Friday, November 23, 2012

Recipe: Rice and Vegetables in Achiote Broth

Photo from glooarte's flickr collection, subject to a CC License
As a follow-up to my post about achiote (annatto seeds), this post offers a recipe that uses the seeds as a flavoring in a spicy rice dish. The recipe, which is adapted from one in Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen, has four basic steps:  making an achiote paste, preparing vegetables, cooking the rice, and adding the vegetables at the end

The paste in this recipe is similar to the small blocks of “Achiote Paste” sold in Mexican grocery stores, blocks of spice that could be loaded with artificial colors, preservatives and who knows what.  If you’re OK with the additional ingredients or have found a brand that is all natural, you could use part of that spice block to replace the homemade paste in this recipe, but that would reduce the brightness of the flavors.

The key ingredient in the paste, of course, is achiote powder, and this can be a bit tricky to acquire.  Achiote seeds are not too hard to find (often labeled annatto), but they are notoriously hard to grind.  If you try to grind your own, I’d suggest using a mesh strainer to separate the fine powder from the unground seeds, and then regrinding the large pieces until you’re satisfied with the texture. Already ground seeds might be available in a Mexican grocery, from an on-line source or your local specialty spice retailer (the spice shop in Napa’s Oxbow Market has it in their normal inventory).
The flavor of the achiote paste is compatible with a variety of vegetables, so you can let the season be your guide or use this recipe to deal with vegetables lingering in your refrigerator or freezer (vegetables the have the right flavor, of course – I wouldn’t use turnips, beets or cabbage, for example). In the summer, use corn, tomatoes and roasted chilies.  In the winter, use winter squash and black beans.  Note that each vegetable should be prepared separately or added to the cooking rice at the appropriate time to avoid over- or undercooking.

Recipe:  Rice and Vegetables in Achiote Broth
Adapted from Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen

Unit conversion tool at Epicurious

Achiote paste
1 T. ground achiote (annatto) powder
1 t. ground allspice, preferably freshly ground
1/2 t. ground black pepper, preferably freshly ground
1 t. dried Mexican oregano
1 1/2 T. cider vinegar
3 garlic cloves, peeled
Salt, about 2 t.

In a saucepan (which will eventually hold the broth and achiote paste), mix the achiote powder with the allspice, pepper, oregano and vinegar.  Finely chop the garlic and then sprinkle it with the salt.  Using the back of a spoon or the edge of your knife, grind the garlic and salt into a paste on your cutting board.  Add to the spice and vinegar mixture.  Set aside.

Mixed Vegetables
Select 2 cups of the following vegetables (or any others that you think will work with the achiote paste):
  • Fresh or frozen corn (defrosted if frozen)
  • Winter squash, diced in 1/4"-1/2” pieces and cooked (roasted, steamed, sautéed)
  • Cactus paddles (nopales), cut in 1/2" squares and cooked (roasted or steamed)
  • Roasted poblano or other chilies, cut into 1/4” pieces
  • Cooked black beans
  • Roasted red sweet pepper
  • Green peas (defrosted if frozen)
  • Fresh tomatoes, diced

Combine your chosen vegetables in one or more bowls, with the vegetables divided up by the amount of time they will need to reheat in the finished dish (e.g., defrosted corn or peas in one bowl, fully cooked poblano chilies and raw tomatoes in another).  Set aside.

Vegetables and Rice
Cooking oil, 1-2 T.
2 carrots, diced
1 small white onion, diced
1 1/2 cups brown rice
2 cups mixed vegetables (selected from the Mixed Vegetables heading above)
3 cups water, stock or broth

Add the water, stock or broth to the saucepan containing the previously made achiote paste, and whisk well to combine.  Place over medium heat.

In a medium saucepan, heat some cooking oil.  Add the onion and cook until soft.  Add the rice and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice is coated with oil and has a chalky look in places.  Add the achiote paste liquid and the carrots to the rice, and stir to combine.  Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cover.  Cook until the rice is done to your liking (30-40 minutes, typically), then add the cooked vegetables in stages, stir to combine, and cover, giving them enough time in the hot rice to cook or heat through.  When everything is heated through, serve with garnishes.

