This chicken chile verde is one of my all-time favorite dishes. With influences from Northern Mexico and the US Southwest, it’s loaded with tangy tomatillos, mild poblano and Hatch chilies, spicy serrano peppers, smoky and earthy toasted spices, aromatic fresh cilantro, and of course, chicken. Purists will tell you that chile verde should only be made with pork, but I’m not big on pork so I make my chile verde with chicken instead. Occasionally I’ll even go the vegan route with chickpeas and skip the meat altogether. I’m not insisting on 100% authenticity here, just superb flavor. Speaking of authenticity, chile verde is often served with dairy-based sour cream or Mexican crema to add richness and tame the heat from the chilies. This time around we’re skipping the dairy and making a luscious, cooling, tangy lime “crema” out of soaked cashews instead. If you’re okay with dairy, feel free to use it and skip that step of the recipe. Just add lime juice to taste.
So let’s talk tomatillos for a minute. Classified as a fruit and part of the nightshade family, they may look like tomatoes, but they’re not. In fact, they’re related to cape gooseberries – another ingredient I love (I’ll have to feature them one of these days). The fruit may be green, purple or yellow, but green is the variety that’s most commonly sold in markets around here. Tomatillos grow inside a protective papery husk, so before using you’ll need to peel off the husk and give the fruit a good rinse to remove any sticky sap on the skin. Often used in salsa verde, their flavor is tart, tangy and mildly acidic with a bright citrus-like note. You can absolutely eat them raw and I often do, but for this chile verde we’re roasting them and cooking them down even further, which mellows their tartness and rounds out the flavor.
In addition to tomatillos, salsa verde also requires green chilies. I’m partial to serrano peppers, but you’ll see many recipes that call for jalapeños and you can absolutely substitute them if you prefer. Please exercise caution when working with chilies – I recommend wearing rubber gloves to protect your hands, and be sure to wash your hands, knife and cutting board immediately afterward. The capsaicin in the juice and oils from the chilies is easily transferable, and the last thing you want is to get that stuff on your hands and then rub your eyes. Trust me. It hurts.
If you’re familiar with my recipes you know I love cilantro, and it’s another essential component of this dish. I use it in the salsa verde that forms the base of the stew, then add plenty of fresh cilantro as a garnish when I serve it. Also in the salsa are garlic, green onion, and poblano pepper. Though poblanos aren’t necessary for salsa verde, I adore their flavor and they’re a wonderful addition to chile verde. (I occasionally dice up an extra one to sauté with the onions in the pot, which you’re welcome to do if you love poblanos.)
The beauty of salsa verde is the depth of flavor that you can achieve with so little effort. Toss everything but the cilantro onto a sheet pan, stick it under the broiler for 8-10 minutes, and blend everything together with a little salt and pepper. That’s it! (Well, you’ll want to peel the garlic and poblano first, but you’re going to read the recipe so you’ll be sure to follow those instructions, right?)
I only use a few dried herbs and spices in this recipe, but they’re essential to the flavor of this chile verde. You’ll notice that I call for whole coriander and cumin seeds instead of the pre-ground spices. If you have the inclination and a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, I urge you to use whole seeds and toast and grind them yourself for superior flavor. Plus, the aroma in your kitchen is incredible when you grind those freshly toasted seeds! As far as the ground clove, though, don’t worry about grinding that yourself. You only need a pinch for this recipe and as long as your stash is fresh you’ll be fine with pre-ground. The final dried element for this chile verde is oregano, and I recommend using the Mexican variety if you can find it. The flavor is smokier and earthier than Mediterranean oregano so it’s right at home in this stew.
One final ingredient note: the Southwestern influence in this recipe is compounded by the addition of roasted and diced Hatch chilies, which are native to New Mexico. Their season is short and availability is scarce outside of NM, but you can find perfectly suitable canned versions year-round. I always keep some in my pantry, and that’s what I use in this chile verde unless I’m fortunate enough to luck into fresh ones at the greenmarket. Okay, enough talk. let’s get cooking!
You’ll want to make the crema first so the cashews have enough time to soak. (Traditional nut soaking calls for cold water and a minimum of 8 hours, but we’re using the shortcut quick-soak method here.) I didn’t take photos to document the steps because it’s super-simple. Add your raw cashews to a small saucepan – make sure they’re raw, you won’t get the right texture or flavor with roasted nuts. Add water to cover the cashews and bring to a boil. Shut off the heat, pop a lid onto the pot, and let the cashews soak for one hour while you get started on the rest of the recipe. After the cashews have soaked, drain and rinse them well, then toss them into the blender with the other crema ingredients and process until silky.
