Your spatulas have been warned: Achiote is the turmeric or, if you like, the saffron of Cuban and Latin American cuisine and will dye most anything it comes across a vibrant red-orange. It’s worth it though, as I discovered and cooked with this spice.
In the Cuban recipe for Arroz con Pollo at Rincon Criollo, 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground achiote powder were added along with the spices and liquids to get the rice a “rich yellow color,” as described to me.
First, don’t make the mistake I did, which is grabbing the straight-up seeds of the annatto tree versus the ground version of achiote and thinking that these two things are interchangeable. Industrial-strength kitchen equipment is needed to grind those seeds, and I ended up with an orange-stained food processor with those full seeds taunting me.
I wisely gave up and went back to the store, nabbing the correct achiote powder. Then, it was in the Filipino recipe for Oxtail Stew in Peanut Butter Sauce where I discovered how to use the seeds. The dish calls for annatto water, which is used with the seeds soaking in water for 30 minutes before discarding the seeds.
I prefer the ground achiote powder because, let’s face it, it’s just easier and quicker to use in cooking. Now, any food that needs a slight pick-me-up (hello, rice), I’Il add a teaspoon or so of ground achiote powder to add a little spark of color and flavor.
Cooking Secrets from Immigrant Kitchens
While working on my latest cookbook, Queens: A Culinary Passport, I chatted with cooks and chefs from diverse ethnic backgrounds (Himalayan, Cuban, Cypriot, Szechuan, and more). As I learned how to replicate their dishes in my own kitchen, I amassed a slew of tips from them that I began using in my everyday cooking life.