Sprinkle one or more of these garnishes on the rice after serving:
  • Toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
  • Diced avocado
  • Queso anejo (a dry, aged cheese)
  • A melting cheese like Monterey Jack
  • Chopped cilantro

Random link from the archiveSugar High Friday #15 - Coconut Sticky Rice and Mango

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Annatto Seeds – An Ancient Dye and Flavoring with a Global Reach

Photo from glooarte's flickr collection, subject to a CC License
One of my favorite dishes from the summer was the “Achiote Rice Supper with Pork Carnitas” from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen, a dish of rice, pork and vegetables that features the flavor of annatto seed powder. After bringing a vegan version of the dish to a party and trying to explain it to the other guests, I realized that I didn’t know much about annatto, so I made some trips to local libraries to learn more.

Annatto, Latin name Bixa orellana, is a large, fast-growing shrub endemic to the New World tropics (the Encyclopedia of Life has a map of its distribution). The plants produce clusters of relatively tasteless fruit, as well as seeds with a thin, highly-colored resinous coating.  This coating is used as a dye, which is one of the oldest known dyes and has been used since antiquity.  It was first used to color cheese in England over 200 years ago – notably Cheshire cheese and red Leicester. These days, annatto seed extract is used in all sorts of food applications like butter, margarine, non-dairy creamer, cooking oil, salad dressings, and ice cream (the extract has a specific number in the chemical database: CAS 8015-67-6). *

In Spanish-speaking countries, the flavor of annatto seeds are what’s important.  In Spanish, the seed and pastes are called “achiote”, a word that is derived from the indigenous Nahuatl language in present-day Mexico.**  Cooks in the Yucatan region of Mexico use the brick-red powder in all sort of applications:  mixed with garlic, vinegar and herbs and rubbed on fish before grilling, or used as part of a flavorful marinade for ultra-slow-cooked pork, to give two examples.***

In Oaxaca, Mexico, according to Diana Kennedy's monumental Oaxaca al Gusto, the people use the seed powder as a paste on its own, without added condiments as they do in the Yucatan.  In the Sierra Juarez and Mixe regions of Oaxaca, they use the powder in a hot drink called Atole Colorado.  The bulk of the recipe (for a huge crowd) is wheat berries (9 lb.) and cacao beans (2 1/4 lb.), both ground to a paste.  For flavoring, a small amount of cinnamon stick (2 oz.) and achiote seeds (2 oz.) is added. Add enough hot water to make a drinkable texture, and you have a hearty, flavorful beverage.
Annatto Around the World
The annatto section of Herbs & Spices, the Cook's Reference, by Jill Norman (DK Publishing, 2002) looks at how the seeds are used around the world.  Given it’s wide natural range and the transoceanic trade of the colonial era, it’s not surprising to see the seed all over the world.  In several areas of South America, the seeds are used to flavor oil by cooking them in oil over low heat and straining to give a flavorful, brightly-hued oil. In Jamaica, the seeds are used to flavor a dish called "ackee" (or perhaps “saltfish and ackee”, since ackee is also the name of a fruit). In Vietnam, the seeds are used to flavor oil.

Photo from kaitlyn rose's flickr collection, subject to a CC License.
In the Philippines, a famous pork and chicken dish called "pipian" shows the influence of Spanish trade between the Americas and Asia, as the recipe in Memories of Philippine Kitchens: Stories and Recipes from Near and Far, by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2006) indicates.  Among the ingredients are two New World flavorings, achiote & epazote.  A post from Market Manila has a pipian recipe that also includes epazote and achiote.  And half-way down this page at Market Manila, you’ll find a photo of a basket of annatto seeds (“achuete”) at the Vigan City market (on the northwestern part of Luzon Island).

In a future post, I’ll give my vegan interpretation of Bayless’s rice supper.

* The information in this paragraph is from the Handbook of U.S. Colorants: Foods, Drugs, Cosmetics and Medical Devices, Daniel M. Marmion (3rd Ed., Wiley & Sons, Inc., ISBN 0-471-50074-7) and The Oxford Companion to Food (Alan Davidson, Ed.).
**  Achiote is one of many important words that came from the Nahuatl language. Some others are avocado, cacao, chocolate, chili, coyote, tomato, and tamale.
*** Season 5 of Bayless’s Mexico One Plate at a Time TV series focused on the Yucatan and consequently has quite a few uses of achiote paste.  In recent weeks I’ve run into achiote on two Northern California restaurant menus.  The first, which I didn’t try, was at Comal in downtown Berkeley, where they sell “achiote rice” as a side dish.  The second was at Mateo’s Cocina Latina in Healdsburg (Sonoma County), where we ate various items that had been marinated in an achiote paste and grilled.

Random link from the archive: Embracing the bitter: putting radicchio on center stage