Once upon a time, a busy woman ran out of creative ideas for the package of chicken tenders she pulled from the freezer, and the only thing that could save her from a boring dinner was a spark of inspiration. The woman, of course, was me, and it happened on Friday. It happens more often than I’d like, truth be told.
Isn’t that a familiar tale? Even people who love to cook have creativity blocks, especially when pressed for time, and we all need a boost to pull out of a menu rut. If I had stuck with my ho-hum plan to fry the chicken tenders and plop them on a salad—well, it would have been edible, but uninspired. It certainly would not have been remarkable or interesting enough to share here on Comfort du Jour. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to check my email that morning before heading out for a full day of errands. Right there at the top of my inbox was a cheerful message from my West Coast blogging buddy, Michelle, and her casual sharing of a personal story about “tequila-lime chicken” arrived just in time to twist this plot and save our supper.
What I love most about food and recipes is the rich stories they tell about our lives. It’s one of the main reasons I started a food blog last year, a decision that I did not expect would lead to meaningful new friendships with other bloggers. Recent email conversations between me and Michelle brought us around to the joy of cooking on the grill (or the “BBQ,” as many West Coasters call it), and on Friday, she described this idea that she had invented to serve as a late-night patio bar snack at a restaurant where she once worked. Tequila-lime chicken is the kind of recipe you make by instinct, not by following specific amounts or ratios, and I love that she described the recipe that way—you know, with a little of this and a touch of that and a couple of those. It made perfect sense to me because 99 percent of the time, that’s exactly the way I cook, adding ingredients that fit the flavor profile until it looks and tastes “right.” It sounded perfect, and I couldn’t help but see my boring package of chicken tenders in a new light.
The ingredient list for the marinade was short and easy—tequila, citrus juice, fresh garlic and simple spices, such as cumin and chile seasoning, and it tenderized the chicken beautifully. My ingredient makeup wasn’t identical to Michelle’s recipe—she adds slices of onion to the marinade and I saved that for the pico topping—but the chicken turned out every bit as tender and flavorful as she described it, and I can totally see why her tequila-lime chicken tacos were a frequent “sellout” at the patio bar. We liked them so much at our house, I want to run out and buy a taco truck!
The idea for tequila-lime chicken also gave me another excuse to make another batch of easy handmade corn tortillas, and this time I spiffed them up with cilantro puree, which accounts for the slight green tint to the shells. And I topped these “last-minute” tacos with a condiment concoction that I’m calling “pineapple pico,” a super-fresh, spicy, tropical mashup of pico de gallo and guacamole. I’ll share my notes for both at the end. 😊
About 1 1/4 pounds of chicken tenders, patted dry
1/4 cup silver tequila (I’m sure gold would work just as well)
Juice of 1 lime
Juice of 1/2 lemon
About 1/2 tsp. each of cumin, garlic pepper, ancho chile powder and kosher salt* (see notes)
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced
2 to 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil*
I used spices that were within easy reach in my cabinet, and I chose ancho chile powder because we love the bright, fruity flavor of it. You could just as easily use chipotle powder or any kind of bottled chile powder or, as my friend pointed out in her email, even some kind of pre-made taco seasoning. Keep it simple and southwestern, and let the tequila and lime work their flavor magic.
A little oil helps in a marinade, especially when using a very lean meat. My hubby runs the grill pretty hot and I wanted to help protect the chicken tenders from burning or getting dried out. Olive oil is my go-to, but avocado or canola oil would work just as well.
Make the marinade first and give the chicken several hours to overnight in the fridge to soak up all the delicious, south-of-the-border flavors. It goes like this:
Grill the chicken on a hot grill (500° F at first, my hubby says), then reduce heat to 350° once you get the grill marks. Chicken tenders are smaller than whole breasts, of course, so they will cook more quickly. Watch them closely and pull them off the grill as soon as the juices run clear.
Cut up or shred the chicken tenders (you’ll be shocked at how tender they are!) and serve as desired. We perched them atop cilantro-flavored corn tortillas with crunchy cabbage, radishes, pineapple pico and fresh cilantro.
If you missed my recent post on handmade corn tortillas, follow the link to check that out. I include full instructions and all my best tips for turning out successful tortillas, with or without a tortilla press!
1/2 cup fresh pineapple, cut into tidbit-sized pieces
1/2 cup baby tomatoes, halved or quartered to tidbit-size
2 Tbsp. red onion, chopped
1/2 medium fresh jalapeno, chopped
1/2 ripe avocado, cut into cubes
Juice of 1/2 lime, plus salt and pepper