What is it? Achiote paste from Yucatán. Can it nudge out recent big things such as Sriracha sauce and gochujang? Maybe, at least for cooks intrigued by Mexican flavors. And travelers to Yucatán who have discovered that area's famous achiote-seasoned cochinita pibil (pork) and pollo pibil (chicken).
"The taste is so unique," says Jinich, who uses it in the recipe for Fast-Track Chicken Pibil in her new cookbook "Mexican Today" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30). "And it's my favorite color in the universe [brick red}."
For the best quality, the paste must be from Yucatán, Jinich insists. Except if you live in Los Angeles, where you can buy excellent achiote paste from the Yucatecan restaurant Chichén Itzá in the Mercado La Paloma downtown (at right). The restaurant also sells ground annatto seeds to which you can add your own spices.
Known as recado rojo in Yucatán, achiote paste is seasoned with vinegar, garlic, oregano, allspice, cumin and black pepper, says Gilberto Cetina Jr. of Chichén Itzá. If buying commercial achiote paste, read the label. Avoid any brands that contain fillers such as cornmeal or flour.
During a whirlwind book tour, Jinich spoke and signed books at Melissa's Produce. Dishes from the book set out for sampling included two made with achiote paste: Fast-Track Chicken Pibil and Tacos al Pastor (above). The pork filling for the tacos is seasoned with an achiote-adobo sauce that is in the book.
In Yucatán, chicken or pork pibil is always served with marinated red onions. Jinich's variation on that is red onions with cabbage and jalapeños in a marinade of citrus juices, rice vinegar and jalapeños (above).
Her chicken pibil (above) is fast track because it's made with pre-cooked chicken and simmered on top of the stove rather than cooked underground. And she leaves out the banana leaves that would line the pan and cover the chicken in Yucatán.
There, the paste is blended with sour orange juice. Jinich simulates the flavor with a blend of citrus juices and white vinegar. Here is her recipe:
FAST-TRACK CHICKEN PIBIL
From "Mexican Today" by Pati Jinich
1/2 pound ripe tomatoes
1/4 red onion
3 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt or to taste
2 cups chicken broth, homemade or store-bought
2 tablespoons canola or safflower oil
1/4 cup freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped achiote paste
6 cups shredded cooked chicken or rotisserie chicken
Preheat the broiler. Line a small baking sheet or roasting pan with foil. Place the tomatoes, onion and garlic cloves on the foil, set under the broiler, 3 to 4 inches from the heat, and broil for 4 to 5 minutes, until charred on one side. Flip over and broil for another 4 to 5 minutes, until the skin is blistered and completely charred; the tomatoes should be very soft with the juices beginning to emerge. Remove from the heat.
Once they are cool enough to handle, quarter the tomatoes and place in a blender, along with any juices in the pan. Peel the garlic cloves and add to the blender. Add the onion, salt and 1 cup of the broth and puree until completely smooth.
In a casserole or soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Pour in the puree, cover partially, as the sauce will sizzle and jump, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 7 to 8 minutes, until the sauce thickens and darkens considerably.
Meanwhile, combine the grapefruit juice, orange juice, lime juice, vinegar, oregano, allspice, cumin, pepper to taste, achiote paste, and the remaining 1 cup broth in the blender and puree until completely smooth.
Stir the juice mixture into the tomato sauce, bring to a simmer, and simmer for 5 minutes.
Add the chicken, stir together well and cook, uncovered, until the meat has absorbed most of the sauce, about 5 minutes. The dish should be very moist but not soupy.
Serve with pickled onions and cabbage.
Makes 4 to 5 servings.