chicken.

Cover the casserole and bake for 1½ hours, or until the chicken is done.

Remove the chicken and ham to a large, deep platter. Heat the liquid over high heat to reduce it slightly (by about ⅓). You may wish to thicken this sauce with a bit of flour, cornstarch, or arrow root, but that depends on personal preference. Stir the capers into the sauce, then pour the sauce over the chicken and ham.

Serves 4.


To reduce the fat, take the skin off of the breast and thigh pieces before cooking, and cut away any particularly large globs of fat you see.

A good trick for dicing or julienning ham is to buy sliced ham. That way, you only have the other two directions to cut.

Back to Cheap Eats Introduction
Conversion Tables

Home Join Contact Members