If you’re looking at a map of Mexico, that nub of land that juts north of Quintana Roo, the state where tourists flock to Cancun and Tulum; and the cuisine of the Yucatan is unlike the Mexican food you imagine. For millions of years this area was isolated from from mainland Mexico. The Mayas had more contact with the Caribbean than their countrymen; and later, they were the first to encounter Europeans in the new world. Today those influences are embedded in Yucatecan cuisine.
Since 2003, David Sterling has been living in the city of Merida where he offers cooking classes and gives culinary tours. This recipe for Pollo en Bistec comes from his book Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition which won the James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year.
Pollo en bistec (Chicken and Potatoes Stewed in Oregano and Black Pepper Sauce)
Prepare ahead note: Pollo en bistec keeps well under refrigeration for several days and improves with age.
To prepare ahead
Brined chicken (see below)
Recado para bistec (see below)
Seville orange juice substitute (see below), unless fresh Seville oranges are available
Enriched Lard (see below)
Yield: 6–8 servings
For the marinade
3–4 lbs. (1.5–2 k) chicken (about 1 whole fryer), brined and cut into 6–8 serving pieces (Note: You may use cut up chickens, or any combination of pieces you wish, preferably with bone and skin intact)
5 Tbs. (75 g) Recado para bistec (recipe follows, or purchase at your local Mexican market)
2/3 cup (165 ml) Seville orange juice, or substitute (recipe follows)
1/4 cup (62.5 ml) white vinegar
4 medium cloves garlic (3/4 oz. / 24 g), peeled
1 Tbs. (18 g) sea salt (*use less salt or omit if using commercial recado)
For sautéing and finishing the chicken
3 Tbs. (42 g) Enriched Lard (recipe follows)
2 cups (500 ml) water
1 lb. (500 g) baking potatoes, unpeeled, sliced into rounds about 1/4 in. (6.5 mm) thick (place sliced potatoes in water to avoid oxidation)
1 medium white onion (10 oz. / 275 g), cut into quarters top to bottom, then each quarter thinly sliced top to bottom and separated into half-moon shapes
1 medium green bell pepper (6 1/2 oz. / 185 g), sliced into thin rounds and seeded
3 medium Roma tomatoes (10 1/2 oz. / 300 g), seeded and sliced lengthwise into thin wedges
1 large chile x’catik (about 1 1/4 oz. / 35 g), left whole
8 whole chiles de árbol
8 whole medium chiles serranos
Remove the chicken from the brine, rinse, and pat dry; discard the brining solution. Transfer the chicken to a shallow baking dish or resealable plastic bag. Place the remaining marinade ingredients in the jar of a blender and process until thoroughly liquefied. Pour the marinade over the chicken and allow to rest 30 minutes at room temperature.
In a very large, deep skillet that has a lid, heat the fat until shimmering. Remove the chicken from the marinade, reserving any extra marinade. Brown the chicken over high heat a few pieces at a time to avoid crowding, turning once, 2–3 minutes per side. Transfer the browned pieces to a platter.
Return the chicken to the skillet. Add the water and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Drain the potatoes, cover them with the leftover marinade, and toss to coat thoroughly. Arrange the potatoes in a single layer on the chicken and pour on any remaining marinade. Layer on the onion, bell pepper, and tomatoes, in that order, distributing them evenly over the potatoes. Finish with the fresh and dried whole chiles. Cover and cook 15–20 minutes, or until the chicken is tender and the vegetables are softened. The chicken should reach an internal temperature of 165˚F (74˚C); do not overcook. If the chicken is done but the potatoes aren’t yet tender, remove the chicken to a plate and allow the vegetables to cook a bit longer, then return the chicken to the skillet. Remove the pan from heat, cover, and allow to rest 15–20 minutes prior to serving to enhance flavors.
