Yucatan Flavor: Pollo Pibil

Recipe and photos contributed to Hispanic Kitchen by Carolyn Swaney

If I could take you for a walk through the Plaza Mayor in Mérida, the bustling capital of the Yucatán…oh what a walk it would be. The sleepy peninsula wakes up in the city where modern life meets ancient culture. Just like the way your taste buds come alive when they first taste pollo pibil, an ancient Mayan meal that meets modern ways of cooking.
As the name implies, Pollo Pibil is chicken cooked in a special oven called a pib, a hand dug oven that is lined with hot coals and covered tightly. Meats that are cooked in a pib are always wrapped in banana leaves, which impart a unique flavor and keep meat tender and moist. The pib, traps in steam and smoke, also adding to the flavor of the meat, really adding to the flavor. Most modern Yucatecos, not to mention the rest of the world, don’t dig pibes in the back yard, so keep the oven closed for the duration of cooking to mimic the pib as much as possible.
I first had Pollo Pibil in Mérida, and after 1 taste, I was sure to eat it about once a week. Elegantly served in the leaf, the tender chicken, and it’s intoxicating smells take over the kitchen. The recado rojo, or achiote paste, is the shining star flavor of the Yucatán, and does it’s duty in making this pollo pibil version a standout meal. On top of that, the amazing color from the annato seed in the paste is outstanding. It had been about 10 years since my weekly dose of pibil, when I had the pleasure of ordering the cochinita pibil (made with pork shank) at Diego restaurant in Las Vegas, inspiring me to bring out this recipe again. This one comes from my host mom, who lives in one of the colonias just outside the Plaza Mayor.
This recipe is slightly modified from the one I learned so many years ago, using chicken breast only, instead of the usual whole chicken making for more even cooking, and a healthier dish. I also removed the skin from the bone-in breasts to reduce greasiness. Be sure to marinate chicken for at least 2 hours for full flavor. Serve with warm tortillas and beans or corn to round out the meal.
Yields 4 servings

4 bone-in chicken breasts

2 tbsp recado rojo (achiote paste)

½ cup orange juice

½ cup lime juice

½ cup grapefruit juice

2 tbsp white vinegar

4 cloves garlic, roasted and peeled

¼ tsp ground cumin

¼ tsp ground allspice

2 cups (or 1 can) chicken broth

salt and pepper to taste

1 red onion, thinly sliced

2 roma tomatoes, chopped.

3 small Banana Leaves, soaked for 30 minutes (can be found at most Latino markets)

1. Preheat oven to 350ºF.
2. Combine recado through chicken broth in the food processor and season with salt and pepper. Puree until smooth.

3. Pour marinade from the processor into a zip top bag and add chicken breasts. Turn bag to be sure pieces are covered and refrigerate 2 hours to overnight.
4. Lay banana leaf on the counter and place a handful of onions sprinkled along the bottom.

Top onions with chopped tomatoes.

5. Remove chicken from marinade and place in banana leaves. Tie with a piece of leaf or place folds of chicken packet facing down on the bottom of the pan. (If banana leaves are not available, you can use aluminum foil).
6. Boil water on the stove and in a second pan. Fill pan with boiling water to about 1-2 inches deep. Cover packets with an additional banana leaf and roast in the oven for 2 hours.
7. Remove packets from the oven and slit or untie before serving.

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