A Story of Bitter Orange

This is a story of bitter orange, naranja agria. I came to love this little bundle of pucker power through the cuisine of the Yucatán peninsula. There, bitter orange is everywhere in the food, most famously in the signature dish, conchinita pibil, an intoxicating alchemy of naranja agria, chile heat, and low and slow pit cooking. While chiles and the Yucatán swing on pit barbecue are critical elements here, the one thing you absolutely can’t do pibil without is bitter orange.

Bitter Orange is seminal to a bunch more cuisines as well, from Cuban and other Caribbean islands, to Spanish, Moroccan, and Persian. This is not, for the most part, an eating or drinking orange and juice, although in Mexico, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see them sliced, salted, and slathered in chile paste as a snack. These oranges are very bitter indeed, and sour to boot – Think more lemon or lime than orange in that regard. Yet the orangey notes are most definitely there, and that’s what brings the magic.

Naranja Agria - The noble bitter orange

Also known as Seville orange, sour orange, marmalade orange, naranja acida, naranji, melangolo, and even soap orange, Citrus x aurantium originated in Southeast Asia and spread rapidly around the globe. Natives of the South Sea Islands believe it hit their shores prehistorically. It was the sole European orange for hundreds of years, and the first to arrive on this side of the pond. Now grown commercially virtually worldwide, bitter orange trees range from maybe 10 feet to over 30 feet. It’s generally a thorny evergreen tree, with leaves and flowers that smell absolutely delightful, and smallish fruit, 2 to 4 inches or so, and thick, wrinkly, oily skins, (that make great marmalade, of course.)

The noble bitter orange tree

As favored as these fruit are to so many cuisines, it’s natural that numerous varieties have been established. Seville is probably the most internationally recognizable, but there’s also the English bergamot (bouquet here in the states), the chinotto from the Mediterranean, the daidai from Japan and China, the Californian goleta, the South American Paraguay, and the Indian karna – There’s a bunch more than this, but you get the idea – They’re beloved all over the place.

There’s a nice range of notable food uses for sour orange, other than powering sauces and marinades – The peels make amazing marmalade, of course. Oil squeezed from the peels is a signature orange flavoring for curaçao liqueur, candy, soft drinks, ice cream, and a bunch of other stuff. Orange blossom honey is a treat wherever you can find it. Orange flower water finds its way into Middle Eastern and Persian food. In quite a few places, the juice is fermented into wine – I’ve never tried that, but I’d like to.

There are some very interesting non-food uses for naranja agria, tambien – when the fruit and leaves are crushed together, they’ll lather in water, and are sometimes used as soap. The perfume industry loves the oil and flowers. The juice has antiseptic and hemostatic properties. And finally, the wood is nice stuff – Dense and hard, it was used in Cuba for baseball bats.

So, now that you’re all excited to join the party, it’s time for some good news/bad news – First, the bad – in all likelihood, you won’t find decent sour orange juice anywhere near you – In fact, you probably won’t find it at all. Oh sure, there’s stuff out there called bitter or sour orange – Goya, Badia, and Lechonera are the brands you’re most likely to see – But the fact is, none of them are bitter orange juice. They contain, variously, orange juice concentrate, other juices like lime, lemon, or grapefruit, and at best, a little bit of sour orange oil, and a bunch of stabilizers and preservatives – the Lechonera brand, in fact, has lists propylene glycol as the seventh ingredient therein – In other words, at best these are shelf stable, pale shadows of the real thing.

So called ‘bitter orange’ marinade is anything but

The good news is, if you have a decent Latin grocery near you, there’s a 90%+ chance they sell fresh naranja agria, (and same goes for a Persian or Middle Eastern grocery, where they’ll probably call them Persian oranges). I get plump, juicy Valencias for around 50¢ a pop at La Gloria in Bellingham, WA. Do make sure you confirm they’re agria, (albeit they’ll probably have the little sticker on them telling what variety and place of origin they are). They’ll last like most citrus, good for three to four weeks refrigerated in a drawer designed for holding produce. Four or five is plenty to provide enough juice for most recipes. As with all citrus, look for firm, heavy fruit. More so than sweet oranges, bitters may have some green on their skins and still be ripe.