Bistec a la cazuela (Beef and Potatoes Stewed in Oregano and Black Pepper Sauce): To prepare the original version of the beef dish on which doña Rita based her “light” chicken dish, follow the master recipe for Pollo en bistec, replacing chicken with 4 ounces (110 g) cubed stewing beef per person. (Omit the brining step.)
Adobado de pollo (Chicken and Potatoes Stewed in Achiote and Tomato Sauce): This simple recipe was shared with me by doña Elsy de Socorro Piña Argáez of Mérida. It is virtually identical to Pollo en bistec, but uses Recado rojo instead of the Recado para bistec. The flavor is very different. The earthy taste of oregano is replaced by the pungent achiote. Like Pollo en bistec, the recipe can be adapted using beef, pork, or fish. Follow the master recipe for Pollo en bistec, substituting Recado rojo (p. 000) for the Recado para bistec.Finally, instead of adding the tomatoes to the sautéed chicken, char them whole and add them to the blender jar with the Recado rojo at the beginning. Proceed with the rest of the recipe.
Preparing Meats for Cooking (Recipe for Chicken Brine)
All meats in Yucatán are given a refreshing bath in cold water prior to cooking. This may date from a time when most meats were preserved with salt and therefore had to be liberally soaked to make them edible. Further, it is typical nowadays for women to squeeze some Seville orange juice onto the meats during the bath, or to rub the meat with a half of the fruit. Not only does this aid in removing some of the gamey flavor, but it also adds a light citrus essence to finished dishes.
The act of soaking meats in salted water to improve flavor and tenderize them is not common in Yucatán, although on rare occasions, vintage regional cookbooks suggest a soak in salmuera (brine). The ancient Mayas frequently salted meat and fish to preserve it (p. 000), then refreshed it in water before cooking. For these reasons–not to mention the dramatic improvement in overall flavor and texture–I don’t think brining is such a stretch from a historical perspective and warrants a little poetic license.
Avoid overbrining, since meat proteins that have broken down too much can become mushy. Because brining increases the saltiness of the finished product, all recipes in this book that specify brining have been adjusted for salt content to account for the brining step.
Recommended Brining Times
Chicken, whole 4–8 hours
Chicken, breast or pieces 2–3 hours
Pork, butt, shoulder, roast 12–48 hours
Pork, loin, chops 4–6 hours
Quail, pheasant, game hens 1–2 hours
Rabbit, whole or pieces 2–3 hours
Turkey, whole 12–48 hours
Turkey, breast or pieces 6–8 hours
Venison, roast 12–36 hours
Venison, chops, pieces 6–8 hours
1 gallon (4 L) cold water
1/2 cup (145 g) sea salt
1/2 cup (100 g) sugar
2 tsp. (8 g) whole black peppercorns, coarsely crushed
10 whole allspice berries, coarsely crushed
Dissolve the salt and sugar in the water and add the crushed allspice and peppercorns. (I have good luck dissolving the salt and sugar in cold water. It takes a little longer, but I find it is still faster than dissolving it in hot water and then letting the water cool. The water must be cold before adding the meat.) Place the meat in the brine and refrigerate for the specified time. Drain the meat, rinse under cold water, and pat dry with paper towels. Discard the brining solution. (Note: For larger cuts such as a whole turkey, you will double or triple the brine solution recipe, making sure to maintain the exact proportions of water to salt. The solution should completely cover the meat.)
For other flavor enhancements, add 2–3 crushed cloves of garlic, a couple of bay leaves, a small stick of canela (Mexican cinnamon), and/or 6–8 whole cloves.
Naranja agria (Seville Orange Juice Substitute)
If you don’t live in the tropics, you may be able to find fresh Seville oranges in January–February, when they tend to appear in certain places, in small quantities, and for a short period of time. Grab all you can find, juice them, and freeze the juice in ice cube trays. Pop the cubes into a resealable plastic bag and keep frozen until ready to use. You may do the same for this substitute. If you should find real Seville oranges, it is customary in Yucatán to peel them before juicing; folks say that reduces bitterness. Although some bottled “sour orange juice” products have entered the market, I don’t recommend them: the ones I have tried are gelatinous in texture and leave an unpleasant detergent-like aftertaste. This recipe can be easily scaled up or down: the basic proportion is 2:1:1–lime juice:sweet orange juice:grapefruit juice.
