Saturday, 26 January 2013

Mexican things you can do with a Seville Orange


You know what's freaky about being MexiGeek?

I set out to make something complicated like pollo pibil, and this is my shopping list:
2 chicken breasts
2 onions (1 red, 1 white)
1 head of garlic
Tomatoes
Seville oranges
Everything else I already have on hand (with one exception, see below).

I must have a very Mexican store cupboard.

But before I get ahead of myself, let's introduce the star of this post: the Seville Orange.

The Seville orange is famous for two reasons:
  1. No one in Seville eats them; practically the whole crop is shipped to the UK, where...
  2. ...the Brits just use them to make marmalade!
(There are some French dishes that use them too.)

In Europe, including super-hot, practically North Africa Seville, these oranges are only in season in January.

In tropical Yucatán, Mexico, they are available all year round.

In Mexico they are called naranjas agrias ("bitter oranges") and, since being introduced by the Spanish, have become an integral part of Yucatecan cuisine.

So if you're tired of making marmalade, why not try making pollo pibil with cebollas en escabeche?

Pollo Pibil

Pibil means "cooked in a pib" (literally it means "covered"), and a pib (a Mayan word), is a "pit barbecue".

Basically it's a hole in the ground filled with hot ashes or stones. You put your food in it (wrapped in something like a banana leaf), then cover it with more hot ashes or stones and let it cook slowly for a long time.

Before you freak out, I don't expect you to dig a hole in your garden. I sure as hell didn't.

You can cook pibil-style food in an oven, a steamer, or even a slow cooker/crock pot.

What makes a non-pib version of this dish worthy of the name "pibil" is the marinade, a mixture of Seville orange juice with the famous Yucatecan achiote spice paste, recado rojo.

The other thing a pibil dish usually needs is a banana leaf.

I'm sure it is possible to get banana leaves in Edinburgh, but I haven't found out where yet. They are meant to be available from "Asian grocers", but I don't know what "Asian" means in that context.

I went to a Chinese grocer while members of my MexiGeek crew searched Leith Walk's exotic shops, but no dice.

Once upon a time I was going to put off making this dish until I had sourced banana leaves, but when I realized Seville oranges would only be in season until the end of January, I decided to bring my plans forward.

You can always "fake" some Seville orange juice by combining normal orange juice with some grapefruit juice - Seville oranges really do taste like a combination of orange and grapefruit (I ate one raw with my lunch) - but I didn't want to miss the opportunity to use the real thing.

So I had to go "French" and steam my chicken en papillote (i.e. wrapped in baking parchment).

There are actually two famous pibil dishes: chicken (pollo pibil) and pork (cochinita pibil).

Because I wanted to make panuchos (fat tortillas stuffed with refried beans) as well, I was strongly considering the pork.Cochinita pibil is served shredded, and panuchos are usually topped with shredded meat.

Pollo pibil is not served shredded, or on top of panuchos. Instead it is served as a meal in itself, usually in or on the banana leaf, if you've got one.

There is a Yucatecan shredded chicken dish called pollo en escabeche ("pickled" chicken), which I while make some other time.

But in the end I went with the chicken anyway because pork isn't "in season" yet, and chicken doesn't really have a season.

Obviously, when cooking Mexican food in the UK, you can only take seasonality so far, but as this meal started with a seasonal ingredient (the oranges), I wanted to keep up the theme.

How to cook pollo pibil

This is one of those multi-day affairs.

Day 1 (Two days before serving)

Make Yucatecan achiote paste (recado rojo).

Ironically, this is kind of inauthentic of me, because if I really lived in the Yucatán, I'd probably just buy some recado rojo from the markets, rather than make my own.

If you want to make this dish, but don't want to make the recado, they do sell pre-made stuff at Lupe Pinto's and from the Cool Chile Company (and some other places).

Some recipes don't even require recado rojo, calling for ground achiote (annatto), which is also available from Lupe Pinto's.

I have even seen some simplified recipes call for turmeric in place of achiote.