Now, what to do if you get a sudden hankerin’ to build something that calls for bitter orange when you ain’t got none? Then, it’s definitely time to fake it. As those commercial marinades indicate, the proper substitution is a combination of citrus juices, and maybe even some vinegar. The key here is the taste of orange forward in the mix, with the sourness of lemons, limes, and maybe vinegar – Again, naranja agria is really, really acidic – truly sour, with bitter notes from the oils. What you really need to do, assuming you’re into this, is try fresh squeezed sour orange juice, and then concoct what most closely resembles that to your taste – Everyone’s different, so your mix shall be your own.

When I posted a piece on pibil back in May of ‘17, I was using a mix of orange juice, lemon juice, cider vinegar, and tequila – And for the record, no, I don’t do that any more, and yes, I’ve revised that post. My current, (and consistently used), go to sour orange sub mix has morphed into equal portions of orange juice, lime juice, grapefruit juice, and a minor share of pineapple vinegar, (the latter comes from Rancho Gordo and is worth its weight in gold). I build it in just shy of one cup batches, like so,

 

Urban’s Faux Sour Orange

All juices fresh squeezed

1/4 Cup Orange Juice

1/4 Cup Grapefruit Juice

1/4 Cup Lime Juice 

2 Tablespoons Pineapple Vinegar (Good Cider vinegar is just fine)

Again, you’ll have to experiment and tweak things to your liking. Finally, here’s a Cuban inspired chicken dish that’ll take full advantage of naranja agria you can give a try to.

Urban’s Pollo Cubano

Urban’s Pollo al Cubano 

1 whole chicken, around 3 pounds

1 Cup fresh Bitter Orange Juice (or Sub)

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1-3 Hatch or Anaheim Chiles, (Assuming you can’t get fresh Cubanelles – If you can, do)

1 small Sweet Onion

1 Red Bell Pepper

4-6 fat cloves Garlic

1 Tablespoon Mexican Oregano

2 Bay Leaves 

Salt and fresh ground Pepper

Butterfly the chicken, (if you don’t know this trick, check it out here)

Skin and trim onion and garlic. 

Fine dice onion, and mince the garlic.

Stem and seed chiles, then fine dice.

Stem, seed, and fine dice the bell pepper.

In a heavy skillet over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of oil and allow to heat through. 

Add chiles, peppers, and onion. Sauté until the onion starts to turn translucent, about 3-5 minutes.

Add the garlic and continue to sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, about another 1-2 minutes.

Remove veggie blend from heat and allow to cool to room temp.

Zest and juice whatever citrus you’re using.

In a non-reactive bowl, combine juice, zest, remaining oil, the cooled sofrito, oregano, bay leaves, a pinch of salt, and a few twists of ground pepper. Whisk to fully incorporate.

Place the chicken in a baking dish as close to the size of the butterflied bird as you’ve got.

Pour the marinade on the chicken, and then rub it in by hand, making sure all exposed surfaces get coated, including underneath.

Allow the bird to marinate for at least 1 hour and up to 3 – Any more than that can lead to a mushy chicken.

Bake the bird on a middle rack in a 350° F oven, or grill it if you prefer – 

I like to bake, because more of the marinade stays with the chicken.

Serve with rice, black beans, and cold beer.

Carne Adobada – 100% Delicious

It’s impossible to say where exactly adobada, (or sometimes, adovada), comes from. Generally, it’s a safe bet that northern Mexico, past and present, is the source. Adobada in Catalan means marinated, which doesn’t give a whole bunch of clues at to what we’re supposed to marinate with. As it turns out, that’s OK though, because however you make it, carne adobada is 100% delicious.

