Brandon Chicken, may he forever live in Alabama lore.
It turns out that Tim Williams did not go anywhere, nor did his doppelganger, Brandon Chicken. No, they are in fact still lurking around the campus of the University of Alabama, ready to come off the edge...and deliver deliciousness. And once they get there, they hit you with the full force of chicken consommé tacos in homage to one of the most terrifying pass rushers of the Saban Era: Brandon Chicken’s Chicken Birria Tacos.
What is it?
Birria is a traditional Mexican holiday dish made of braised lamb or goat, and is one that has expanded over the last several years to encompass beef (quesabirria) and chicken concoctions. As the dish has crossed the northern border, Birria is becoming Americanized and appearing in more everyday foods and fusion concepts: ramens, rolls, wraps, wontons, sammies, and high end quesabirria. But what Birria is becoming most known for in the US is tacos. The consommé in which the meat is stewed is one of the most complex you’ll ever taste: it’s a rich, peppery adobo sauce with more spices than the East India Company.
Wars have been fought over some spices in Birria. Quite literally.
What’s in it?
You begin with braised chicken, chicken broth, stewed tomatoes in sauce, spices, and fresh diced ancho chiles (though adobo chili powder can work in a pinch). As it simmers, you add fresh minced garlic, whole black peppercorns, brown sugar, cloves, cumin seeds, Mexican cinnamon sticks, fresh diced onions and the piece de resistance of all stewed Mexican dishes: a few bay leaves. Then you braise the whole thing again. That’s the general idea.
As with most stewed dishes, this is one this is highly flexible, and very versatile dependent on your heat tolerance and preferences. You may want to give it a kick with some arbol or guajillo — even habanero, if you’re a masochist; jalapeno if you live somewhere with scant selection; or chipotle if you like yours a bit smokier. But the Anchos are a must. They are the base of this adobo sauce.
Some people remove the seeds from the peppers. I’ve not found an appreciable heat or taste difference, TBH.
How do I make it?
Option 1: You can always cheat and buy an adobo sauce, pick up a store-bought base, or even look up one of the billion recipes online.
Option 2: You can take the long route and make it by hand.
Begin with chicken thighs, the superior cutlet from that foul-tempered miniature dinosaur. It is critical to purchase bone-in thighs. You need the collagen from the connective tissues to help thicken it, and the leeching marrow is a must-for the consommé. And, when you braise the chicken, the bones keep it from tasting like plastic.
Remove the skin, roll chicken in olive oil, and press into your cutting board with cracked black pepper and Himalayan or Kosher salt (if you have Puerto Rican beach salt, sea salt, or are using table salt, make sure to diminish the amount used — those are far saltier than a high-grade course salt — it all has to do with the pyramidal structures of the NaCl, and that stuff is for nerds).
Place in a medium-high cast iron skillet and brown the thighs thoroughly without overcooking. Set aside the chicken pan with all that tasty grease, chicken scrap, and caramelized Maillard goodness. You’ll need it later.
Take the chicken, place it in a dutch oven with just enough water to cover bottom, then oven-simmer for 20 minutes at 400 degrees or until the bottom of the dutch oven is thinly glazed.
Take your peppercorns, chiles, coriander seeds, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks and cloves and then toast them, which sounds a lot fancier than it is: dry frying pan, medium heat, scatter them across the bottom and...well, toast. Don’t burn them. When they darken up a bit and smell tasty, remove them from the heat.
So easy, an Auburn grad can almost get it right.
Mushy Stuff (or, be fancy and call them “aromatics”)
Add garlic, onions to your chicken dripping pan, then sauté.
Stew down 6 large tomatoes, and then dice two and set aside for later use. Or cheat and buy some cans of tomato sauce. Honestly, if you’re rushed for time, you’re gonna be adding so much stuff to it, you won’t be able to tell very much the origin. But you do still need to dice two large garden tomatoes for later use. To the sauce, add a box of chicken broth or two cans of regular fat-in broth (that’s close to the 3 cups that you’ll need; 24-28 ounces is the sweet spot). Or if you’ve got your own, use some homemade chicken broth.
Throw in the chiles, tomatoes, spices, brown sugar, bay leaves, tasty mushy stuff, and then simmer it for 15-20 minutes. Remove bay leaves, and set side for later.
Blend everything together thoroughly. While doing so, add about two ounces of apple cider vinegar. If you’ve done it right, it should now be the consistency of a semi-melted milkshake: thicker, but still plainly a viscous liquid. Not quite motor oil, but not Quikrete either.
There are four steps to braising traditionally: searing, aromatics, adding liquids, “slow and low” — low temperature, slow cooking. And that’s what you’re going to do here. Get your dutch oven out, which should still have the chicken and tasty glaze in the bottom.
- The searing is completed (1)
- Add your tasty adobe sauce and diced tomatoes to the dutch oven with the bone-in browned and simmered thighs — this constitutes the “aromatics and liquids” stages of braising (2 and 3). Add your bay leaves back into the concoction.
- Place the whole shebang into the oven, tightly covered, and slow simmer for 30 minutes.
- Remove from oven, remove thighs, and then de-bone them and shred the chicken.
- Place shredded chicken back into the dutch oven (I throw the bones in there too). Simmer for an additional 30-40 minutes, until chicken is falling-apart tender.
Remove bones, bay leaves, and what you are left with is some of the best smelling, best tasting, most tender meat around.
How do I eat it?
You are free to do with it what you will, but I usually make a few things: street tacos (purple onions, cilantro, lime wedges on unbaked corn tortillas); quesadillas; American tacos with crispy shells or flour tortillas with Oaxaca and quesa quesadilla cheeses.
Top your dish with any ole’ thing you want: fresh guac, diced onions, pico, fresh cilantro, lime wedges, sour cream, shredded cheese. The possibilities are endless. But you always, always serve with a side dish of that delicious adobo consomme. Think of it as a Mexican french dip!
And now, you can pay homage to Tim Williams with Brandon Chicken’s Chicken Birria Tacos. Great when you have the munchies.
Bone Apple Teeth
*We kid, of course, Brandon Chicken really is not going to crush you with a blindside hit on the quad...we hope. No, Tim Williams is a rush-end in the CFL. But his name and legend lives on, and so shall these namesake tacos. Remember him fondly as you’re tucking in at the next tailgate.