Achiote does indeed impart a vaguely "curry" flavour, so this is quite a clever substitution, but keep in mind your sauce will be yellow instead of red.

Being a MexiGeek, I like making my own recado.

As usual, I took the recipe from Rick Bayless, but the basic idea behind Yucatecan recado rojo is 1 tablespoon of achiote plus a bit more than 1 1/2 tablespoons of garlic (say, 5 cloves) and 2 tablespoons of cider vinegar.

To this, add a pinch each of "the usual Yucatecan spices", which are black pepper, allspice, cinnamon, and Mexican oregano, and, if you like, half a pinch each of cumin and coriander seed.

If the paste is too runny, and a teaspoon and a half of white flour.

This needs to sit in the fridge overnight.

Day 2 (The day before serving)

Mix the juice of two Seville oranges with your achiote paste (or just mix achiote, black pepper, allspice, cinnamon, and Mexican oregano with the Seville orange juice) and some blitzed habanero to taste.

I used dried habanero, but fresh is also good if you've got it. Be careful, though, cuz it's fecking hot!

If the marinade looks gritty, put it in the blender until it's smooth.

Smear this over two chicken breasts and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight.

By the way, achiote is a natural dye, so wash or at least rinse everything it touches ASAP, unless you're happy for it to remain that shade of red forever.

Day 3 (The Big day! So exciting!)

Slice some white onion and tomato about 5-7 (no more than 10) mm thick.

Lay two slices of onion and two slices of tomato on each of your banana leaves (or baking parchment, in my case).

Then put one chicken breast in each leaf/sheet, on top of the tomato slices.

Cover the chicken breasts with the remaining marinade.

Top each breast with two more slices of onion and two more slices of tomato.

Wrap the parcels up tightly (I used a "French seam") and steam on high for 30 minutes.

When it was done, I opened the little parcels and carefully placed each chicken breast - onions, tomatoes and all - on top of what I originally meant to be a panucho but ended up being a variation of a tortilla doblada (more on that in a future post).

I swear there's a chicken breast under that tomato!

Then I tipped the remaining sauce into a frying pan, added more Seville orange juice, and fried it until it reduced a bit. (Frying sauce like this is very common in Mexican cooking).

I served the extra sauce in a jug on the side. It was fairly hot from the habanero, but Mrs MexiGeek and I agreed it could have gone a shade hotter.

We're just hard like that.

Cebollas en escabeche

The other thing you can do is make Yucatecan pink pickled onions (cebollas en escabeche).

I've written about these before, but it's worth repeating.

Recently I saw a recipe for these in Good Housekeeping or somewhere, which is amazing in a way, but they left all the seasoning out!

Yes, the basic idea behind pink pickled onions is thinly sliced red onion, boiling water and red wine vinegar. The magazine recipe got that much right.

But once again, you need some Yucatecan spices: allspice, Mexican oregano, and a pinch of cumin, for example.

Also, I would add a habanero, either finely chopped fresh habanero or, to tone down the heat, drop a whole fresh or dried one in as the onions pickle and then take it out before serving.

These flavours impart that special yo no se que (je ne sais quoi) that make food taste Yucatecan. Also, except for the oregano and chiles, these spices are readily available in all British supermarkets, and you can substitute normal oregano for the Mexican variety, and Scotch Bonnet peppers for the habaneros.

The onions should pickle for four hours. Then strain the liquid and cover the onions with a couple tablespoons of Seville orange juice.

I still say this the best condiment in the world ever.
Here they are again on top of a fried tortilla.


Altogether this makes one of those meals that can really open your eyes to the diversity of Mexican food.

We're a million miles away from the rich, earthy cuisine you get further north, and nowhere near stodgy Tex-Mex.

This dish is bright, zesty, citrusy, and surprisingly mild in the chile department (unless you overdo the habaneros). The red colour looks menacing but comes entirely from the achiote, which is not "hot".

I still need to try it with actually banana leaves though.

Maybe I'll do the cochinita pibil when pork comes into season.

The Seville oranges will be off by then. Fortunately we juiced the rest of them and popped it in the freezer!