I’ve always maintained the thinking that the later a country got readily available refrigeration technology, the spicier it’s food tends to be. Spicy peppers and bold flavors can hide a multitude of sins, namely in this case spoiled proteins. Corroborating this thought is the fact that the Argentines eschew spicy food and heavy sauces that are so common north of the border in Mexico. After the introduction of refrigerated rail cars and ship holds in the late 19th century, Argentina could take advantage of the fact that it’s seasons were “reversed” and thrived exporting beef to countries at a time of year that beef was more difficult to come by. But I digress. This weekend, the Quincho Project was inspired by the flavors of Mexico since I was craving some spicy grilled foods.
At the local Mexican market I found just what I was looking for; an abundance of Guajillo chiles, fresh jalapenos and serranos, big juicy limes, achiote paste and some nice tomatillos. My goal was a Yucateco inspired grill complete with Pollo al Horno (chicken marinated in a bright red achiote paste concoction), Salsa Verde and some Mexican rice. I even threw in a salad for effect (even I eat vegetables once in a while).
Lighting a batch of somewhat wet, somewhat under-seasoned oak in February in the Northern Hemisphere is no simple task. Even with a gas log starter and several beers. My wood is practically fireproof. The fire starters flames shoot up and into the wood, surrounding it with heat and flame. You can pick up that log 10 minutes later and it doesn’t have a mark on it. So I regrouped and started with smaller pieces of wood. After 2 hours I was able to get enough of a fire to start creating a few embers. The asador is on the fires clock, not his. The fire is the boss of the event and every one is different. This one was no exception. You can’t rush a good fire, so I patiently waited for some of the bigger embers to fall through the brassero and carefully moved them under the parilla until I had enough of a base to grill some peppers and tomatoes.
After about 45 minutes of this, I finally had enough of a base to put the chicken on. Chicken is no small affair either. It takes about 45 minutes to grill on a hot fire if you want it done right. I use what I call the “Sai Barbacci” method. Sai was a part of our old Italian hunting group years ago and he would always put a 1/2 chicken on, skin side down for 15 minutes. Flip it and let it go for another 15 minutes. Repeat once more, put it in an aluminum foil pan, pour beer over it and cover it. Put the pan on the grill and leave it there for another 15 minutes. Almost foolproof, falling apart chicken. I do the same but usually mix the beer with Hot Wing sauce or BBQ sauce.
My chicken was fantastic with a pronounced grilled chicken flavor. The achiote paste gave it a citrisy ring with faint background notes of garlic and onion. I would do this again in a heartbeat. This marinade is going into my growing bag of tricks. I hate not sharing a great thing, so here it is for anyone that wants to try it out. Go to a Mexican Market if you have one nearby, they’ll have everything you need.
Achiote Spice Paste Marinade
2 tbsp. prepared yellow mustard
2 tbsp. kosher salt
1 tbsp. achiote paste (try the El Yucateco brand – that works well)
10 cloves garlic, peeled
5 dried guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
Juice of 1 lime
1 (3–4-lb.) whole chicken, cut into 8 pieces
1. Combine mustard, salt, achiote paste, garlic, chiles, juice, and 1 cup boiling water in a blender, and purée until very smooth, at least 1 minute. Transfer to large bowl, and add chicken; toss to coat, and then cover and let marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Grill using the “Sai Barbacci” method – or your favorite method… Enjoy!