I don’t usually try to make complex Mexican dishes myself; it’s just so easy (and inexpensive!) to go out to eat somewhere and find perfectly made tacos al pastor, chiles en nogada or tamales. It kind of feels like reinventing the wheel to take the time to do it myself.
That said, lately, I’ve found myself perusing spice blends and ready-made mixtures in the grocery store, in search of a new cooking project. The colorful little yellow-and-red boxes of achiote (pronounced ah-chee-oh-tay) paste caught my eye, so here we are. (El Yucateco, the most common Mexican brand, also makes a liquid achiote, which seems a little easier to use but is really the same thing with some added water.) Both contain achiote seeds, salt, spices, garlic, corn flour and water, plus two natural preservatives. Like a bouillon cube, the paste will dissolve in hot water or broth.
Open the box, then the package inside, and gently sniff the pretty, dark reddish-orange bar. It’s earthy and sweet with a slight spiciness that will make you cough if you inhale too much. That rich, almost smoky complexity is what achiote adds to any dish, and while there are oodles of recipes to be found, feel free to play around on your own. The recommended amount is ¼ cup of paste dissolved in 1½ Tbsp. orange juice or vinegar for about half a kilo of meat or fish; then marinate 30 minutes before cooking or grilling.
Annatto seeds are the key ingredient: the tiny, reddish seeds lend color and flavor to food and — much like henna — have also been used for generations in the Caribbean and South and Central America as body paint and fabric dye. Interestingly, annatto seeds are what give cheddar cheese (and its imitators) its distinctive orangey color. That practice goes back to 16th-century England, where cheesemakers using low-quality milk added it to impart a richer, creamier color, imitating milk from cows grazed on carotenoid-rich fields.
It’s not difficult to make your own achiote paste with annatto seeds and other whole seeds and spices. (Recipe below.) Use it as a rub for meat, chicken or fish; as a marinade; or to make salsas and sauces for any kind of meat, seafood or veggies.
For most of us, the most familiar dishes made with achiote are probably tacos al pastor and adobada; but if you live in the Yucatán, many traditional dishes include achiote, including cochinita pibil, panuchoa yucatecos and longaniza de Valladolid.
Homemade Achiote Paste
- ¼ cup annatto seeds
- 1 Tbsp. whole coriander seeds
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 tsp. cumin seeds
- 1 tsp. black peppercorns
- 2 whole cloves
- 1 tsp. salt
- 5 cloves garlic, peeled, coarsely chopped
- ½ cup bitter orange juice OR ¼ cup orange juice + ¼ cup lime juice or 1/3 cup white vinegar
Use a mortar and pestle or spice mill to grind annatto, coriander and cumin seeds; peppercorns, oregano and cloves. Blend with salt, garlic and juice/vinegar; process until smooth.
Store in airtight container in refrigerator. — www.spruceeats.com
This recipe uses chicken, but fish, pork or beef works too.
- 2 Tbsp. salt
- 1 tsp. black pepper
- 8 garlic cloves
- 7 cloves
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
- ¼ cup orange juice
- ¼ achiote paste bar
- 1 tsp. dried oregano
- 1/4 tsp. dried thyme
- 1/4 tsp. cumin ground or whole
- 4 lbs. bone-in chicken thighs with skin on
Process all ingredients (except chicken) in blender. Remove ½ cup of marinade; keep in refrigerator until ready to use. Rinse and pat dry chicken; place in ziplock plastic bag or shallow bowl. Add remaining marinade; turn to coat thoroughly. Seal bag or cover bowl.
Marinate, refrigerated, at least 4 hours; overnight yields the best flavor. Preheat grill to 400 F (200 C) to 450 F (230 C). Place chicken on grill and cook 6–7 minutes, basting with reserved marinade.
Flip and cook another 6–7 minutes. Serve with onion, lime, cilantro and pineapple.
“Big Batch” Ranchero Sauce
This sauce is so versatile: you can poach eggs in it, simmer shrimp in it, or spoon it over shredded chicken in a burrito or stir-fry. Stock your freezer or share with friends — recipe makes 3 quarts!
- 6½ lbs. (about 100 oz.) canned whole, peeled plum tomatoes and their juices (or one restaurant-style No. 10 can)
- 1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
- 1 cup peeled garlic cloves
- 4 serrano chiles, stems and seeds removed, roughly chopped
- 2 guajillo chiles, stems detached
- 1 Tbsp. achiote paste
- Salt to taste
Combine everything in a large pot. Simmer over gentle heat 1 hour, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching on bottom. Add a little water if it becomes thicker than ketchup. Cool.
Purée in batches in a blender until smooth. Adjust salt; cool. Transfer to quart or pint containers. Store in refrigerator up to two weeks, freeze up to one year. — Gabrielle Hamilton, New York Times
Simple Tacos al Pastor
- 1 kilo sliced pork
- 2 guajillo chiles cleaned
- ¼ bar achiote paste
- 2 Tbsp. white vinegar
- ½ cup orange juice
- 2 garlic cloves
- ½ tsp. oregano,
- ½ tsp. cumin
- ¼ large white onion
- 1½ tsp. salt
- 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
In a blender process chiles, achiote, vinegar, juice, garlic, onion, oregano, cumin and salt. Marinate meat for two hours in refrigerator.
Cook meat on hot grill or in skillet with vegetable oil, stirring constantly till done. Serve garnished with onion, lime, cilantro and pineapple.
Smoky Pork Ribs
- 1 kilo pork ribs
- 1 cup liquid achiote or equivalent reconstituted paste
- 1 cup pineapple juice
- 2 Tbsp. white vinegar
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 Tbsp. salt
- 1 tsp. black pepper
Combine achiote, pineapple juice, vinegar, salt, garlic, pepper. Set aside ½ cup of marinade for basting. In ziplock plastic bag or covered shallow bowl, marinate ribs in remaining marinade for at least 3 hours in the refrigerator.
Grill on barbecue or roast in oven at 425 F (200 C) for 1½ hours in a shallow pan/baking sheet covered with foil. After 1 hour, baste with remaining marinade. Return to oven. Test for doneness and serve.
Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, featured on CNBC and MarketWatch. She has lived in Mexico since 2006. You can find her on Facebook.