Chicken adobo, the national dish of the Philippines, is a surprising masterpiece.
The first time I read the ingredient list, the idea of it seemed absurd. The chicken cooks in a marinade of vinegar, soy and coconut milk that simmers down into a thick, richly sweet and sticky sauce seasoned with garlic, bay leaves and chiles. These sharp flavors rely on the nation's Chinese, Spanish and Caribbean influences, and the result is a dish that's tangy, salty, creamy, slightly sweet, layered, complex, elegant — and perfect for our winter-weary appetites.
Adobo is as much fun to make as it is to say because the recipes vary from cook to cook. Its success relies on a balance of distinctly different flavors and the alchemy of a slow simmer. Given time and low heat, the sharpness of the vinegar softens and melds with the other ingredients to enhance the taste of the meat.
I've tried several different recipes, varying the type of vinegar using coconut, white wine or rice vinegar, altering the amount of soy, chiles or red pepper flakes and coconut milk, until I finally landed on a combination that feels like mine. I've also used the marinade for pork and simmered it into a sauce for vegetables.
Chicken adobo is best served over rice or any whole grain that sops up the unctuous sauce. Skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs work best (they won't overcook). Marinate the meat at least several hours, or in the refrigerator overnight, so it has time to do its work. Serve with a side of sautéed greens or a big crisp salad. Intense and delicious, chicken adobo evokes tropical climates, warm sun and a sense of goodness and ease.
Note: I prefer chicken thighs in this dish — they cook up to be super tender in the sticky, tangy sauce. This recipe needs to be made in advance to allow time for marinating. From Beth Dooley.
• 1 can (about 13.6 oz.) coconut milk
• 1/4 c. soy sauce
• 1 c. rice vinegar or coconut vinegar
• Generous pinch red pepper flakes
• 3 bay leaves
• 1 tsp. black peppercorns
• 3 to 4 lb. skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs
• 1 tbsp. coconut or vegetable oil
• 1 small onion, finely chopped
• 1 c. water
In a nonreactive bowl or resealable plastic bag, combine the coconut milk, soy sauce, vinegar, red pepper flakes, bay leaves and peppercorns. Add the chicken and marinate in the refrigerator overnight, or for at least 2 hours.
In a large, deep pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat and sauté the onions until soft. Remove the chicken from the marinade and add to the pot, skin side down. Cook to render the fat and begin browning the skin, about 5 minutes, then flip and sear the other side.
Pour the marinade and water into the pot, stir and set the pot over high heat, bringing to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through and very tender, about 30 minutes. Remove the lid and continue cooking until the sauce is reduced and becomes thick and creamy, about 10 to 15 more minutes. (If you prefer an even thicker sauce, remove the chicken and cook sauce over high heat and simmer until further reduced.) Serve the chicken and the sauce over rice or a whole grain.
To create a crisped skin on the chicken: Remove the chicken from the sauce and place in a roasting pan. Preheat the broiler to high and run the chicken under the broiler until the skin is browned and crisp, about 3 to 5 minutes.
Beth Dooley is the author of "In Winter's Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.