Meat steamed in maguey leaves: Mixiotes
The word mixiotes refers to one of the most delectable dishes within the wide spectrum of Mexican cooking, as well as the wrapping used to contain these steamed individual meat stews.
This wrapping, also known as a mixiote, is the outermost layer of a maguey leaf, called a penca. (Maguey is the century plant, a succulent from which the Mexican alcoholic beverage called pulque is derived. One legend has it that the god-prince Quetzalcoatl sent shooting stars to earth to form the first maguey plants.) This thin outer leaf layer is similiar to parchment paper in thickness and consistency. If you don't live near a Mexican market where you can buy mixiotes, you can use papel para mixiotes, which are simply plastic baggies, a commonly used substitute. If you use plastic baggies, wrap each bagged bundle in foil before steaming.
Making mixiotes isn't as difficult as it sounds, and is really a fun project to undertake with a friend. They are so delicious that you will want to make a lot, either for a large gathering or to freeze some for later use. The following recipe uses chicken, but beef and lamb are also used. The day my Poblana cooking guru, Bernarda, showed me how to make them, the smell was so tantalizing that drop-in friends waited around until they were ready and bought some nice cold beer to go with them. Good thing we made plenty!
- 6 mixiotes, cut in half to make 12 pieces, or 12 plastic baggies and 12 8"x8" foil squares
- 12 chicken thighs or 6 chicken breasts, halved
- 1 cup fresh orange juice, from bitter oranges - naranja mateca. (If using sweet oranges, use 3/4 cup juice and 1/4 cup vinegar)
- 60 grams (about 2 ounces) achiote paste (a seasoning made from the seeds of the annatto tree, now available at markets in the U.S.)
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon each: dried marjoram, dried thyme, and dried oregano
- 6 ancho chiles, seeded and stemmed
- 6 guajillo chiles, seeded and stemmed
- 3 1/2 cups water
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 medium tomato, roasted and peeled
- 12 small new potatoes, cut in 1" cubes
- 6 medium carrots, sliced
- 12 avocado leaves (these are dried, and sold where you buy your dried chiles)
Salt and pepper the chicken pieces and prick them in several places with a fork. Puree the orange juice, achiote paste, garlic and spices and pour this mixture from the blender into a large bowl. Place the chicken pieces in this marinade and put them aside while you make the sauce.
Put the chiles, in a saucepan with the 3 1/2 cups water and bring them to a boil. When they have reached the boiling point, turn down the heat and let them simmer, covered, for about twenty minutes. Puree them in a blender with the onion, tomato and salt to taste. Strain back into saucepan and simmer the sauce for about 10 minutes.
If using mixiotes, soak them for 5-10 minutes until pliable.
Into each mixiote or plastic baggie, put one avocado leaf, a piece of marinated chicken, a few potatoes and carrots, and a few spoonsful of sauce. Tie each package with twine or string and, if using plastic baggies, wrap each bundle in foil, sealing well.
Put water into a large pot with a rack (or, if you have one, a tamale steamer) and place the mixiotes on the rack. Cover tightly and steam 1 1/2 -2 hours. Thighs will take longer than breasts, so if you're using breasts, check one package after the first 1 1/2 hours. To serve, unwrap the foil if you used it, and place each mixiote in a soup or stew bowl. Each person unties and unwraps his own mixiote, letting the liquid flow into the bowl with the chicken. Serve with sliced avocado and tortillas.