I have always found my portal into another culture to be through its food. In March I went to the jungle outside of Merida and stayed in a colonial hacienda that had been transformed into a private home, soaring ceilings and rioting vegetation just outside the screened doors, the constant song of doves. At this extraordinary place, where every desire was anticipated before we had a chance to think of it ourselves, all meals were prepared for us — a showcase of Yucatecan cuisine: caldillo poblano con ensalada de camerone; sopa de tortilla y poc-chuc; frijol de puerco; arroz a la Mexicana y frjitas; and on and on. Our favorite, caldo Tlapeno y panuchos, was described to us as Yucatecan “fast-food” because the panuchos are eaten fast since they are so good. They are also considered a form of street food. But actually, they take quite a long time to make. We loved them so much that when we returned home we had a little dinner party to remember the trip and spent the afternoon making the panuchos. Panuchos are homemade tortillas stuffed with refried beans, topped with lime-rinsed shredded cabbage, achiote-rubbed grilled and shredded chicken, pickled red onion, a slice of avocado. They are simply delicious, all the flavors coming together in a burst of texture and spice and lime.
Ingredients and directions: achiote paste thinned with lime juice; pickled red onions (pickle them yourself by thinly slicing the red onion and soaking them in one part lime juice, one part orange — enough juice to submerge them, and, the longer they sit in the juice the better, at least a few hours; chicken breasts first poached and then rubbed with the achiote, then grilled, then shredded. I did this with my fingers. It was laborious, but I didn’t mind it as it brought me to contemplate the beauty of preparing delicious food, that it should take some time. It also allowed me to appreciate the effort that went into preparing the Yucatecan food for us when we were at the hacienda. There is something meditative about pulling chicken breasts apart — sort of like ironing. Prepare the shredded the cabbage. (I used a food processor, having had enough meditation.) Once shredded, squeeze lime juice abundantly on the cabbage. Cut avocado in thin wedges. Have all the ingredients ready so that you can assemble the panuchos quickly. Make the tortillas. We did this by hand. The flour packaging (masa harina) will have the recipe. We didn’t have time to buy a tortilla press so we rolled them by hand. They were not perfectly round, but it didn’t matter. We rolled the dough between two layers of Saran Wrap and then fried them until they puffed. Take them out of the oil with a slotted spoon and rest them on paper towel. As soon as you can, slice into the tortilla to make a pocket, fill it with black refried beans (ours were from a can, make sure they are black). Start assembling the panuchos: cabbage; chicken, onions, avocados. Make a gorgeous platter of them and then serve immediately. I promise you that this is worth all the effort. Making them and eating made us feel we were back in the hot, fragrant jungle even though we heard sirens racing up Broadway.
We were so enthusiastic about recreating the experience of eating at Hacienda Petac that we set the table as they did for all meals. Flower petals and napkins shaped to look like Mayan pyramids. (At the hacienda at each meal the napkins would be shaped differently: a shirt one day, a flower, a little woman. I believe there was a different shape for each meal: 3 meals per day times 7 — a lot of shapes.) We drank margaritas and a cool Chablis and limonadas. For dessert we made a Key Lime Pie and Flan. After the meal, the kids whacked a pinata until it burst. They’d made the pinata at Hacienda Petac during the lazy afternoons. Here are some fun and essential links:
The achiote-rubbed chicken on a make-shift cast iron grill that sits on stove top burners.
Making the tortillas
All the shredded chicken. This was from about 3 full breasts. Beyond the chicken, the assembling begins.
The glorious table.
Followed by …
Recipe for Key Lime Pie:
3 egg yolks
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup of key lime juice. Sercet: DO NOT use bottled key lime juice. If you can’t find key limes, use regular limes.
1) Make a pie crust with 5 tables of melted butter and 1 package of nine graham crackers crushed. Press it into and up the sides of a 9.5 Pyrex pie pan.
2)Preheat oven to 375
3) Combine egg yolks, milk, lime juice. Mix well. Pour into unbaked crust.
4) Bake for 15 minutes. Allow to cool. Refrigerate. Top with thin lime slices and unsweetened whipped cream … if you desire.