This is one of the standards of the Yucatán, Maya comfort food. First you make the recado rojo paste out of flavorful spices, then you dissolve that paste in a little bit of orange juice to use as a braising liquid for the chicken and to serve as a thin, brothy sauce. The key ingredient is achiote seeds (also called annatto seeds), which give the paste an amazing garnet color and add a peppery, nutmeggy flavor that pulls off the trick of tasting zingy and earthy at the same time.
You could pick up a block of recado rojo at a Mexican market, but this version tastes brighter than what you can buy in a package—the combination of cloves, cumin, and garlic is almost floral. The recipe yields more paste than you will need: store the extra in the refrigerator, where it will keep for 2 weeks, or give it away to friends.
1. Make the recado rojo: Soak the achiote seeds in the orange juice in a small bowl until softened, about 15 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, toast the coriander, cumin, cloves, allspice, and black peppercorns (plus the fennel seeds, if using) in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat until fragrant, 2 to 4 minutes. Let cool, then pulse in a spice grinder until finely ground. Mix with the cinnamon and set aside.
3. Pulse the oregano and avocado leaves in the spice grinder until fine, then sift through a fine-mesh sieve (to catch any fibers that weren’t chopped up by the grinder) and set aside. Crush the garlic with the salt in a mortar and pestle until a rough paste forms.
4. Combine the achiote seeds with the orange juice, the spices, and garlic paste in a blender and blend until smooth, about 1 minute. Divide the paste into three 1/4-cup portions. Wrap 2 portions and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.
5. Prepare a grill for medium-high heat. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Season the chicken legs with the salt and pepper. Oil the grill grate. Grill the chicken skin side down until the skin colors and clear grill marks form, about 8 minutes. Do not flip—you just want color on one side. Remove from the grill.
6. Dissolve the remaining 1/4 cup recado rojo paste in the water and add the vinegar. Place the chicken legs grill marks up in a shallow baking pan. Pour the vinegar mixture into the pan and cover tightly with aluminum foil.
Put the chicken in the oven and cook for 45 minutes, or until cooked through. Uncover and return to the oven for 10 to 15 minutes to let the skin crisp up.
7. Serve with the braising liquid and lime. We might add some grilled onion, but no pressure!
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Excerpted from Hartwood by Eric Werner and Mya Henry (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2015. Photographs by Gentl & Hyers.