With the arrival of Lent, La Cuaresma, meat disappears from the Mexican kitchen, making way for an abundance of vegetable and fish dishes which will be served for the customary forty days. There will be no feeling of penance, gastronomic denial or compulsion during this period. On the contrary, there are countless fiestas and celebrations during the weeks before Easter, La Pascua, and Lenten cooking, la cocina cuaresmeña, is seen as an opportunity to enjoy all the bounty of the meat-free Mexican larder.
Rice which has been dyed yellow by whatever means is popular across the globe but particularly throughout Latin America. The colouring medium is usually saffron or turmeric but the Yucatecos’ Arroz Amarillo or Yellow Rice is different in that it involves the very indigenous and even regional ingredient Annatto or Achiote (see link below), also known as poor man’s saffron or saffron of the earth. This spice provides a more orange than yellow hue and a very specific, recognisable flavour, faintly bitter, slightly peppery, even a bit smoky and sweet – I personally find it very addictive.
While Arroz Amarillo is a widely used accompaniment to all savoury Yucatecan cooking, it makes an almost daily appearance on the mesa cuaresmeña, the Lenten table, to accompany the countless fish recipes as well as egg and vegetarian dishes. Sometimes it is utterly simple, seasoned with nothing more than a bit of onion, but it normally contains at least one vegetable, if not several: tomatoes, carrots, peas, sweetcorn, sweet potatoes, red peppers. The brown basmati rice is far from authentic but delicious and healthier – feel free to substitute white rice if you prefer and adjust the cooking time.
Yucatecan Yellow Rice – Arroz Amarillo Yucateco
Serves 4 as a side dish
30 ml/2 tbsp olive oil
125 g/4 1/2 oz onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
125 g/4 1/2 oz carrots, peeled and diced
25 g/1 oz green chillies, as hot or as mild as you like, deseeded and finely sliced
7.5 ml/1 1/2 tsp ground annatto seeds or achiote seasoning paste or powder
175 g/6 oz brown basmati rice
450 ml/3/4 pint/2 cups boiling water
10 ml/2 tsp bouillon powder
225 g/8 oz tomatoes, coarsely chopped
7.5 ml/1 1/2 tsp sea salt
100 g/4 oz cooked or frozen peas, defrosted
15 g/1/2 oz fresh coriander/cilantro, coarsely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan, add the onions, garlic, carrots and chillies and cook gently, stirring occasionally, until the mixture starts to colour. Sprinkle in the achiote and fry for a further two minutes. Stir in the rice, turning it over and over to ensure it is well coated with the oil. Pour in the boiling water, add the bouillon powder, tomatoes, salt and a good grinding of pepper. Bring it all back to the boil, give it one last stir, turn the heat right down, cover the pan and leave it to cook for 50 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat, add the peas and fluff the rice up with a skewer. Cover the pan again and set aside for five minutes.
Fluff the rice up again, sprinkle with coriander and serve immediately.
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