Food, Wine

Chips and Salsa Dancer

Magic Maker: With spicy, smoky Mexican dishes, Zinfandel is a nimble partner. It doesn’t stumble with chipotle chilies or flame-roasted tomatoes, the flavor base for many Mexican soups and stews. It elevates casual recipes from south of the border that you might never have envisioned with wine. Even chips and salsa appreciate the flourish when you open a bottle of Zinfandel. (Choose a lighter-style Zin and give it a quick chill.)


Chilaquiles, meet Zinfandel. What resourceful cook first thought to salvage days-old tortillas by simmering them in a brothy tomato sauce? Brilliant. The tortillas soak up all that goodness and soften like noodles. Bountiful garnishes—avocado, chopped cilantro, shaved radishes, crumbled cheese—add color and crunch.

With California’s plum tomato harvest wrapping up—sigh—it’s Last Call for dishes like chilaquiles where ripe plum tomatoes make a difference. Not canned plum tomatoes. Not pale winter tomatoes. Fresh, fleshy, red-all-over tomatoes matured on the vine. Some call them “paste” tomatoes because they’re the ones processors cook down for concentrate.  With their dense, meaty pulp, they’re a must for chilaquiles. Toss a salad, open the Zinfandel, and ring the dinner bell.

Night Harvest Workers


A lot is happening in California’s vineyards this month while you are sleeping. Just about the time you’re drifting off, harvest crews are showing up for their shifts. Grapes prefer to be clipped in the cool of the night, arriving at wineries before dawn with their firmness and acidity intact. Vineyard workers prefer it, too. They are far more comfortable working the vine rows in the fresh air that prevails after dark. Another plus: no bees. Mobile floodlights follow the crews to illuminate their work zone; even so, night harvesting saves energy. Grapes picked in the heat of the day have to be chilled, requiring energy, before they’re crushed and fermented. Night-harvested grapes are easier to de-stem, too, because they’re crisp, not limp from heat.

The Pour

California Wine Month

Every month is California wine month, for sure, but September makes it official. California Wine Month. Capital W. Capital M. With 30 days of special tastings, boot camps, cave tours, concerts, vineyard hikes, lobster feeds and more. From one end of the state to the other, wineries are rolling out the red carpet for visitors. It’s a great excuse to schedule a getaway and experience wine country in harvest mode, the moment that wineries work toward all year.

What a good time to raise a glass to a product that contributes hugely to the nation’s economy, cuisine, culture and quality of life. Peruse all the California Wine Month events and grab some fun stats about your favorite beverage.

Chicken Chilaquiles

When life gives you sweet, California-grown tomatoes, make chilaquiles, a genius use for tortillas that are a few days old. September is the height of the harvest for the meaty plum tomatoes that make thick, flavorful sauce. Resist the temptation to substitute store-bought tortilla chips for the home-fried tortillas; the chips soften too much, and the result is not nearly as satisfying.

Chicken Chilaquiles


  • 6 day-old corn tortillas, about 6 inches (15 cm) in diameter
  • Canola oil for frying
  • 1 bone-in chicken breast, 10 to 12 ounces (285 to 340 g)
  • 2-1/2 to 3 cups (.6 to .7 l) salted chicken broth, or part broth, part water
  • 1-1/2 pounds (675 g) plum (Roma) tomatoes
  • 3 half-inch-thick slices of white onion, peeled
  • 4 large garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
  • 1 tablespoon chipotle chile en adobo, or to taste
  • Kosher or sea salt
  • 1/4 cup (60 g) crema (Mexican sour cream)
  • 1/3 cup (50 g) crumbled queso fresco
  • 2 or 3 radishes, sliced thin
  • 1/2 small avocado, sliced lengthwise
  • Cilantro leaves

Serves 2 to 4


Stack the tortillas and cut into 6 wedges to yield 36 pieces. In a heavy saucepan, heat 1 inch (2.5 cm) of canola oil to 370F (185C). Adjust the heat to keep the temperature steady. Fry the tortilla wedges 6 or 8 at a time until they darken slightly and become crisp, about 1-1/2 minutes, stirring frequently to keep them from sticking together. Transfer with a skimmer to paper towels to drain.

Put the chicken breast in a small saucepan and add broth just to cover. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and simmer until the chicken is just cooked, about 15 minutes. Remove the chicken breast to a plate with tongs and let cool. Remove the skin and bones and shred the meat coarsely by hand. Reserve the broth.

Preheat the broiler and position a rack about 6 inches (15 cm) from the heat. Line a heavy rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and put the tomatoes, onion slices, and garlic on it. Broil, turning as needed, until the onions and garlic have softened and charred in spots and the tomatoes are blackened, with split skin and soft flesh. With tongs, transfer the vegetables to a plate as they are done. (The garlic and onion will be done before the tomatoes.) Peel the garlic. Discard the tomato skins and core, then chop the tomatoes coarsely. Put the tomatoes, onion, and garlic in a blender and blend until smooth.

Heat the 1 tablespoon canola oil in a 12-14 inch (30-35 cm) skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the sauce. Be careful—it will immediately hiss and bubble up. Adjust the heat to maintain a brisk simmer. Add the oregano, crumbling it between your fingers. Add the chipotle and salt to taste and simmer, stirring often, until the sauce is thick and flavorful, about 5 minutes.

Add 1-1/4 cups (0.3 l) of the reserved chicken broth and bring the sauce to a simmer. Add the fried tortilla chips. Return to a simmer, adding a little more broth if needed to moisten all the chips. Cover and simmer gently for 5 minutes, stirring once or twice. Taste for salt, then stir in the shredded chicken. Replace the cover, remove from the heat, and let stand for about 5 minutes.

Transfer the chilaquiles to a deep serving platter or individual bowls. Garnish with drizzled crema, radishes, queso fresco, avocado, and cilantro leaves. Serve immediately.

Recommended Pairings

California Zinfandel or Merlot

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