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Cooking

Recipes for sweet, sophisticated Mexican cooking

Dishes that use raisins and prunes to add depth

Mexican almond sauce (salsa almendrada) served over grilled chicken.

Photograph by Jim Scherer / Styling by Catrine Kelty

Mexican almond sauce (salsa almendrada) served over grilled chicken.

I’m accustomed to seeing dried fruit used in Middle Eastern, Eastern European, North African, and even some Mediterranean recipes, but for some reason I expect it less in Mexican cooking. Yet dried fruit, especially raisins, plays an important role in iconic Mexican dishes such as the complex, nuanced mole sauces of Oaxaca and stuffed chiles en nogada from Puebla, as well as simpler dishes including the popular meat hash called picadillo and almond-thickened stews and sauces — things I think of as less complicated cousins of mole. Raisins are also ever present in the Mexican bread pudding capirotada. (That recipe’s online.) Moistened with a spiced brown-sugar syrup, the pudding includes cheese for a savory element.

MEXICAN ALMOND SAUCE (SALSA ALMENDRADA)

Makes about 3½ cups

Inspired by a recipe in Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen.

¼ cup raisins

3 tablespoons neutral oil

2/3 cup slivered blanched almonds

1 slice white bread, torn into small pieces

1 large onion, cut into 5 thick slices

8 garlic cloves, peeled and whole

1 14.5-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, drained

1 tablespoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican

¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

¼ cup sliced pickled jalapenos, chopped

¼ cup pitted green olives

Salt and pepper

2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1½ tablespoons cider vinegar

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In a small bowl, cover the raisins with 1 cup warm water and set aside to soak. In a large, heavy nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, heat 1 tablespoon oil until shimmering. Add the almonds and bread and saute until browned, about 2 minutes, then scrape into a blender jar. Wipe out the skillet, return to medium-high heat, add 1½ teaspoons oil, and heat until shimmering. Add the onions in a single layer and cook, undisturbed, until charred, about 3 minutes. Turn over, add the garlic, and continue to cook, undisturbed, until the second side is charred, about 3 minutes longer, then scrape into the blender. Return the skillet to medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon oil, and heat until shimmering. Add the tomatoes, toss to coat with oil (carefully, as the pan may flare if you’re cooking on a gas burner) and cook, undisturbed, until charred, about 2 minutes. Turn over and cook until the second side is charred, about 2 minutes longer. Add the oregano, cinnamon, and cloves and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the raisins and soaking liquid and cook, stirring and scraping the pan to dissolve the fond, then scrape into the blender jar. Add the pickled jalapenos, olives, and 1 teaspoon each salt and pepper to the blender jar and puree the mixture until very smooth, at least 45 seconds, stopping to scrape down the jar at least once.

Wipe out the skillet, return it to medium-high heat, add 1½ teaspoons oil and heat until shimmering. Carefully add the puree and cook, occasionally scraping the skillet, until a shade darker and thickened, about 4 minutes. Gradually stir in the broth, and bring to a strong simmer. Adjust the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring and scraping occasionally, to thicken and blend flavors, about 15 minutes. Stir in the vinegar. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Serve at once as a sauce for grilled or sauteed chicken, pork tenderloin, swordfish, or vegetables.

CHICKEN WITH SQUASH, POBLANOS, AND PRUNES

Serves 6

Adapted from Pati’s Mexican Tableby Pati Jinich (also on PBS). I’ve substituted squash (in Mexico it would be pumpkin, or calabaza) for Jinich’s potatoes and dark meat for her white meat. Serve with warm corn tortillas.

TIP Charring vegetables and seasonings for use in sauces and other dishes is a common technique used in Mexican cooking. Don’t shy away from black marks.

Photograph by Jim Scherer / Styling by Catrine Kelty

TIP Charring vegetables and seasonings for use in sauces and other dishes is a common technique used in Mexican cooking. Don’t shy away from black marks.