Can you believe that’s it? Dairy-free/vegan/paleo lime sour cream. Boom.
While your cashews are soaking, set your oven broiler to high so it gets nice and hot, and make sure one of the oven racks is in the correct/highest spot for broiling.
Arrange the tomatillos, green onions, garlic and poblano pepper on a large sheet pan, and broil for 8-10 minutes, turning everything with tongs once or twice, until evenly charred. The green onions tend to go more quickly than everything else, so once they look nice and toasty you can pull them off and leave the others to finish charring.
See how beautifully blistery everything gets in such a short time? Now pull the skin and stem off the poblano and give it a rough chop. Peel the garlic cloves and drop them into the blender along with the poblano, tomatillos, serrano(s) and cilantro. Add a generous pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper, and puree. Salsa verde is done! Set it aside and move on to the spices.
Set a dry skillet over medium-high heat, add the coriander and cumin seeds, and toast them for about 4 minutes until darkened, fragrant, and beginning to exude wisps of smoke. Shake the pan a few times to ensure even toasting. Let the seeds cool for a few minutes, then pour them into a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, and grind to a powder.
These are the un-toasted seeds in my skillet.
And a few minutes later. See the difference? The color is warmer and darker. I tried to catch the wisps of smoke drifting off the pan but the lighting over my stove wasn’t right for it. Oh well. Maybe next time.
Those same toasted seeds went into my spice grinder, and out came this beautiful, fragrant powder.
Next comes the chicken. It’s your call whether to use white or dark meat and what size you want to make the cubes. You can even cut the chicken into larger strips, brown the meat, then shred it with two forks before proceeding. Go with whatever you prefer. (I had a package of chicken breasts to use up so this time around it was white meat for me, and I cut the raw chicken into 1-inch cubes.) Season the meat generously with salt and pepper, heat your oil in a Dutch oven or soup pot, and brown the chicken. I have a really wide pan that fits a pound of chicken at once without crowding it, but you’ll probably want to do this in 2-3 batches to avoid overcrowding. If you add too much chicken at once there won’t be space for air and heat to circulate around the pieces, and the meat will steam instead of browning. Ick.
Here’s what you’re looking for – a lovely golden exterior. The chicken probably won’t be cooked all the way through at this point, which is fine. It’s going to stew for a long time, so right now we just want color and flavor development. Set it aside in a bowl while you proceed with the onion and spices.
These onions are just about ready. They’re soft and nearly translucent, and have taken on a hint of golden color. Depending on the size of your dice (this was about ¼ inch), the onion will need to cook for 4-6 minutes to get to this point. Mine took about 4 minutes since the dice was small. Now you’ll add your spices, oregano and lime zest, stir the onions to coat with the seasonings, and sauté for another minute or so until fragrant.
You can see the bright green bits of lime zest scattered throughout. I never pass up a chance to use citrus zest – it’s packed with flavor. At this point you’ll add the Hatch chilies, browned chicken (and any juices that have collected in the bowl), salsa verde, a teaspoon of lime juice, ¼ teaspoon salt, and about a cup of chicken stock – you want the stock to just about cover the chicken.
Here’s my pot with everything but the chicken stock added.
And here it is with the stock – much more liquid. We’re going to cook down so a lot of that liquid will dissipate, the chicken will be super tender, and we’ll develop and concentrate the flavor. Now that everything is in the pot, bring it to a boil. Then reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pot partially with a lid, and let it cook for about 40 minutes, checking occasionally to make sure it isn’t getting too dry. If it looks too thick or is starting to dry out early on, add chicken stock about ¼ cup at a time to keep it moist enough to simmer.
After 45 minutes it should look something like this – saucier than it was before we added the stock, but we definitely cooked out a lot of that moisture. Check the meat for tenderness – if it pulls apart easily you’re done unless you want to cook off more of the stock for a thicker stew. (If that’s the case, remove the lid entirely to encourage faster evaporation.) Now taste the sauce and season with additional salt, pepper, and/or lime juice if desired.
To serve, ladle the chile verde into bowls and top with a dollop of that fantastic lime crema and your choice of garnishes. I recommend also offering charred tortillas and/or plantain chips alongside for dipping and scooping up that luscious sauce. Enjoy!