Adobada is popular all over Mexico. In its simplest form, adobada marinade might just include red chiles (powdered or minced), vinegar, and Mexican oregano, while more involved iterations can approach mole in their complexity. It’s arguably most popular in the coastal states south of Puerta Vallarta – Jalisco, Colima, and Michoacan. There the chile power is likely to be a mix of guajillo, ancho, pasilla, or chipotles. Adobada is also wholly embraced by New Mexican cuisine. There, the chile in question will undoubtedly be New Mexican red, AKA Hatch, (varying in power from fairly mild to nuclear, depending upon one’s proclivities.)

Adobada rocket fuel

Back in the days before refrigeration, the cut up pork most commonly used for the dish might be tossed into a pot with the lactobacillus acidophilus that generates yoghurt. Doing so would aid in preservation, and impart a subtle sour note to the finished dish – That’s likely why modern iterations call for citrus or vinegar in the mix. Ditto for the reason most cooks prefer their adobada chiles con pellejo (with skins) – the chiles either blistered by roasting or, if using dried, toasted during the cooking process – This adds a subtle bitter note that many folks insist is absolutamente necesario for authentic taste.

Scorching dried chiles

Truth be told, a lot of marinating came into play because the meats it was working on were less than stellar in quality or condition, (and that’s still true in much of the world.) Here, where we’re privileged to have amazing proteins available pretty much any time, it’s done to add things to the mix, not hide them. Even if we’re building a complex palette of flavors, we want the true flavor of beef, pork, chicken, tofu, or beans to remain notable – That’s achieved by balance in the marinade, and paying attention to the way we cook.

look up adobada on a search engine and you’ll see myriad ways to cook suggested, or even insisted upon. What I believe is necessary is this – The finished product must have a distinct outer crust, almost burnt, (as you’d generate when making great chili or beef stew), while the inside of each chunk needs to be tender and juicy. While some places offer adobada that’s more like a stew, to me that’s just chile colorado – Another thing altogether, really.

Many cooks think there’s only one way to do this, (theirs), but it ain’t necessarily so – You can get there by stove top, or grill, or baking, as you please. For M2¢W, I think a multi-stage cook is in order. Specifically, a relatively low and slow primary cook, followed by a quick, hot seat just prior to serving. That is, in fact, what a fair share of restaurants that offer adobada as I’ve described do. It works great, and it gives you flexibility when you’re short on time.

Slow cooker adobada pork

You can do adobada with any protein you like, (and you should), but you aught to start with pork – That’s the holy grail of the dish. For that, you’ll want around 3 pounds of fresh, boneless shoulder. And for those of you who don’t eat meat, I’m here to tell you this will rock with fresh, firm tofu, or great beans.

So, what I’ll offer here is an amalgam of some Mexican and New Mexican ingredients and techniques that will deliver the goods, and it’s a gas to make too. With this marinade, you can go as long as overnight, but at the very least, let it bathe for a good 4 hours prior to cooking. If you don’t have a slow cooker, you can certainly do this in a 325° F oven, (but why would you not have a slow cooker?)

The chiles I used were picked to feed the hybrid theme. None of them are particularly hot, because to me, this dish isn’t designed to burn your face off – It’s meant to provide a pleasant chile buzz as a top note of the marinade. You can use more, or sub hotter varieties as you please, (David Berkowitz? I’m talking about you, Pal.) The same goes for garlic, as you can certainly find adobada so laden with ajo that it’ll be your signature scent for days to come, but to me, that’s not the point – Balance is.

