Learning about foods from other cultures/countries is my breath! Maybe that is a little dramatic, but it is what makes me most happy and where I find the most joy when it comes to cooking. Anyone who knows me, knows that when I discuss food, I light up. That is why I am ecstatic to share with you this recipe. There is a little background history I need to get into first….
Phil and I were watching one of our favorite food travel shows “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. ” He was in Oaxaca, Mexico and describing the rotisserie chicken he was eating. It was seasoned with achiote (annatto), oregano, canela (Mexican cinnamon) and garlic. I thought to myself that the flavor combination sounded intriguing, and we should try it. I am a sucker for roast chicken, it probably is my favorite dinner. Partly because it reminds me of my childhood and also because the chicken skin gets crispy and delicious. I admit, I didn’t know very much about achiote, other than it is a main ingredient in Goya’s Sazon packets, which is a staple seasoning (see Sazon Rice Pilaf) in our house. Achiote is very common in Latin America and is what gives Arroz Con Gandules its flavor and yellow hue. You probably haven’t even realized this, but achiote, or its more common name annatto, is used as a natural food coloring here in the states. Achiote are the seeds from the achiote shrub and has a deep beautiful red color and will impart an orange and yellow tint to foods. The flavor is very peppery, slightly bitter, and earthy.
For Christmas, I received Tacos: Recipes and Provocations cookbook, by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothma. It has inspired me to continue to challenge myself when it comes to food and cooking. Alex Stupak is quoted saying “Here’s what creativity is: trying to do what you don’t know how to do.” That was a powerful statement that really resonated with me. With this cookbook, I have made homemade corn tortillas (made from fresh ground masa) and soon I will be making homemade flour tortillas made with lard. There is even a whole chapter on salsas! It’s basically a beginners (maybe intermediate) guide to Mexican cooking. I highly recommend picking up this cookbook. After that Bizarre Food’s episode, I remembered that there was an Achiote paste recipe in that cookbook. I thought I would just use it as a guide, but to my surprise it had all the ingredients that Andrew Zimmern named plus a few extra. I thought, I could slather that paste on some chicken, and voila, just like that, be transported to Mexico at my dining room table.
This paste has a vibrant orange clay color, and the roast garlic and cider vinegar tones down the spices. This paste is like nothing I have ever tasted, very complex and rich. Making this paste may seem like a lot of work but it’s not. It makes almost two cups and it will keep for one month. You can add it to the water when cooking rice, slather it on pork, or shrimp; you name it. The paste is really a seasoning staple you can have on hand to add drama level flavor with little effort.
Remember that cooking is an adventures, and you will be pushed out of your comfort zone if you are doing it right. The whole spices in the recipe below you may or may not find in your neighborhood grocery store (depending on where you live). You definitely will find them in your neighborhood Mexican grocery store. Go there! Stroll the aisles and learn more about another country’s foods. This is a great family style recipe that feeds a crowd. Put everything on a platter and let them help themselves. Also, I would (and did) make a nice pot of black beans to serve this with!
*Side note- there are ingredients below that are specifically Mexican, like the oregano and cinnamon. Be sure to buy the Mexican version and not the everyday oregano and cinnamon we usually find. The Mexican types of those two ingredients have a very different flavor.
Mexican Achiote Roast Chicken
Adapted from Tacos: Recipes and Provocations by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman
Makes 1 3/4 cups
1 4-inch stick of canela (Mexican cinnamon)
2 tbsp black peppercorns
1 1/2 tbsp allspice berries
3 tbsp dried Mexican oregano
1/2 cup achiote seeds
40 garlic cloves, skin on
1 1/4 cup cider vinegar
6 chicken leg quarters (bone in and skin on), approx 4 lbs
8 tbsp of Achiote paste
2 tbsp butter, room temperature
1 1/2 tbsp kosher salt
1 large onion
optional for serving: cilantro, corn tortillas, and limes.
Achiote Paste: Heat a cast iron skillet over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the canela, peppercorns, allspice, oregano and achiote seeds. Toast, shaking the pan until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Remove from the heat and transfer to a spice grinder. Grind to a fine powder, working in batches if necessary
Reheat the skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic cloves and roast, turning them from time to time, until slightly soft and blackened in spots about 6 minutes. Turn off the heat and remove the garlic from the pan. Once cool enough to handle, peel the garlic and discard the skin.
In a blender, combine the ground spices and seeds, roasted garlic and cider vinegar. Puree until smooth. Transfer to a container and refrigerate until ready to use.
Roast Chicken: Preheat the oven to 425°F.
In a small bowl mix together the salt, achiote paste (8 tbsp) and softened butter, until well incorporated. Set aside. Slice the onion in 1/2 inch slices and set aside.
Place the chicken in a large bowl and rub the paste butter mixture all over the chicken. You may want to use gloves for this process because the paste will stain your hands.
Transfer the chicken and onion slices to a foil lined baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes and then baste the chicken and onions with the juices. Bake for an additional 20 minutes or until cooked through. Serve the chicken and onions with tortillas, limes and cilantro.