One of the great recent developments in Mexican restaurants in the U.S. is the rise of regional consciousness. These days, there are restaurants dedicated to the food of, say, Oaxaca, or Jalisco, or Veracruz. One regional style that’s getting a lot of play, even at non-regional Mexican restaurants, is the orange-saturated roasts and grills of the Yucatan peninsula, where the Mayan-influenced food takes on something of a Caribbean character. The flavors are delicious in the following recipe; to experience them all, it is best to give the chicken a long marinade—though you will taste some of the magic after just a few hours. Serve as they do at most American restaurants with rice, beans, a variety of salsas, and steamed corn tortillas for wrapping up hunks of the fragrant chicken.
Makes 2 large main-course servings (or 4 small main-course servings)
1 whole ancho chili
3 tablespoons annatto seeds (also called “achiote,” available in Hispanic supermarkets)
3 tablespoons olive oil
12 cloves garlic, smashed
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons black pepper, coarsely ground
2 teaspoons salt
the zest of 3 limes
the zest of 3 oranges
a 3-lb. chicken, butterflied (see NOTE)
1. Place the ancho chili in a small sauté pan over medium-high heat. Toast the chili, turning just until it puffs up. Remove it from the pan, let it cool, remove the stem and seeds, and place the chile in a small bowl of boiling-hot water. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let the chili soak for 20 minutes.
2. Place the annatto seeds in a small saucepan, and add 3 tablespoons of water. Bring the water to a boil, then remove the saucepan from the stove. Cover it with a lid and let it rest for 10 minutes.
3. Return the saucepan to the heat, bring the seed mixture back to a boil, and cook it until all of the water has evaporated. Add the olive oil, and cook the seeds in the oil for 1 minute. Remove the saucepan from the stove, cover it with a lid, and let it rest for 10 minutes.
3. Place the annatto seeds with the oil in the work bowl of a food processor. Remove the ancho chili from the water and add it to the processor, along with the garlic, oregano, sugar, black pepper, salt, lime zest and orange zest. Process the mixture for 2 minutes, then stop and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Process until smooth (about 1 minute more).
4. Rub the paste all over the butterflied chicken, spreading it evenly over the skin and into every nook and cranny. Wrap up the chicken, and let it marinate in the refrigerator for 2-3 days.
5. When ready to cook the chicken, build a charcoal fire in such a way so that a low-temperature fire sits on one side of the grill, and a high-temperature fire sits on the other side. (If you’re using a gas grill, you can simply adjust the fire when necessary by turning the knob.)
6. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator, trying to preserve all of the paste/marinade on the bird. Place the chicken, bony side down, over the low-temperature fire. Cover. Peek often, making sure the chicken’s not browning rapidly. Turn several times. Cook until a meat thermometer inserted in the chicken thigh reads 130°F (this will probably take about half an hour).
7. Transfer the chicken to the hot side of the fire (or turn up the knob on your gas grill). Cook, uncovered, turning several times, watching carefully to make sure the chicken is getting crispy-brown but isn’t burning. The chicken is done when a thermometer inserted in the thigh reads 170°F (this will probably take about 20 minutes over the hot fire). Remove chicken from grill.
8. Let chicken rest for 10 minutes. Cut in half and serve immediately.
NOTE: Butterflying a chicken is easy—especially if you ask the butcher to do it for you! If you want to do it yourself, use poultry shears to cut out the long, vertical spine of the chicken found, naturally enough, right up the center of the back. Discard. Now flatten the chicken so that it looks like a Rorschach test—perfectly symmetrical on both sides.
Images: drpavloff/Flickr Creative Commons & Dreamstime