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Whenever anyone travels abroad and asks if I’d like a souvenir, I always ask for the same thing: whatever the specialty seasoning is from that region. So when my boyfriend returned from a research trip to the Yucatan, he brought me two little packets of achiote paste. I had heard of annato, and knew it was used as a coloring agent, but I was completely ignorant of it’s use as a seasoning. Achiote (or annato, in English) is a colorful and fragrant seed from the wild alien-looking fruit of the achiote tree. The seeds are available whole, or (as I got them) prepared into a paste, usually containing other seasonings. Many of the signature dishes from the area use the brilliant colored paste as a sauce/marinade for meat dishes. Look for achiote and epazote in the Mexican section of well stocked grocery stores or in specialty Mexican or South American groceries.
So this is my out of season, highly altered, allergy-dodging adaptation of the traditional dish, tikin xic. Lots of substitutions, but I still think it’s in the spirit of the original. Traditional recipes call for bitter orange juice (not widely available in the US), served with peppers and tomato (and I just can’t bring myself to buy these that out of season) and wrapped in banana leaves before cooking (it takes some work to track down banana leaves). Oiled brown paper is a good substitute for banana leaves– but you can also use tin foil. I skipped out on the peppers and tomatoes and I swapped the traditional white fish (most recipes call for grouper) for trout. This swap is only because of my complicated fish allergy that lets me enjoy a few friends from the sea but not others. Using another white fish would be both more economical and more traditional, so feel free to swap back to the traditional grouper or snapper. The achiote marinade makes a brilliant red sauce and surface to the fish, but because achiote’s red pigment is not water soluble, the color does not bleed far into the meat. All of this makes for a stunning presentation. Add to that the beautifully magenta pickled onions (make extra, put them on sandwiches– trust me!), and you’ve got one heck of a red dish. I hope the rest of the rainbow is this tasty!
2 trout (about ⅔ lb total)
1 oz. achiote paste
½ t. salt
¼ c. beer
a pinch of dried or fresh, chopped epazote (optional)
Pickled Red Onions:
1 small red onion (about 1½ c. slices)
1 t. chopped fresh oregano
1 t. chopped fresh thyme
⅓ c. white wine vinegar.
a few black peppercorns or ¼ t. ground black pepper
¼ t. cumin
pinch of red pepper flakes
½ t. salt
large brown paper bag, a pastry brush and cooking oil (or tin foil)
a small oven-safe dish to cook the fish.
Juice the limes and orange. First mix the achiote paste with a little of the juice to dissolve the paste, then mix it into the rest of the juice. Add salt. Pat the fish dry. Place fish in a loaf pan or small baking pan, skin side down. Pour marinade over fish. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours, up to overnight.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Slice onions into strips or rounds. Pour onions into the boiling water and cook for exactly one minute. Pour into a colander and run cold water over the onions until they have cooled down. Juice limes, pour juice into a glass jar (2c. is a good size for this quantity). Add white vinegar, spices, lime juice oregano, thyme and salt. Toss in the onions and press down to submerge in the brine. Leave to marinate at least two hours or up to several days in advance.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Transfer trout to the dish you want to bake them in. Spoon a few tablespoons of the leftover marinade over the trout. Spoon the beer over the fish. Sprinkle with a few leaves of oregano and epazote (if using). Discard remaining marinade. Cover the fish, either by sealing over the top of the dish with aluminum foil, or placing the whole dish inside an oiled paper bag. Place the covered dish in the oven and bake for 12-18 minutes, until the fish is cooked through, and flakes easily.
Serve fish with pickled onions, spoon some of the excess cooking juice over the plated fish. Top with pickled onions.