Mayan Chicken with Spicy Citrus Marinade

August 31, 2011
By Holly Jennings

This recipe, from Global Grilling by Jay Solomon, was inspired by the cuisine of the Yucatán, the land of Mayan culture. The marinade features some key, commonly used ingredients from that cuisine: citrus, in particular the bitter orange; chili pepper; and achiote oil, which is made from simmering annatto seeds in oil. The annatto seed is used for the brilliant, dark red color it adds to food and even beverages. (Historically, the Mayans added ground annatto seeds to their prized cold chocolate drink to imbue it with a blood red tinge.)

Here was my chance to use some of those annatto seeds in my spice drawer, purchased in the last decade from Penzeys to make Roberto Rodriguez’s recipe for Puerco Pibil. I used the recipe for making achiote oil right on the bag from Penzeys; it was easy to make and the color gorgeous and intense. (Be careful, it will stain your favorite bamboo cutting board.) You can see how rich the color is below, in a shot taken of the marinade ingredients before being mixed together.

After a 5-hour marinade session, I found the grilled chicken to be very flavorful and moist, but not particularly spicy. Most of the spice was in the marinade itself, residing in the chopped chili pepper. (Marinating overnight may remedy this.) To capture the chili heat, I simmered the marinade on the stove for a bit with a smidgen of sugar and drizzled it over the chicken and rice, flavoring and saucing the rice at one go. A green salad is a cooling and pretty pairing with this spicy and decidedly orange colored chicken. Though best hot, it’s also good when served cold, sliced and used as a sandwich filling—something I discovered on the day Hurricane Irene hit Vermont and the electricity went out, taking all reheating options off the table. (Considering that eating cold chicken with candlelight was really our only inconvenience, we are very lucky compared to others in the state following what was for some a devastating storm.)

Adapted from Global Grilling by Jay Solomon

Serves 4

Achiote Oil
(Makes 2 tablespoons)

1 tablespoon annatto seeds
2 tablespoons neutral-flavored vegetable oil, preferably safflower or corn


½ cup fresh squeezed bitter orange juice (such as Seville) or ¼ cup orange juice and ¼ cup grapefruit juice
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 heaping tablespoon minced jalapeño or 1 to 2 teaspoons minced habanero, or to taste
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into wide strips
½ teaspoon sugar

Make the Achiote Oil: Combine the annatto seeds and oil in very small saucepan or skillet. (See Note.) Simmer over the lowest heat possible for 10 minutes. Be careful not to burn the seeds. Remove from the heat; let the seeds and oil cool in the pan. Strain the oil; discard the seeds.

In a bowl, combine the achiote oil and the rest of the ingredients, except the chicken. Mix well and add the chicken, tossing to coat completely with the marinade. Cover and chill for a minimum of 4 hours, or overnight. Stir after 1 hour.

Preheat the grill until the coals are gray or white or, if using a gas grill, to medium-high heat.

While the grill is heating, remove the chicken from the marinade to allow it come to room temperature. (Do not discard the marinade.)

In a saucepan, bring the marinade to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until reduced by half. Stir in the sugar and simmer briefly to dissolve.

When the grill is hot, clean and oil the grates. Place the chicken on the hot grill and cook, covered, for 2 to 4 minutes on each side, depending on the size of the chicken strips, until the chicken is white but still juicy at the center. If the chicken strips begin to brown too quickly, move to a cooler area of the grill.

Serve the chicken with rice, the reduced sauce for drizzling over top, and a green salad.

Note: If you don’t have a saucepan or skillet sufficiently small to permit the annatto seeds to be covered in the oil while simmering, you can increase the amount as needed. The proportions are twice the amount of oil to annatto seeds. Once strained, store extra oil in an air-tight clean jar in the refrigerator. Two tablespoons is all that is needed for this recipe.

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