The Spanish word “recado” roughly translates into the English notion of “message.” I have yet to confirm my theory, but (very loose) research indicates that “message” may have been “We, the Mayan people, will totally look down the ages and laugh loudly at anybody who even tries to surpass this versatile and addictive Yucatecan spice blend…oh, and be somewhere else on December 21, 2012.”
2 tablespoons Seville orange juice (or substitute described below)
1 1/3 Tablespoons annatto/achiote powder (2 Tbsp whole anatto seeds)
1/2 tablespoon coriander seeds
1/2 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 teaspoons mexican oregano
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
5 cloves roasted garlic (0.5 oz)
6 allspice berries (or equivalent)
3 whole cloves
The main component of recado rojo is annatto – a small and violently red seed from the achiote tree in South America which gives any dish that employs this blend or paste a distinctive red hue. For those who have not tried it, annatto imparts a distinctly earthy savor to dishes, as well as an undeniable sense of connecting with bygone Yucatecan culture and centuries of unchanged flavor. Perhaps it’s merely a visual trick played by the adobe-red color but there is something of a claylike-yet-vegetative undertone that can only be described as ancient.
Ground into powder form, this seed was instrumental in Mayan culture; decoratively, ceremonially and, of course, throughout the regional culinary history.
In addition to being the foundation for some of the most badass war paint that the world has ever seen…
…the ancient Mayans would imbue ceremonial beverages, including ‘xocolatl’ – made from bitter cacao(chocolate) seeds (and yes, I will be posting a recipe before hot chocolate season strikes again) – with this dye to emulate the appearance of drinking blood (without all the excess hemoglobin). Bear in mind that the ancient Mayans also used dried cacao seeds as currency so only the most insanely rich and powerful would ever taste this drink.
So, the next time you flippantly accuse someone of “pissing their money away…” Uh-huh.
But I digress (frequently, in case you’re new here)… Alongside a supporting cast of regional spices, the other distinctly iconic flavor of any good achiote paste comes from the juice of the Sevillle orange. Alongside the lemon tree, this species of bitter orange is heralded as one of the first plants brought to the New World by the Conquistadors.
If you have access to a Seville orange supply, there really is no replacement for its unique flavor – but it can be reasonably substituted for more readily-available alternatives. My go-to backup is a mix of two parts grapefruit to one part lime and one part navel orange. Some people add to this one part of distilled white vinegar…but, personally, I would rather drink bloody chocolate.
One more distinction I want to bring up: this recipe calls for Mexican oregano. While the two can be interchanged in a pinch, these are certainly not the same herb and should only be substituted when necessary. Mexican oregano is actually more closely related to lemon verbena than it is to the creeping Mediterranean plant that we all envision. Mexican oregano lends a much more pronounced floral note, with hints of licorice, and I would definitely recommend making the extra effort to track it down, if possible.
After measuring out the ingredients, place the first nine together in a spice grinder or electric coffee grinder. A little word of warning though, unless you’re into cumin-flavored java I would recommend keeping a dedicated second grinder around the kitchen for spices because, once pulverized, your chance of ever eliminating the essence of some of these spices is essentially zero. Trust me, I made fresh garam masala 6 months ago and I still enjoy a hint of cardamom with my morning roast.
If you’re grinding whole annatto seeds then this could take a while, as they are intensely hard little guys. Regardless, work the blend to a reasonably uniform powder and set it aside.
Pull out the ol’ mortar and pestle and mash up your roasted garlic cloves. Start working in the spice blend and moisten the mix with Seville orange juice until you’ve got a nice, smooth paste.
At this point, you have some options. Some people shape this paste into rough balls or cakes and let them dry into small bricks for future use. Keeping it in an airtight container also works for long-term storage.
Or, if you’re a spontaneous and impatient culinary thrill-seeker, you throw a couple tablespoons of fresh paste into a basic marinade for the ultimate pre-columbian comfort food………………..