Yield: 2 cups (500 ml)
For the juice substitute
1 cup (250 ml) freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 cup (125 ml) freshly squeezed sweet orange juice
1/2 cup (125 ml) freshly squeezed grapefruit juice (preferably not pink)
Mix the juices together and strain into a nonreactive container or ice cube trays, as suggested above.
Recado para bistec (Herbal Seasoning Paste)
This recado acquires its intense flavor and forest green coloring from hefty quantities of Mexican oregano and cumin. As the name suggests, this recado serves as a marinade for beef (bistec), but it is used just as frequently for turkey, pork, and even some fish dishes.
Yield: Approximately 6 oz. (170 g) / 8 Tbs.
For the recado
5 Tbs. (10 g) dried whole Mexican oregano and 2 Tbs. (12 g) whole cuminseed, lightly toasted together
1 Tbs. (12 g) black peppercorns
2 medium heads garlic (about 1 3/4 oz. / 50 g each), charred, peeled, and separated into cloves
2 Tbs. (30 ml) white vinegar
Working in batches if necessary, place the spices in a spice mill or coffee grinder reserved for the purpose and grind until very fine. Strain the powder through a fine-mesh sieve over a bowl, crumbling any remaining bits of debris through the sieve with your fingers. Return anything left in the sieve to the grinder and process again. Pass through the sieve and discard any residue.
Place the ground spices, garlic, and vinegar in the jar of a blender or a small food processor. Purée for several minutes, scraping down the sides of the jar as needed, until the mixture turns into a smooth paste. Store in an airtight container.
Manteca (Enriched Lard)
Sadly, the lard (manteca) available commercially outside Mexico is highly processed, purified, and, heaven forbid, sometimes even hydrogenated. (Check the label!) Commercial lard is white as snow, and about as flavorful. With just a bit of effort, you can render your own; there is ample instruction available for how to do so in other volumes or online. A simpler method, however, is to enrich commercial lard to approximate the qualities of lard from chicharronerías, which acquires its flavor from frequent boiling and from bits of burned meats that sink to the bottom of the frying vat. To achieve this end, I fry a bit of bacon in the pot as the lard melts and finish by boiling the lard for about 10 minutes more after removing the bacon, which may seem an agonizingly long time as your kitchen fills with smoke! (Be sure your kitchen is well ventilated or, better yet, prepare it on your outdoor cooker.) The fact is, even in Yucatán, lard bought at places other than chicharronerías may be insipid, such that many local cooks boil their lard for 10 or 15 minutes to darken it and concentrate the flavors.
Prepare ahead note: Enriched Lard will stay fresh for 2–3 weeks under refrigeration. It freezes well and will keep for several months. Make as large a quantity of this recipe as you have storage room for, then divide it into several separate freezer containers.
Yield: Approximately 2 lbs. (1 k)
For the lard
3 1/2 oz. (100 g) smoked slab bacon, cut into 3–4 large chunks
2 lbs. (1 k) unhydrogenated lard
Place the bacon and lard in a large, heavy pot, preferably cast iron, over medium heat. As the lard liquefies, continue cooking at a gentle boil until the bacon is thoroughly cooked and browned, about 10 minutes.
Remove the bacon and discard (or eat!). Raise the heat to high and boil the lard for an additional 8–10 minutes (see note above about smoke). Allow the lard to cool. Strain the cooled lard through a fine sieve into containers and cover. Refrigerate or freeze until ready to use.
Recipes from Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition by David Sterling (Copyright © 2014 by the University of Texas Press) used by permission of the University of Texas Press. For more information visit www.utexaspress.com.