As you may recall, a while back I mentioned I was headed to El Salvador. I think I promised to tell you more about it. One day I am going to achieve work-life balance and then I will actually do the things I say I’m going to do! It’s going to be great.
Anyway, I did go to El Salvador in September. I was invited to tag along with a bunch of people from World Vision Canada on behalf of another site I write for, UrbanMoms.ca, and my job was to learn about poverty and child labour and write about what I saw and how Canadians could help. It was pretty much the ideal situation for a writer; they fed me and gave me endless fact-checking support and information and no specific instructions, just to write. I followed, and I listened. And, of course, I ate.
If you want to learn about someone, find out what they like to eat. If you want to learn about a place, eat its food and visit its public markets and grocery stores and food stalls.
On our third day there, after spending time with kids in a couple of rural villages, we went to San Julian for an early dinner. We didn’t get to much in the way of tourism, but we did find our way into a market there. There were the usual things – piles of fruit and vegetables, fish on ice, and stalls selling clothing, flip flops and soccer balls. It smelled sweet and faintly musky, like ripe mangoes.
There was a stall at the entrance that sold groceries and the woman there sold fresh Salvadoran chocolate in twist-tied sandwich baggies; she also sold spices. I noticed a row of small bags containing a mix of bay leaves, peanuts and sesame seeds, among other things, and tried to communicate my curiosity – I know approximately four words in Spanish.
Elizabeth, who is from El Salvador but lives in Ontario and works at World Vision Canada and who was along with us on our travels, explained (in her beautiful accent) that it’s a kind of seasoning people in El Salvador use for turkey. Because they were only twenty-five cents a package, and because I had never seen such a thing before, I bought several.
In the bus on the way home, she explained that you toast the spices really well in a pan, then mix them with tomatoes and chicken stock and sometimes wine and use it for the sauce you use to baste the bird as it roasts. I demanded a recipe, but she said you don’t need one – “you just mix the relajo and some tomatoes and wine or beer and cook it with turkey or chicken.” If you have leftovers, you eat the turkey and gravy on sandwiches the next day.
Interesting fact: I always pay my bills in the wrong amount because I can never remember the order of digits in a number, but a set of vague instructions for a meal that ends up as sandwiches is the kind of thing I will learn instantly and store in my brain for life.
There was never a chance to eat this poultry or these sandwiches while I was actually in El Salvador. I did eat twice my body weight in pupusas, and as much fresh grilled, raw, cocktailed and ceviched seafood as I possibly could, and at one point there was fried chicken and fried yucca and orange pop and pastries filled with dulce de leche for dessert and I could have died right there because what else do you need?
On our last day before heading to the airport, I managed to get over to the grocery store in the mall across from our hotel. I found more of the spice mix, so I bought another six packages (I am not insane) and was able to translate the ingredients. So when I came home I resolved to make Salvadoran turkey and gravy and sandwiches, and then assemble my own packages of relajo from ingredients I would find at home.
Trouble is, we are a family of three and the smallest of us doesn’t eat “food” so there has been no turkey. But you know what’s smaller than turkey but as (if not more) delicious? Chicken!
I am not sure this recipe is authentic. Everywhere I looked online said you have to purée the tomatoes with the relajo and then strain it and use it as gravy, but my blender is now 12 years old and barely works and I should just throw it out but then I’d have no blender. And I am too lazy for a lot of complicated extra steps.
So here you go.
To make the relajo: mix together a handful of bay leaves, sesame seeds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds in their shells, ground oregano, and one dried guajillo chili (stem and seeds removed). It also requires annatto seeds; if you can only find ground annatto, rub it directly onto the chicken; if you can only find whole seeds, mix them into the spice blend.
Each packet I bought varies in the amount of each thing in the mix; I estimate that you’ll need eight to 12 bay leaves, crumbled, a teaspoon of sesame seeds, two or three whole peanuts, a few pumpkin seeds, and a teaspoon or so of oregano and annatto. If you can’t find annatto – and I’m sure this is blaspheme – just use turmeric; annatto is used for colour and doesn’t have a strong flavour. You can find annatto (also called achiote) in Latin American grocery stores or online. I bought it in Vancouver at the South China Seas Trading Co. on Granville Island.
Salvadoran roast chicken with gravy
(Serves four to six people)
- 1 x 6 to 8 lb. roasting chicken
- 3 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 1/2 tsp. Kosher salt
- 1 tsp. ground black pepper
- 1 tsp. ground annatto seed (sub. ground turmeric if not available)
- 3 lbs. tomatoes, halved
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 head of garlic, halved crosswise
- 1 batch of relajo (see instructions above)
- 1 cup white wine
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
- Additional salt and pepper to taste
Preheat your oven to 425°F.
Ideally, you will use one pan for this – a large pan to roast the spices, cook the chicken, and then simmer the gravy. If your roasting pan is stove-to-oven-friendly, then use it for the first step. If not, use a small pan to roast your spices and then put everything together in your roasting pan.
Rub your whole chicken with olive oil, then sprinkle salt, pepper and annatto or turmeric (if using) and rub again. Fold the wings behind the back of the chicken and truss the legs – tie the legs together so that they sit close to the body. Set aside.
Over medium low heat, toast your relajo until the mix is fragrant and your sesame seeds are golden. When this is done, remove the pan from the heat and set the spices aside. Place tomatoes, onions and garlic in the pan, sprinkle with the spices, then nestle the chicken in the middle. Add wine and chicken stock, and place in the oven.
Roast for between 90 and 100 minutes, until the internal temperature reaches about 165°F, or when the juices run clear when pricked with a knife. Baste every 20 to 30 minutes, rotating the pan each time for even browning.
Remove the chicken from the pan when cooked, and tent with foil for 15 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, process the tomatoes, onion, garlic, spices and chicken juices through the finest disc on your food mill or press them through a fine mesh strainer back into the pan or into a saucepan. Add Worcestershire sauce and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.
Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed. Serve with chicken, either on sandwiches or with rice.