It’s very firm and I can barely squeeze it between my fingers. Using the same technique I’ve used for years, I place it on top of the tile counter, my palm goes over it and as I push down slightly I begin massaging it in a circular motion. Sweet citrus scents make their way to my nose. The knife moves back and forth to release a clear liquid that quickly coats the cutting board. Mmmm, the smell is wonderful. I must taste it. I squeeze a bit onto a spoon and my mouth begins watering in anticipation…OH MY GOD!! These are the words that make their way out of my puckered lips and scrunched up face.
The culprit that released this reaction from my body was a naranja agria, or a bitter orange. Green in colour, uber bitter in taste and a thick and rough skin make this naranja different from the oranges most people see in their markets. When I purchased this orange I did see the sign that stated it was agria; I’ve always know this word as sour but, as this orange taught me, it also means bitter in the case of oranges.
Naranjas agrias (also called bitter or Seville oranges) are quite common in the cuisine of Yucatan, perhaps the most famous use being in the cochinita pibil dish. Their high acidity is useful in tenderising meats, not to mention imparting a citrus taste. Unfortunately most of you will not be able to find them at your local grocery stores or farmer’s markets; However, you may be able to find them at Mexican or Caribbean stores in your area — maybe. But don’t worry if you can’t find them, I’ve suggested a substitute in the “Notes” section of the recipe.
After recovering from the bitterness I knew that the orange would need to be paired with other strong and complimentary flavours: jalapeños peppers and piloncillo (Mexican unrefined sugar, and seen in the photos in both the traditional cone shape and small balls) were my choice. The peppers would add heat but also more acidity; To counteract the bitterness and acid I added the piloncillo, which brought in sweetness, with molasses-like undertones, to the dish. The finished meal was really spicy (what we were craving), a tad citrusy and only slightly sweet — the star of the recipe is definitely the jalapeños. If you don’t eat very spicy food make sure to read the “Notes” section of the recipe for tips on toning down the dish.
- 3 large skinless chicken breasts (I used bone-in but you can also use boneless)
- 200 gm (7.05 oz) fresh jalapeño peppers*, stems removed
- 100 gm (3.5 oz) piece of (peeled) white onion
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled
- pot and water
- 2 tbsp freshly squeezed bitter orange juice**
- pinch of fine sea salt, adjust to taste
- 1 tbsp of grated piloncillo or substitute with brown sugar, adjust to taste
- pinch of dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
- 1.5 tbsp olive oil or oil of choice
- 125 ml or ½ cup homemade chicken broth (or use low-sodium store bought)
- 1 tbsp masa harina or Mexican white corn flour
- 1.5 tbsp water
- Place the jalapeños, onion and garlic cloves into a pot and pour in enough water to cover them. Over medium heat, bring to a simmer and cook until the vegetables are all soft and a fork can easily be inserted into the jalapeños. Drain and place into a blender. Add the orange juice, sea salt, pilloncillo or brown sugar and the dried oregano; blend until it is a smooth and thick sauce. Taste the sauce and adjust the sugar and/or salt if necessary.
- Heat the oil in a large pan, once hot fry the chicken breasts on both sides for about 5 minutes (on each side). Gently pour in the sauce (from the blender), chicken broth and turn the heat to medium-low, cover the pan and simmer until the chicken is cooked through, very soft and pulls apart easily. (Do not let the liquid evaporate, if this happens you can add more chicken broth.) Again taste and adjust the seasonings if desired. About 5-8 minutes before serving: mix the masa harina with the water then pour into the chicken to thicken the sauce, allow to simmer for a few minutes. Serve with warm corn tortillas and refried beans or white or Mexican rice if desired. And if you'd like sprinkle some pepitas/sunflower seeds over the dish.
**Bitter orange tip:To substitute the naranja agria use a mixture of half grapefruit-half lime juice. Additionally you could use a mixture of half orange juice-half lime juice -- but please use fresh squeezed juices! The taste will not be the same but it will help in tenderising the meat and also add the tart citrus taste.
This dish is wonderful as a make-ahead meal, you could even make it in a crockpot! The taste is truly wonderful and unique with the spicy jalapeño tones complimenting the tart-citrusy and slightly sweet flavours. Enjoy or !buen procecho¡
The YBR roundup is this coming Monday. You can add your link and photo to the roundup here.