My bucket list has always centered on food.
Item: Stroll home from my local boulangerie with a fresh baguette tucked under my arm, like a true Parisienne. Check – I did it many times when I lived in Paris apprenticing as a cook.
Item: Eat freshly made ricotta cheese in the mountains of Sicily. Check – It was as rustic and delicious as it sounds, arriving at sunrise with mist rising from the valley and a light breeze carrying sheep smell as we warmed our hands around wooden bowls filled with creamy, slightly grainy curds of ricotta just made by shepherds over a wood fire.
Item: Eat genuine barbecue. Double Check. The first time was while driving through Texas Hill Country. I cannot recall the name of the place but their brisket, slow-cooked over wood, was to die for. The second time was pickin’ pig with Julia Child in Atlanta. Standing with other guests, including Julia, at a specially arranged barbecue, around a whole pit-roasted pig arrayed on a picnic table, pulling off meltingly tender strands, we agreed it was divinely messy and memorable.
Ever after, I wanted to enjoy pulled barbecue at home. It would not equal pit-cooked meat but I worked at making a good –and healthy—version. Using a slow cooker turned out to be the ideal method, providing even cooking for as long as the meat needed to shred well while staying moist.
Aficionados are horrified that I do not use the traditional pork shoulder, aka Boston butt. Chicken thighs, though, have a enough fat to stay moist while letting me enjoy barbecue, guilt-free, any time I want to fire up my slow-cooker. Thighs come out more tender than white meat, though you could use split chicken breast where the bone helps retain moisture if you insist on very lean barbecue.
Smoke flavor is essential. Chipotle chile peppers, actually smoked jalapeños, provided it nicely. Canned chipotles come in thick adobo sauce, which adds tang that balances their bitter smoke flavor and heat. Look for them in your supermarket’s ethnic section, or at a local bodega. A little chipotle goes a long way. Refrigerated in a glass jar, the unused peppers and sauce keep for months.
At a barbecue, coleslaw may be the only vegetable served. Here, after the chicken cooks a while, I add poblano pepper and sliced onion. They bring more layers of flavor to the sauce and to the final sandwich.
When spreading the sauce in the bottom of your slow cooker, you may think there will not be enough. By the time it is cooked, along with meltingly soft chicken, you will have plenty of sauce with a good balance of smoke, heat, sweetness, and body.
Finally, the more finely you shred it the better your pulled chicken will be, so be patient wielding those forks.
The recipe: Tex-Mex Pulled Chicken Sandwich.