Where the Atlantic very nearly meets the Pacific you’ll find Panama on the thin strip of land between the oceans. While this doesn’t give the country much area, it does put it at key spot at the world’s crossroads. In common with its strategic importance, Panama’s cuisine outshines its modest size.
Today’s entry is Pollo al Ajillo (Garlic Chicken), one of Panama’s prominent culinary offerings. Not only is the preparation big, popping up at street stands throughout the country, so are the flavors. As its name suggests, pollo al ajillo takes garlic. Lots and lots of garlic – just about three entire bulbs for one bird. Now that’s some serious taste.
Surprisingly, though, the garlic doesn’t overwhelm. Part of this is thanks to the grill, as the flames lick away some of garlic’s bite, though most is due to the masterful balance fresh orange juice achieves. Only something as vibrant as citrus juice, in which the pollo marinates for hours before grilling, is sufficient to tame garlic, to round its edges.
Garlic is tamed, but it certainly isn’t muted. It’s big and flashy, without backing into harshness. Moreover, oranges quicken the pace with a sweet tropical melody. Much like Panama itself. In fact, it’s precisely this balancing of intense flavors that recommended pollo al ajillo when it appeared in the June/July 2013 issue of Saveur.
Today’s recipe is served alongside sliced avocado, as often is the case in Panama. Leave to a diminutive country to produce such big-time taste. With pollo al ajillo to inspire them, no wonder Panamanians are capable of such feats.
Pollo al Ajillo
(Panamanian Garlic Chicken)
- 1 3-to-4-pound chicken, quartered (*1)
- 3 bay leaves
- 25 cloves of garlic, peeled (*2)
- 2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
- 1 cup freshly-squeezed orange juice
- 1/2 cup sherry vinegar
- 2 tablespoons freshly-ground pepper
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 2 teaspoons ground allspice
Puree in a food processor garlic, salt and two tablespoons of water, until you have a smooth paste. Add the orange juice, Worcestershire sauce, allspice, vinegar and pepper. Puree until smooth.
Pour this into a zip-top bag into which the chicken has been placed, along with 3 bay leaves. Seal the bag and refrigerate for at least four hours, or up to overnight.
Heat a grill at the highest level. Remove the chicken from the marinade and place it on the grill, being vigilant about flare-ups. Cook for 15 minutes per side, or until cooked through.
1 – Instead, I used a similar quantity of bone-in, skin-on thighs. Dark meat is more flavorful, and it saved me the trouble of having to dissect a chicken.
2 – Yes, that’s nearly three entire bulbs. It’s necessary to produce such a wonderful taste.