The Secret Ingredient

I have a childhood friend, Anthony, who lives on the small island of Isla Mujeras just off the coast of Cancun.  He runs a successful fishing business on the island and, whenever I make my way to the Yucatan, I try to steal a few hours of his time for a visit.

When I met him this past January, I mentioned that I was on a mission to find real vanilla to bring back to Taste & Technique.  Vanilla has gotten so crazy expensive and I’ve previously had luck finding authentic vanilla at a good price in Mexico.  Anthony mistakenly thought we would find vanilla in the large main supermarket.  Boy – was that an experience!   The place had just about everything imaginable – except vanilla!  While canvassing the aisles, Anthony came across small boxes of “Achiote Paste” that he insisted on tossing into my cart.  He explained that they use this secret ingredient in loads of authentic Yucatan dishes and that, since I am such a foodie, I needed to bring some home to try it out.

This week I took Anthony’s advice and gave the secret ingredient a try on some chicken thighs.  I followed a very simple marinade recipe I found online and made some substitutions that he recommended.   The ingredients were blended in a mini-food processor and then poured into a zip lock bag with eight chicken thighs.  I lifted the skin from the thighs to make sure the marinade soaked into the meat and then refrigerated them for the day.  This can easily be done the night before as well.

1/2 cup blood orange juice
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 Tb. blood orange zest
2 Tb. achiote paste
1 egg

I decided to cook the chicken two ways to see which produced the best results.  Four of the thighs were placed on a rack on a broiler pan and cooked at 425˚ convection for 30 minutes and the other 4 were cooked on a medium grill for about 20 minutes.


The oven-roasted thighs cooked evenly and kept their attractive red color which is characteristic of the achiote paste.  The grilled thighs flared up quite a bit and resulted in more of a blackened appearance.   Both remained moist but the roasted ones won the prize for being more moist and attractive.

Most importantly, my impression of the achiote paste was a surprise.  I really like this Yucatan staple for the appearance it can give to food.  The paste is made from ground annatto peppers which are often used to color Latin dishes but the flavor itself is very mild.   The next time I try it out, I will spice it up by adding some cayenne pepper and cumin.  The chicken was delicious and looked like it would be loaded with a punch but the actual flavor was very mild with hints of citrus and pepper.  I’m also going to replace the blood orange with lime or lemon juice to see if a stronger citrus might give the chicken slightly more of a tangy flavor.

Achiote paste can be found in Mexican or Latino Supermarkets such as Juanito’s Groceries in Red Bank.  At only 99 cents, it is an economical staple to add to you pantry.

And on a completely different note – if you ever make it to Isla Mujeras check out Keen M Sport Fishing!

¡Disfrutar! (that is, Enjoy!)