During my years of professional business travel I have been fortunate to dine in many venues all around the globe. How much better could it get for someone who loves great food than being required to travel to exotic international destinations as well as the great metropolitan cities of our country, spanning East to West and North to South…? What wonderful opportunities I’ve had to savor and enjoy the flavorful cuisines of people and cultures all around the world. I’ve dined in 5-star restaurants resplendent with crisp white linens and sterling silver gracing the dining table… and I’ve sat at lunch counters in small family owned restaurants tucked away in obscure and nearly secretive places with a white paper napkin draped across my lap, my taste buds screaming in ecstatic delight at the delectable and indescribably delicious local fare on the plate before me.
One destination to which I always looked forward was Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I was first introduced to Los Cuates, a family owned and operated restaurant in a nondescript neighborhood east of the city center. One of my favorite Mexican dishes is chicken fajitas and I’ve enjoyed them on numerous occasions in a variety of restaurants, particularly in the Southwest and here in California. The chicken fajitas in this particular dining oasis, however, were the best I have ever had. The dish always arrived on a flat oval iron skillet so hot that the fragrant spicy strips of tender chicken sizzled and sputtered a welcoming invitation to dig in! The flavors? Absolutely indescribable! This was, without a doubt, a preparation that contained seasonings and spices meticulously and loving combined according to a longtime family recipe… one of those, perhaps, that will forever remain a secret to those of us who are diners in that homey establishment!
A flavorful and spicy chicken dish that we enjoy preparing here at home is Arroz con Pollo. In our kitchen this dish takes on the distinctive personality of the Yucatan Peninsula with the addition of Achiote Rojo, a spiced seasoning paste, or condiment, that hails from our neighbors in the south of Mexico. Achiote Rojo consists primarily of a combination of annatto seed, spices, vinegar, salt, granulated garlic and cornmeal. Annatto is produced from the pulp surrounding the seed of the achiote trees native to the tropical regions of the Americas. Its scent can be described as slightly peppery with a hint of nutmeg. Its flavor? Slightly sweet and peppery. Achiote also adds a distinctive reddish color to the dish. Achiote Rojo can be found in the Hispanic food section of your market as well as in local Mexican food stores and shops. If this condiment is not in your pantry we highly recommend you take the time to purchase it as is adds distinction to this flavorful dish!
Yucatan Style Arroz con Pollo
1 3 1/2 – 4 lb chicken, cut into 8 pieces
Season chicken with:
2 tsp dried oregano, rubbed between your palms to release the flavor
2 tsp cumin, toasted
Chef’s note: Place ground cumin in a small skillet over moderately high heat, shaking the pan continuously until the fragrance is released.
1 T smoked paprika
2 tsp cayenne
2 T red wine vinegar
Rub and coat the chicken thoroughly with the mixture, allowing it to marinate 2 – 8 hours, turning occasionally.
Chef’s Note: The addition of the vinegar gives you the flexibility to safely marinate the chicken pieces at room temp, as well as giving great flavor. We allowed it to marinate for the full 8 hours at room temp. Should you choose, this first step can be done followed by overnight refrigeration.
1 red bell pepper, roasted and sliced into strips
Chef’s Note: To roast the bell pepper place it over an open flame or under a broiler and char till well blackened, turning as required:
Place charred pepper in a plastic bag, allowing it to steam, then cool, for 20 minutes. Remove from the bag and gently remove the charred skin with a paper towel. This will be an easy task as the result of thorough charring. Don’t yield to the temptation of rinsing under running water as rinsing will wash away the distinctive smokey flavor.
Prior to placing the chicken in the hot skillet dry the pieces well with a paper towel to promote browning. In a medium saucepan warm:
3 1/2 C chicken stock (preferably low sodium)
Hold warmed stock in reserve. In a large 12-inch heavy skillet, melt and heat over moderately high heat till shimmering:
2 T lard
Chef’s Note: Olive oil can be substituted. Lard, however, produces an additional layer of authentic flavor so exceptionally wonderful in this dish.
Place the seasoned chicken into the skillet skin side down:
Brown well, approximately 5 minutes. Turn the pieces and continue browning all sides, an additional 4 – 5 minutes. Be sure to brown that “third side” of the breast pieces as well!
Transfer browned chicken to a plate on the side:
Reduce the heat to moderate. To the pan add:
- 1 medium white onion, coarsely chopped
- 1 green bell pepper, cut into large dice
- 3 fresh bay leaves (if fresh are not available dried are an acceptable substitute)
Saute 2 minutes:
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 T Achiote Rojo
Stir to combine and saute 2 – 3 minutes. Add:
- 1/4 C cilantro, chopped
Saute and additional 2 – 3 minutes. Add:
- 2 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
Stir to combine and saute for 2 minutes:
Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
- 2 C long grain white rice
Stir to combine and saute an additional 2 minutes:
To the pan add:
- the warmed chicken stock
- 2 T freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 C large pitted green olives, halved
Stir to combine and return the browned chicken pieces to the pan:
Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and cook, covered, for 20 minutes. Serve garnished with roasted red pepper strips… Bon Appetit!
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