I've been making this fabulous, colorful chicken stew as long as I've been a cook, and eating much it longer. It started life as a recipe my mom clipped from The New York Times Magazine sometime around 1970, written by Craig Claiborne, who was the Times' longtime restaurant critic and one of the premier food writers of his time. Some 35 years later, I wrote about the dish for the L.A. Times. As Claiborne conceived it, was called Rose de la Garza's Texas Chicken. And that's what my mom always called it, until her uncle Sam died the night after she served it to him and Aunt Ruth. Ruth and Sam raised my mom after her parents died when she was a wee thing, and we grew up calling them Grandma and Grandpa. Was it being orphaned that gave my mom her evil sense of humor? Who knows. But after Grandpa died, she renamed the dish in his honor.
Since moving to Texas in 2009, I started thinking about the dish's Texas origins. With chiles, summer squashes, corn scraped off the cob and lots of cilantro, it feels so right in the Lone Star State – Tex-Mex for produce lovers. I make it frequently in the summer, and always think of Grandpa. And my mom. And her mordant wit.
Originally, you didn't brown the chicken, nor deglaze the pan, nor use cilantro or coriander seed. But the recipe, which has evolved over time, is basic and easy. The original called for a whole cut-up chicken – which I still sometimes respect, if someone's coming over who prefers white meat. But Thierry, Wylie and I are all dark meat lovers, so I recently switched to whole legs. Brown them in olive oil, sweat some onion, garlic and serrano chile with toasted coriander and cumin, deglaze the pan, add the chicken back in and dump on top of it a bunch of zucchini, tomatoes and corn. Cover and simmer. When it's halfway done, add fresh cilantro. Simmer some more. That's it. For very little work, you get something pretty delicious. When the okra looks lovely (slim and small), I might slice a bunch of them in half vertically and grill them, adding them at the last minute.
We're not there yet with the okra, and it's not really tomato season yet. Go ahead, use a can. You'll use fresh ones when they're gorgeous and plentiful.
I give you the chicken that killed Grandpa. Now you're part of my (crazy!) family.