Seven years ago, my husband and I went to Tulum, Mexico. Escaping Chicago in January for the very beaches that show up in commercials for Corona was thrilling. Bobbing around in the warm Caribbean sea and replenishing my depleted Vitamin D levels in the bright sun was restorative.
It took us about 3 days to find what I'd really come for though: cochinita pibil. We asked everyone we talked to if they knew if and where we could find the pit-cooked barbecue pork the Yucatan is known for. Finally an American ex-pat who worked at the hotel we were staying at gave up the goods. "You have to go really early," he told us. "I'd leave at 6." He meant am. Because the pork is cooked over night in pits (pibes) lined with rocks, the meat is sold in the mornings and it goes quick.
One of my most vivid taste memories is of eating that cochinita pibil at 8 in the morning under the already hot Yucatecan sun, rust-hued oil (from the achiote seasoning) dripping through my fingers as I sank my teeth through the corn tortillas and tender pork. The habenero salsa we'd sprinkled on top seared my tongue and lips, the salty pickled onions offering a whisper of relief. Since it was so early in the morning, we slurped down ice-cold limonadas. A crisp Mexican lager would have been perfect.
I'd had little luck recreating even a shadow of that experience over the past seven years. Without a pit for barbecuing (or even a yard), I've relied on lining my slow cooker and Dutch oven with banana leaves. I've stuck with pork in all my trials, but had never even come close to the balance of aromas and flavors I'd experienced in Mexico. It was always too rich, with never enough of that classic spicy-tartness I love about Yucatecan-style food. Then I tried it with chicken.
After modifying several recipes for both pollo and cochinita pibil, I think I've come pretty damn close to the pibil I had in Mexico seven years ago—at least as close as I can get in my Chicago kitchen. You don't get the smoked flavor, but the meat is highly seasoned, tender, and delicious.
Make these tacos for a crowd. Pick up a few bottles of El Yucateco hot sauce to shake on top. Be sure to have plenty of beer on hand to wash it all down. You absolutely cannot skip the pickled onions.
1 white onion, sliced
2 Tbsp canola oil
2 ½ lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 banana peppers, halved and seeded
¼ cup fresh squeezed grapefruit juice
½ cup fresh squeezed lime juice
splash orange juice
1/4 cup Achiote seasoning paste (just over half of a packet of this stuff)
½ tsp salt
Line your slow cooker with banana leaves. Don't worry if the leaves come out and over the top of the dish. You'll be wrapping them over the chicken. (I suppose I should note here that this dish works best with a longer, more oblong slow cooker than the taller and narrow ones. I've tried using both, and prefer the more shallow style. But if all you've got is a deeper one, that will be fine.)
Layer the chicken inside the slow cooker. Open up the banana peppers and lay them over the chicken.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook the onion, stirring frequently until well-browned, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat if it starts to burn. You want to draw out the sugars, not fry the onion. Pour all the contents of the pan (onion and oil) over the chicken.
Combine the juices, achiote paste, and salt in a dish and whisk until smooth. Pour this over the chicken.
Fold the banana leaves over everything. You may need to add a half of a leaf to make sure everything is covered and wrapped like a present you'll be opening in 6-8 hours. Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours. Now's a good time to pickle the onions. (Recipe below.)
Carefully peel back the banana leaves. Lots of steam will escape. Using a fork, gently pull the chicken into shreds. Toss everything to combine and remove chicken to a serving dish leaving the banana leaves behind. Season with salt as needed.
Serve with fresh tortillas, citrus-pickled red onions, lime wedges, and habanero salsa.
This recipe is an adaptation of J. Kenji-Lopez Alt's. For years, I always made a quick refrigerator pickle with just vinegar, salt, sugar. But, I love the tartness of these citrus-pickled onions. I've reduced the amount of spices he calls for and left it up to you to decide the combination of citrus juices. If you just use grapefruit and lime juices, be sure to add a pinch of sugar. You need the sweetness to balance this otherwise bracing pickle.
1 large red onion, halved and sliced thin
1 cup of fresh-squeezed citrus juice (a good combo is 1/3 cup/each of lime, grapefruit, and orange juices)
10 all-spice berries (optional)
Place the onion, spices, and bayleaves in a small sauce pan and just cover with water. Bring to a boil, then remove from the heat. Pour them into a non-reactive dish. (If you don't have Mason jars around the kitchen, start washing out jars of spaghetti sauce, pickles, olives, etc. They make the best jars for quick pickles.)
Pour the juice over the onions and spices. Top off with more lime juice if the onions aren't covered. Add a teaspoon of Kosher salt. Taste. I like them pretty salty, so I often add another 1/2-1 tsp.
Refrigerate at least 2 hours. The onions should last 2 weeks in the fridge. Don't eat the spices.