 

Urban’s Carne Adobada

3 – 3 1/2 Pounds Boneless Pork Shoulder

2-3 Cups low sodium Chicken Stock

1 Cup chile soaking water

1-2 dried Ancho Chiles, seeded

2-3 dried Guajillo Chiles, seeded 

1 dried Chipotle Chile, seeded

1-3 dried New Mexican Red (Hatch) Chiles, seeded

3-5 cloves fresh Garlic

1/2 medium Onion (roughly 1 cup)

1/2 Cup fresh Orange Juice

1/2 Cup Raisins

1/4 Cup live Cider Vinegar

3 Tablespoons Avocado Oil

1 teaspoon Agave Nectar

1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano

1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

1 teaspoon Salt

1/2 teaspoon ground Cumin

2 Bay Leaves

NOTE: in the images here, you’ll see I used some ground, some flake, and some whole chiles – That’s what I had, so that’s what I used. Certainly, the more whole dried you use, the more of that smoky, bitter con pellejo flavor you’ll get into the mix.

 

Allow a cast iron skillet over high heat to get truly hot.

Remove seeds from chiles, but leave the stems on, (it makes them easier to handle and flip)

Toast chiles, flipping regularly until they start to smoke a bit.

Raisins and chiles soaking

Transfer chiles to a bowl, add bay leaves, and cover well with boiling water. Allow to steep for 30 minutes, until they’re nice and soft.

Put raisins in another small bowl and cover with about 1” of boiling water. Let them steep for the time remaining on the chile soaking clock.

Pan roasted garlic

Add unpeeled garlic cloves to the skillet and reduce heat to medium. Toast the garlic, flipping regularly, until the skin is scorched and the cloves are notably soft, about 5-8 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Trimmed boneless pork shoulder

While that’s going on, cut your pork shoulder into roughly 1” steaks and trim excess fat. Shoulder has plenty of interstitial fat, so remove any really big hunks and obvious silver skin, but don’t go overboard – Pork fat is good.

Dont you dare toss that chile soaking water

When your chiles are ready, drain them, and reserve the soaking water – Just make sure you check the heat level so you know what you’re dealing with. You can chuck the bay leaves.

Remove the stems from your reconstituted chiles, mince them, then toss them into a blender vessel. 

Peel the garlic and add that, along with 2 cups of the chicken stock, the orange juice, the drained raisins (don’t need to save that soaking liquid), the vinegar, a tablespoon of avocado oil, a pinch of salt, the agave nectar, and the ground cumin.

Cover and pulse all that until you get a nice mix. There will be some chunks of this and that still, which is just fine.

adobada marinade doing its thing

Arrange your pork in a baking dish and pour in all the marinade. Lift each piece of pork to make sure you get marinade on the undersides of each piece.

Cover the pan with metal foil and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.

When you’re ready to cook – 

Peel and trim and dice onion.

Remove pork from baking dish and arrange in slow cooker – Leave the lion’s share of the marinade in the baking dish.

Add the reserved chile soaking water to the marinade, along with a pinch of salt, the oregano, and lemon thyme. Stir all that to incorporate, and then pour it all into the slow cooker. Add the diced onion on top and cover.

You can cook on low, medium, or high as you’ve got time for – Lower and slower is better, but they’ll all do just fine. Cook until the pork is fork tender, which on our pot means anywhere from 4 to 8 hours.

When you’re ready to serve, heat 2 tablespoons of avocado oil in a cast iron skillet over high heat. 

The post slow cook sear

Add as much pork as you want for the meal to the skillet and let it cook, unflipped, until it develops a nice dark crust, about 3-5 minutes. Flip once to get the other side.

Transfer pork to a serving platter.

You won’t need a knife to shred this pork

Serve with fresh, warm tortillas, pico de gallo, pickled onions/chiles/radishes, crema, lime wedges, and maybe some queso fresco or cotija, and cold, cold Mexican beer.

Tacos de puerco adobada

Postscript:

Monica had two quotes after this meal that I’ll share here – 

‘This is better than anything we’ve ever had a Mexican restaurant,’ and

‘You’ve bested me in slow cooker pork.’ 

Coming from her, that’s fairly amazing, so – Just sayin’…

This post is dedicated to the late, great food writer Jonathan Gold. There’s a guy who knew how to write about food. His love, passion, humor, and vast knowledge always shown through, and damn, could he write great last lines. Thanks man, you’re missed, but never forgotten.