I have a weakness for what Puerto Ricans call limones del país or “local limes”, the ones you may know as Key limes, one of many varieties of Citrus aurantifolia, native to Southeast Asia. They are the small, thin-skinned ones, sometimes mottled, often more yellow than green, definitely more acidic and sweet than the thick-skinned ones more commonly found in my New York area supermarkets or as woefully tiny and bedraggled triangles of peel, drowning ineffectually in bar drinks.
My great-aunt Titi Quicio used to make me limonada from the ones from the tree in her yard in Mayagüez — every yard worth a damn back then had a lime tree for luck and on principle — as well as chickens and any number of useful medicinal herbs planted in glorious, battered, colorful, rusting tin cans – and that sweet-tart zing of acid and sugar syrup in a glass clinking with ice cubes and sweating into the disintegrating paper towel wrapped inevitably around the bottom remains one of the most powerful flavor memories I possess. Anything that comes even close sends me straight back to childhood places from which I wish I didn’t have to ever return.
So whenever I see a green net bag of those little round babies in a store, I have to buy it, no matter the price. Once I get home, however, I have no idea what to do…My Cuba libre consumption (the difference between a rum and coke and a Cuba libre is that the Cuba libre has lime; a Cuban might tell you that the difference is that there is no such thing as a free Cuba, but we’ll leave that alone) has dropped to nothing in the years since I left Puerto Rico and the likelihood of my making limonada in the middle of winter is decidedly small.
So I slice one open and suck out the juice, prompting much pleasurable wincing and squinting and squirting of salivary glands. Then I agonize over how not to waste the rest.
Fortunately, last week when limones del país showed up in my local supermarket, I thought of my hero, mentor and friend, Zarela Martínez.
Zarela, who grew up killing rattlers with a lariat on a ranch in Mexico, toughed her way through a bad marriage to haul her twin boys to New York and make a dramatically wonderful and interesting career in restaurants (Her eponymous restaurant on NYC’s 2nd Ave @ 50th & 51 has been going strong for 22 years!), making PBS programs and writing wonderful books. I met her through the James Beard Foundation Awards when she and her son, Food Network hottie Aaron Sánchez, hosted a few years back, and I am grateful that we have been friends ever since.
She is utterly candid, hard-working, stylish and just fabulosa. And her book: Zarela’s Veracruz, was just the thing, because Mexicans know exactly what to do with limes without making life difficult.
So here is my adaptation of her Chuletas de Pollo al Limón, made with things I had around the house…I used my limes, but whichever kind you find in the supermarket will work just fine. Honestly, my adaptations resulted more from mistakes (I am not very good at following recipes), but that just proves how flexible and resilient this one is. And the leftovers – very adaptable too!
Pollo al Limón Verde – Lime Chicken
(adapted from Chuletas de Pollo al Limon, Zarela’s Veracruz)
4 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp Worcestershire (chicken or classic) sauce
(if you have Maggi sauce, change the soy/Worcestershire comb to 2 tsp soy sauce and 1 tsp Maggi sauce)
¼ cup lime juice
1/3 cup olive oil
1.25 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs, pounded to half the thickness
Mix soy sauce, Worcestershire or Maggi sauce, lime juice and olive oil in a cover/sealable container big enough to hold marinade and chicken together and marinate for at least an hour (if you have time)
Heat a skillet until fairly hot and place thighs in it with room to spare (reserving marinade). Unless you have a pretty big skillet, you’ll have to do it in batches. Sear to white on each side, then cook an additional 5-6 minutes on each side, lowering heat to medium. When all the chicken is cooked, turn up the heat in the skillet, pour in reserved marinade and boil for a minute. Pour over chicken and serve.
(I loved this dish both straight from the skillet and as leftovers. I sliced it up and added it to a vegetable stir-fry at the end after adding a bit of soy sauce to the vegetables, just to warm up the chicken and it added great substance, texture and taste. This chicken is also good cold with mayo/mustard in a sandwich, wrap or salad.)