In our American world of mish-mashing cultures, it is really wonderful whenever I stumble upon a truly authentic l dish. Not too long ago, in my never ending quest to expand my herb and spice collection, I purchased a pinch bag of annatto seeds and began researching the hows and wheres of their common use, and this is what I found:
Annatto is the condiment and dyestuff by-product made from the seeds of an achiote tree; Bixa orellana. Achiote trees grow naturally in the tropical regions of North and South America, and the seeds were traditionally used for body paint, lipstick, and as a spice. Today it is still used as a dye, particularly in cheddar cheese, and the spice is widely used in the culinary cultures of Central and South America, specifically Mexico and the Caribbean. This paste here, Recado Rojo, is a blend of ground achiote seeds and other herbs and spices. It hails from Mayan times and is still very popular in the Yucatán and Oaxaca cultures of Mexico and Belize.
Recados were Mayan spice pastes, and recado rojo was their red spice paste. To this day there are 3 recado pastes that make the base for most of the traditional Yucatán meat dishes: achiote rojo using the very red ground annatto; recado negro, a black paste made using burned chilies; and recado blanco made with black peppercorns. However, there is also recado par bistec, made heavily with black pepper and Mexican oregano, which I think is sometimes called recado verde, and recada papadzules which uses pepitas (pumpkin seeds).
I’m sure that prepackaged annatto/achiote paste is not hard to get a hold of in any town that has even a small Hispanic population, but ground annatto seems even more common. It’s always more ‘convenient’ to purchase pre-made sauces and such, but this paste really is very easy to make, and super cheap.
Recado Rojo is made from a collection of common spices, leaning heavy on the annatto seed, which is then mixed with an acid. For my recipe I wanted to create a rounded flavor and used 1 part each of lime, orange, and grapefruit juice, and another part of apple cider vinegar. These can, of course, be adjusted according to what you have on hand. Seville, or bitter orange, would otherwise be the traditional choice.
So what do you do with this paste?
It is most often used as a marinade and/or mixed with additional ingredients to create a sauce. It is the major player in Yucatán Cochinita pibil, and spicy chicken wings, and much farther south in Peruvian Locro de Papas. But achiote seared chickpeas with goat cheese is a common recipe, and of course, it’s perfect to flavor rice and pilaf. You can also use it as the base for stew. And tacos! Definitely to flavor any kind of taco meat!
Think of annatto/achiote paste as the leaping off point. It’s a condiment of sorts that you incorporate into the rest of your dish.
Filipino Cuisine also uses Annatto, but they usually just mix the ground seeds with warm oil for use in recipes.
Recado Rojo – Achiote/Annatto Paste
By: Semiserious Chefs
Makes: ~1/4 cup of paste
- 3 T ground annatto/achiote
- 1/2 t black peppercorns
- 1/2 t whole cumin
- 6 allspice berries
- 1 t dried oregano*
- 1 t minced garlic
- 1/4 t sea salt
- 1/4 t ground cinnamon
- 1 T each: lime, orange, and grapefruit juice*
- 1 T apple cider vinegar
*NOTES: Mexican oregano is traditional, but I find it to be too bitter and use Mediterranean oregano instead. Also, 3 T of seville, or bitter orange, juice would also be traditional, but the combination of the above three citrus’ sort-of compensates for that.
- Add the whole black peppercorns, cumin seeds, allspice berries, dried oregano, minced garlic, and salt to a small skillet over medium-low heat. Give the spices a shuffle periodically to keep them from burning, and let roast for a couple of minutes, until warm and aromatic.
- Use a mortar and pestle to grind and crush your freshly toasted herbs, then add them to a small bowl with the ground annatto and cinnamon.
- Add the lime, orange, and grapefruit juices, as well as the apple cider vinegar to the ground spices and work evenly into a paste.
- Use immediately or store in an airtight container in the fridge.