While I am choosing to include “adobos” in my series on the sauces of Mexico, I have to admit that it is slightly ambiguous since, like the Yucatecan “recados”, an adobo is not truly a sauce, even though in many cases it does become one. To confuse matters further, the word itself comes from the Spanish “adobar”, which has several meanings, among them “to marinate, pickle or cure” but more importantly, “to stew”, all verbs which illustrate an adobo’s versatility very nicely.
Versions of adobos, and “adobado” dishes, abound throughout Latin America, as well as in the Philippines where chicken or pork adobo seems to be a national dish. For the purposes of Mexican cuisine, however, we will start off with the adobo in its most basic form: a paste typically containing chillies, spices, herbs and vinegar. It was probably devised originally as a way of pickling, and thereby preserving meat and fish, as well of course as seasoning and adding flavour, heat, aroma and zest. As always, there is no one and only recipe for adobo but it tends to come in two colours, red and green. A red adobo is traditionally made with dried chillies, while the more unusual “adobo verde”, green adobo, is based on fresh green chillies, herbs like marjoram, thyme and Mexican oregano, and pumpkin seeds, and is used primarily as a marinade. The spices lean towards cumin, cinnamon, pepper and cloves, although I have come across aniseed, and garlic seems to feature in each and every adobo, whatever its colour or provenance.
A wander through any Mexican market, large or small, will inevitably bring you to a wonderfully fragrant spice stall, and while I love to think of Mexican housewives toasting chillies and spices in a time-honoured way on a “comal” or earthenware griddle and pounding the adobo into a paste in a mortar made of lava rock, nowadays the market “marchanta” will have done the work for them and prepared basic spice mixes for various adobos and recados, as well as for “mole” and “pipián” pastes, with the help I daresay of an electric blender.
The adobo’s first role is that of a spicy seasoning paste or marinade, to be rubbed onto meat, fish or vegetables before cooking – and a dish prepared in this way is usually (but not always!) known as “adobado”: marinated meat, for instance, which is simply grilled, baked or steamed and served as is, totally unadorned. From here the red adobo more specifically moves onto its next role, that of a component in a sauce: the adobo paste may be let down with a liquid such as stock, puréed tomatoes, beer, perhaps orange juice in Yucatán or even melted butter or lard in Jalisco, then used to baste the meat as it grills or roasts, and finally turned into an accompanying sauce. A further alternative (and there are bound to be many more) is that the meat, once marinated, is cooked in a totally different medium, such as a tomato sauce, and it is here that the term “en adobo” comes in, as a saucy or stew-like dish.
In the following recipe, duck legs are marinated in a red adobo based on raisiny pasilla chillies, roasted with orange juice until crisp and succulent, and served with a sauce made from the adobo-laden, citrusy cooking juices – a sort of Mexican duck à l’orange!
Roast duck legs with red adobo sauce – Pato adobado
50 g/2 oz dried pasilla chillies
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 cinnamon stick, about 10 cm/4 in long, broken
10 black peppercorns
15 ml/1 tsp Mexican oregano
15 ml/1 tbsp white wine or cider vinegar
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
15 ml/1 tbsp runny honey
1 tbsp olive oil
4 duck legs
1 large orange, washed and juiced
Seeds from 1 small pomegranate
10 g/1/2 oz fresh coriander/cilantro leaves
Heat a heavy frying over medium heat and toast the chillies, pressing down on them with a spatula, until they start to smell aromatic, about 3 minutes. Flip them over and do the same on the other side. Place in a bowl, cover with boiling water, put a small saucepan lid or plate on top to keep them submerged, and set aside to soak for 30 minutes. Drain and discard the stem, ribs and seeds. Purée in a food processor with 1/4 cup of fresh water. Strain through a coarse mesh sieve to remove the bits of skin.
While the chillies are soaking, heat the heavy frying pan again and toast the spices over medium heat, stirring all the time, until they release their aroma – 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a mortar or electric spice grinder, add the oregano and grind it all together medium fine – you don’t want powder but neither do you want discernible pieces of spice. Place in a small bowl and stir in the chilli purée, vinegar, garlic, honey, oil and 1 tsp of salt.
Arrange the duck legs in an oven-proof dish where they fit snugly and spread the adobo evenly over them. Set aside to marinate for anything from one hour to overnight in the refrigerator. Bring back to room temperature before roasting.
Preheat the oven to 190oC/375oF/gas 5/fan oven 170oC.
Pour the orange juice around the duck legs and cover the dish tightly with foil. Roast for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and turn the heat up to 200oC/400oF/gas 6/fan oven 180oC. Baste the duck well with the fat and cooking juices and cook for a further 10 minutes to crisp the skin. Transfer to a warm plate, cover lightly with foil and set aside to rest for 15 minutes.
Carefully pour off the fat from the roasting dish and scrape the cooking juices and adobo into a small saucepan. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Check the seasoning and sweetness, and if it is at all sour, drizzle in a bit more honey, just enough to balance the sweet, sour and spicy flavours.
Pour the sauce over the duck, sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and coriander leaves, and serve immediately. Buén provecho!