- Lime Crema
- 112 g (¾ cup) raw cashews*
- 90 ml ( ¼ c + 2 Tbsp) cold water
- 20 ml (1 Tbsp + 1 tsp) freshly squeezed lime juice
- 5 ml (1 tsp) white vinegar
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt (or more to taste)
- 1 lb tomatillos, husked and rinsed
- 3 green onions, cleaned and trimmed
- 3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
- 1 poblano pepper (about 4 oz)
- 1-2 serrano chilies (15-20 g each), stemmed & seeded, coarsely chopped**
- 1 cup lightly packed fresh cilantro leaves, plus more for garnish
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- 1 tsp whole coriander seeds (or 1 ½ tsp ground coriander)***
- 1 tsp whole cumin seeds (or 1 ½ tsp ground cumin)***
- 45 ml (3 Tbsp) olive oil, divided
- 1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 medium yellow onion (9-10 oz), diced, yield 1 ½ - 2 cups
- 2 tsp dried Mexican oregano
- Pinch of ground clove
- 1 lime, zested and juiced
- 4 oz (1 small can) roasted & diced Hatch chilies
- At least 240 ml (1 cup) low sodium or no-salt-added chicken stock****
- Sliced serrano pepper
- Sliced green onion
- Diced avocado
- Lime wedges
- Plantain chips or charred tortillas
- Start the crema: Add raw cashews to a small saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, remove from heat and cover the pot. Let sit for one hour.
- Make the salsa verde: Preheat oven broiler on high. Transfer tomatillos, green onions, garlic cloves and poblano to a large sheet tray. Broil for 8-10 minutes until charred, using tongs to ingredients occasionally to ensure even charring. (I usually pull the green onions out after 4-5 minutes.)
- Let everything cool for a couple of minutes. Peel and stem the poblano (leave the seeds), give it a rough chop, and transfer it to a blender. Trim off the ends of the garlic and squeeze the cloves into the blender as well. Add the charred tomatillos and any pan juices, the charred green onions, the chopped serrano chilies, cilantro, a generous pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Puree until smooth and set aside.
- Toast and grind the seeds: In a dry skillet over medium-high heat, toast the coriander and cumin seeds for about 4 minutes until darkened and fragrant, shaking the pan every so often. Let cool for a couple of minutes, then grind to a powder with a spice mill, coffee grinder or mortar and pestle.
- Make the stew: Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven or soup pot, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Working in batches so as not to crowd the pot (you’ll steam the chicken that way), brown the chicken on all sides. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
- Add remaining olive oil to pot along with diced onion and a pinch of salt. Cook until onion is golden and softened, about 4 minutes. Add ground coriander and cumin, dried oregano, and ground clove; stir to coat onion with spices. Add lime zest and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Add roasted Hatch chilies, reserved chicken with any collected juices, the salsa verde you blended earlier, one teaspoon lime juice, ¼ teaspoon salt and about 8 oz/1 cup chicken stock.
- Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer and cook partially covered for at least 40 minutes, until chicken is tender and stew has thickened. If it starts to look dry, add chicken stock as needed, about ¼ cup at a time. (The longer you cook the chili, the more flavor you’ll develop; I typically let it go for 35-40 minutes, then add another cup of stock and simmer for an additional 30 minutes or so.) Taste for seasoning, adding additional salt, pepper, and/or lime juice if desired.
- While stew is simmering, finish the crema: Drain and rinse the cashews and transfer to blender. Add cold water, lime juice, vinegar and ½ teaspoon salt, and blend until completely smooth (you may want to pass it through a fine-mesh sieve for a truly silky crema). Taste and add more salt if desired. Refrigerate in an airtight container until ready to serve.
- Serve: Ladle stew into bowls. Top with a dollop of lime crema, and garnish with cilantro, diced avocado and sliced chilies and green onions. Serve with lime wedges, and plantain chips or charred tortillas.
**If you prefer a milder stew, remove the white ribs inside the serrano chilies.
***It’s really worth toasting and grinding your own spices for this recipe - the flavor is far superior. If you don’t feel like it or don’t have the tools to do it and you’re going to substitute pre-ground spices, try to purchase the freshest possible product from a good market that has rapid turnover. You don’t want to buy jars of spices that have been sitting on a shelf for months.
****The volume of chicken stock you need will depend on the moisture content of the tomatillos, how long you cook the stew, and how thick you’d like it to be. The longer it simmers, the thicker and drier it becomes. I start with 8-10 ounces (1 - 1 ¼ cup) and keep an eye on the pot as it cooks, and if it starts to look dry I add more stock about 2 ounces/¼ cup at a time.