Annatto/achiote (Recipe: vaca atolada, or "cow stuck in the mud")
Guest post and photos by Peter in Brazil, chef and co-owner of Pousada do Capão
I mentioned urucum (which means "red" in the Tupi language) in my very first guest post on The Perfect Pantry as one of the 21 essential and ever-present items in any Brazilian pantry. When Lydia told me she had some urucum (achiote in Spanish, annatto in English) in her pantry just begging to be used, I figured it was time to get to work.
Annatto (the English name that might be more familiar to you), though very subtle in flavor, is huge on color. Some people swear it lends depth to food, tasting a bit of nutmeg and black pepper, but more importantly it gives that gorgeous, appetizing, mouth-watering red glow to so many Brazilian dishes: fish moquecas, chicken ensopadas, braised meats, rice and beans. The Indians loved red. The Portuguese loved red. So when the two met in the 1500s…
Yes, once again the Portuguese and Spanish explorers and traders are responsible for the globalization of one of our local pantry items.
Native to the Amazon forests of Peru and Brazil, annatto is a shrub or small tree with heart-shaped leaves, lovely pinkish-lavender flowers, and spiny, red, almond-shaped seed pods yielding numerous small, brick-red, triangular seeds.
The fine layer of resinous red flesh encasing each seed is used to make the annatto oil, paste and powder used in cooking all over the world. In local folk medicine it has applications that run the gamut from anti-inflammatory to digestive; currently, scientists are studying its hypertension- and cholesterol-lowering properties.
The Indians used annatto as sun block, bug repellent, war paint, and offerings to the gods. Commercially, it's a nutritious and natural alternative to red dye number two, to color everything from cheese to hot dogs to lipstick to fabric.
Here in Minas Gerais, cooks fry the seeds in cooking oil to extract the color, or pound the seeds with cornmeal and a bit of oil to a fine powder in the mortar and pestle. The hard seed kernels are sieved out in both cases.
Every kitchen has a bottle of annatto oil and/or powder sitting at the edge of the stove beside a pot of garlic crushed with salt and a jar of hot peppers. The cornmeal in the powder form has the added benefit of giving a bit of a liaison to sauces.
Vaca atolada ("cow stuck in the mud")
Here’s a traditional recipe for vaca atolada (roughly translated as “Cow Stuck in the Mud” –- you’ll understand when you make it) adapted from Dona Lucinha of Serro. It’s a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs, short rib and mandioca stew, perfect for the cold New England nights I remember. In a pinch, substitute nice waxy potatoes for the mandioca, but it’s worth hunting for the real thing. If you only have annatto seeds, grind them with a mortar and pestle to make annatto powder for this recipe. Serves 4.
2 lbs beef short ribs (have the butcher cut them in 2” pieces)
4 Tbsp cachaça or light rum
2 Tbsp lime juice
Water, as needed
2 Tbsp butter or lard or bacon fat
1-1/2 Tbsp chopped garlic
2 medium onions, chopped
1 Tbsp annatto powder
1 bay leaf
2 Tbsp each chopped parsley and scallions
Salt to taste
Hot pepper, to taste
2 lbs mandioca or waxy potatoes
Wash the ribs. Put ribs in a saucepan with cachaça and lime juice and enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Drain and set aside. Heat the butter, lard, or bacon fat in a heavy casserole. Add the garlic, the onion, and the drained ribs and sauté until browned, being sure not to burn the garlic. Add the annatto, mixing well and water, a little at a time, to form a nice broth. Add the bay leaf, the parsley, the scallions, salt to taste, and simmer, covered until the meat is tender. Adjust the seasonings -– salt and hot pepper to taste. Meanwhile, wash, peel, and cut the mandioca (or potato) in 2” chunks and parboil in water until semi-soft. You don’t want it falling apart...yet. Drain and add to the ribs. Continue cooking until it forms a nice thick, succulent stew –- the ribs tender, the mandioca melting into the sauce. You’ll by now understand the derivation of the recipe's name! Readjust seasoning, as the mandioca will soak up the salt. Serve with garlicky rice, collards, and French-fried sweet potatoes.