Sunday, April 09, 2006

Stained Fingertips

Achiote paste Not from coloring eggs (hubby's doing that this year)....nor am I doing a Lady Macbeth impersonation. Last night I started one of my favorite Mexican dishes, cochinita pibil. It's a colorful and flavorful pork dish that I learned how to make in Mexico. Achiote is the magical stuff behind cochinita pibil. Achiote is another name for annatto seeds, which gives the paste its signature color.

If you think you're familiar with Mexican food because you've had several varieties of tacos, burritos, and enchiladas, you probably don't know as much as you think about it. Mexico is a pretty big country that's divided into several states. Just like the USA, some states grow a lot of wheat, and in others corn is the major grain. That's why some dishes use wheat tortillas and others call for corn tortillas. There's a lot of variety in the cuisine, depending on what can be grown locally. And don't get me started on the cheeses! It seemed like every town I visited had its own version of the local specialty, and many of them were superb. How I long for a good bit of manchego or queso de Oaxaca, which is the original "string" cheese. Most "Mexican" restaurants in this country just don't do Mexican cuisine justice.

Cochinita pibil is a specialty from the Yucatán peninsula. The Mayans lived there, and their influence is still found in the foods and the language. If you're ever there, do see the ruins because they're amazing, but also explore outside of the cities and you'll probably discover pockets of mostly Mayan culture and the most amazing food! A lot of dishes are wrapped in leaves and cooked, most often banana leaves. In old times the food was put in a hole in the ground which had hot coals at the bottom, and was covered with more coals and buried, and allowed to slow cook for hours. (One of my neighbors made the most amazing tamales this way in her back yard. She used a modern metal cooker, though.)

I'll post a full recipe soon, and hopefully I'll get some pictures too. We'll see if I can hold off the family long enough once the meal's ready! The meat slow cooks in the achiote and Seville orange juice until it's soft. Then it's shredded and served in warm tortillas along with habañero salsa. The lady who taught me to make cochinita pibil used three habañeros in her salsa, but there's only two of us in the family that can handle their heat. So I cheat and use jalapeños, which isn't authentic but still very good.

Back to the kitchen I go! The pork has marinated all night and needs to be put in the oven, and I have to make the salsa and a cake for dessert. But now I'm homesick for the sunny blue skies and beautiful old architecture of Mérida.

Hi KQ! I can't wait to see this recipe, and the pictures of it. It sounds amazing! How wonderful that you lived in Mexico - I would love to live in another country at some point in my life.
Sounds fantastic. I'm salivating at the thought of genuine regional Mexican food.
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