12 bone-in chicken thighs, trimmed, rinsed, and dried

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon neutral oil

1 large onion, chopped

4 garlic cloves, minced

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

4 cups cubed peeled, seeded kabocha or buttercup squash

1 cup pitted prunes, quartered

4 large poblano peppers, charred, peeled, seeded, and cut into strips (about 1½ cups)

2 tablespoons brown sugar

¼ cup chopped cilantro

Sprinkle chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper. In a large, straight-sided saute pan over medium-high heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the chicken skin side down (do not crowd; cook in batches if necessary) and cook, undisturbed, until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Turn the chicken pieces and cook until second side is golden brown, about 4 minutes longer. Transfer to a large plate (and, if necessary, repeat, adjusting the heat if the fond threatens to burn). When chicken is cool enough to handle, remove and discard the skin.

Pour all but 2 teaspoons of fat from the pan, return it to medium heat, add the onion and ½ teaspoon salt, and saute until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cumin and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add 1 cup water, adjust heat to medium-high, and bring to a strong simmer, stirring and scraping the pan to dissolve the fond. Add the chicken with its accumulated juices and the squash and return to a simmer. Adjust the heat to very low, cover pan, and simmer gently until the chicken and squash are cooked through and tender, about 35 minutes, turning the chicken over and adding the prunes and poblanos after 20 minutes. Remove the chicken to a serving platter, tent loosely with foil to keep warm, and set aside.

Adjust the heat to medium-high and bring the pan mixture to a strong simmer. Add the brown sugar and 1 teaspoon each salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened slightly, about 4 minutes. Add most of the cilantro, stir to mix, taste, and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary. Top the chicken with the sauce, sprinkle with the remaining cilantro, and serve at once.

MEXICAN-STYLE BREAD PUDDING WITH BROWN SUGAR, NUTS, RAISINS, AND CHEESE (CAPIROTADA)

Serves 8 to 12

I have read that Mexican cooks customize bread pudding to their liking, varying the types of dried and fresh fruit (or leaving out the fresh fruit altogether), nuts, spices, cheese, and so forth. So feel free to experiment. Dark brown sugar is an ideal substitute for Mexican-style brown sugar. I developed the recipe using fairly soft rolls, measuring about 5 inches long by 4 inches wide, from Central Bakery in Cambridge and purchased at Market Basket. Serve the pudding with lightly sweetened whipped cream (perhaps with a couple of tablespoons of sour cream or Greek yogurt whipped in for tang).

Zest from ½ orange, removed in strips with vegetable peeler

6 whole cloves

1½ cups, packed, dark brown sugar

3 cinnamon sticks

Salt

1 stick butter, 1 tablespoon softened and 7 tablespoons melted

6 Mexican-style rolls (bolillos) or other rolls, about 5 by 4 inches, stale, torn into 1-inch pieces

1 cup dark raisins

¾ cup roasted pepitas or coarsely crushed peanuts

2 bananas, peeled and thinly sliced

2½ cups coarsely grated Monterey Jack (about 9 ounces)

Stick the cloves into 2 of the orange zest strips. In a wide saucepan over medium-high heat, bring 6 cups boiling water, brown sugar, cinnamon, orange zest strips (including the clove-studded pieces), and ½ teaspoon salt to a strong simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Continue to simmer until reduced by a third, stirring occasionally, about 28 minutes. Cool to lukewarm and remove the cinnamon sticks and orange zest strips.

Meanwhile, grease a 13-by-9-inch baking pan with the softened butter and set aside. With the rack in the middle position, heat the oven to 400 degrees. In a very large bowl, toss the bread pieces with the melted butter. Spread the bread pieces evenly on a large rimmed baking sheet and bake until golden, about 15 minutes, tossing halfway through. Return the bread to the bowl (you should have about 14 cups); do not shut off the oven.

Pour the brown-sugar liquid over the bread and toss. Set aside, tossing occasionally, to soften a little, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, mix the raisins and pepitas or peanuts and set aside.

Spread half the bread into an even layer in the baking dish. Scatter the banana slices evenly over it, followed by half of the raisin mixture and half of the cheese. Spread the remaining bread evenly over the cheese, and with a large spoon, press the bread to compact. Scatter the remaining raisin mixture on top, followed by the remaining cheese. Cover the baking dish loosely with foil, set on a large rimmed baking sheet, and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking until the cheese on top is melted and lightly browned, about 25 minutes longer. Cool on a rack for at least 15 minutes before serving.

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