March 2011

I’m in my last week of classes for the quarter and preparing for an exciting adventure overseas, so I don’t have a lot of time to write, but boy, do I have a lot to write about!

In a few days, I will have some time to devote to writing, and plan to share stories about:

My field trip to Mexique

My experience with Oaxacan moles…

A demo that my dad will get excited about…

My last week of classes…

My overseas adventure…

Reflections on entering my final quarter of culinary school…

… and lots more!

Until then, enjoy this fabulous spring weather by eating something from your grill!

Bon Appetit!  Or perhaps I should say ¡Buen Provecho!


A couple of weeks ago in my Cuisines of Mexico class, we worked with an interesting ingredient called Achiote, made from Annatto seeds, which incidentally comes from the Annatto tree.  It’s very prevalant in Yucatecan cooking, which differs considerably from the rest of Mexican cooking.

Why?  The Yucatan peninsula is somewhat isolated geographically from the rest of Mexico, because it’s surrounded by mountains on 1 side and water on the other 3. Because of their commercial sea ports, they have long been influenced by European, Caribbean, and Cuban cooking and ingredients.  As a result, you’ll find greater use of citrus and fruits, such as lime, sour orange, bananas and plantains, and the habanero pepper is very popular in this region.

The cuisine is lighter, but also earthy, which may seem like a contradiction, but it’s not.  The earthy flavors are balanced by a heavy hand with lime, citrus, and sweeter flavors contributed by fruits.

Annatto pod

Annatto seeds in their pods. Beautiful, no?

Photo credit: Lao Dyeing

The annatto seeds are small and extremely hard. A few years ago, these were very hard to come by, but now, even Williams-Sonoma sells them, so there ya go. Don’t say the foodie revolution never did anything for you.

At Chef Carlos’ restaurant, Mexique, he uses the seeds, but he soaks them for at least a day before he grinds them for use in his dishes.

The flavor is pleasantly earthy, but still must be balanced with acid or your dish will be “off.”

One of the more famous or well-known dishes using Achiote is cochinita or pollo (chicken) pibil.  You begin with a pork shoulder roast, rub it with an achiote paste, wrap it in banana leaves, and cook it in a pit in the ground, or “pib.”

Ha! Yes, that’s the traditional means of cooking in the Yucatan, but you can get great results by using your dutch oven and cooking it in your stove for a few hours, as you would pulled pork.  The banana leaf and the achiote paste gives it a very unique flavor. It’s not like anything else I’ve had – and I’m a adventurous eater!

I think the recipe we used in class was just OK, so I recommend using Rick Bayless’ version. He actually calls for the seeds, but if you can’t find them and don’t want to order them online, you can easily substitute the powdered achiote, and your results will be just as good.

The cooked pork can be used for tacos or a tamale filling.  Or just eat it “straight up.”

In class, we also used achiote paste on shrimp, salmon, and pounded pork cutlets, or “Poc chuc.”

These are the dishes Chef Carlos assembled:

Dishes using achiote

In the foreground, achiote shrimp with black beans and a thick masa tortilla commonly griddled, split, and stuffed - similar to a pupusa. Behind the shrimp is the cochinita pibil and back left is the salmon. Common accompaniments are habanero salsa, radishes, lime, and pickled onions.

P.S.   We also made a charred pepper paste very popular in Yucatecan cooking called “Chilmole” or “Recado Negro.”  I brought it home and used a couple of tablespoons in a chili recipe, and it was fantastic!  A lot of this stuff is easy and adds so much flavor.  It’s well worth learning these techniques and recipes!