Achiote, also called annatto, is used throughout the Caribbean and Latin America as a coloring and flavoring for food. The small, hard, brick-red seeds grow in clusters on Bixa orellana, a flowering tropical tree. In Cuban cooking, the whole seeds are used to color and flavor cooking oil, and ground seeds are combined with cumin and corn flour to make bijol, a seasoning that is often substituted for more expensive saffron. I have used achiote in cooking for many years, but the first time I actually saw it growing was at the Jardín Botánico Nacional on the outskirts of Havana. Achiote oil adds both a lovely golden color and subtle but unique flavor to Cuban dishes like arroz con pollo and ropa vieja. If you like spicier food, add a small hot chile to the oil. When stored in the refrigerator, achiote oil will last for several months.
In a small saucepan, warm the oil over low heat. Add the achiote seeds and the chile, if using. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, until the oil turns a rich orange color. Remove the oil from the heat and let it cool. Pour the oil through a strainer into a small jar. Discard the seeds and chile.
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