Chicken Tomatillo Tortilla Pie With Greens & Cilantro


Photo by Michael Piazza / Styled by Catrine Kelty

This dish is like green enchiladas masquerading as lasagna, with tortilla “noodles” and a tomatillo-chili “ragù,” layered with cumin-heavy roasted chicken, sautéed dark greens, and a tangy, approximated crèma. Made in a pie dish and sliced into wedges, it’s served under an extra spoonful of green sauce and another dribble of crèma, and will warm even the coldest bones in mid-winter. It reheats well, so it makes a great work lunch the next day, with some sliced avocado and a shower of lime. Don’t skip the sauce-frying step—in Mexico, there are two kinds of salsa: the raw, fresh tomato or fruit-based ones, and the puréed chili-laden sauces that are fried in oil and simmered gently to develop rich, exceptional flavor. This tomatillo sauce works well in both regards: poured straight from the blender, it’s a salsa for tortilla chips, but here it’s sizzled and simmered into a warming, delectable sauce.

Serves 6–8

4 bone-in, skin-on whole chicken legs (both drumsticks and thighs)
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon ground cumin
8-10 tomatillos, husked and washed
1 small white onion, sliced into 4 thick rounds
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1 small Poblano or Serrano chili
Pinch sugar
Neutral oil, like safflower or sunflower
1 lime
1 bunch cilantro, stems and leaves separated
1 yellow onion, sliced
1 bunch dark greens: Swiss chard, Tuscan kale, or mustard greens, stemmed and shredded
¼ teaspoon cumin seeds
9 fresh corn tortillas
½ cup sour cream thinned with 2 tablespoons milk
4 ounces Monteray Jack cheese, grated
2 ounces queso fresco or cotija or feta cheese, crumbled

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Place the chicken legs and thighs in a ceramic or Pyrex baking dish and season liberally with salt and pepper, then sprinkle all over with the granulated garlic and cumin. Drizzle with olive oil and roast in the hot oven for an hour. (If you need to, you can do this in two baking dishes so the chicken fits snugly but not overlapping.)

While the chicken cooks, make the sauce and the greens. Heat a dry cast iron skillet and add the tomatillos, white onion slices, garlic cloves, and chili pepper. Char the skins of the vegetables, turning to blacken all sides. Remove to a bowl to cool slightly, then peel the garlic and the chili, removing the stem and seeds if you like (leave the seeds in if you prefer the heat) and put them in a blender. Quarter the tomatillos and add them in the blender along with ¼ cup water, a pinch of sugar, the juice of half the lime, and the cilantro stems. Season with ½ teaspoon salt and blend until smooth.

In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons neutral oil and add the cumin seeds and sliced yellow onion. Season with salt and pepper and sauté, stirring, until the onion is soft and beginning to brown at the edges. Add the shredded greens and sauté to wilt, seasoning with a little more pepper and salt, and remove from the skillet to a bowl, reserving the skillet to fry the sauce in.

When the chicken is cooked, take it out of the oven and set aside until cool enough to handle. Pull the chicken off the bone, shred into bite-sized pieces, skin included (so much flavor!), and stir into the accumulated juices at the bottom of the baking dish. Set aside until ready to assemble the pie.

To “fry” the sauce, heat 2 tablespoons neutral oil in the reserved skillet, and carefully pour in the sauce from the blender. It will sputter a bit, and the edges will immediately turn from bright green to a more muted, olive green. Stir, bring the sauce to a simmer, and allow it to cook (adding a few tablespoons of water if the sauce gets too thick) until the whole sauce changes color, about 10-15 minutes. Taste and check for seasoning and add more salt if you need it.

When you’re ready to assemble the pie, ladle ¼ cup of the sauce into the bottom of a 10-inch deep dish pie plate. Working with tongs, dip three tortillas into the sauce and layer them in a concentric circle so the bottom of the plate is covered. Arrange half the cooked shredded greens over the top and half the chicken, then dribble over ⅓ of the crèma, ⅓ of the grated Monterey Jack, and a ladleful of sauce. Repeat with three more tortillas, the rest of the greens and chicken, another ⅓ of crèma and cheese, and more sauce. Dip the final three tortillas in sauce, lay them on top and spread a final ladleful of sauce over them and top with the remaining Monterey Jack, queso fresco, and a handful of cilantro leaves.

Bake in the 400°F oven for 35-45 minutes or until bubbly and lightly browed on top. Serve in wedges with the remaining sauce and crèma and some cilantro and lime at the table. A raw radish and jicama salad dressed with lime and salt makes a nice accompaniment to this rich, savory pie.

This recipe appeared in the Winter 2016 issue.