And the secret ingredient is. mayonnaise!
The first time anyone told me that, I thought I was going to faint or laugh out loud. It sounded preposterous. But then I tasted the food and suddenly it made sense. Mayonnaise is an emulsified mixture of oil and seasonings. I always coat my food with a little olive oil, or add oil to a marinade. So mayonnaise actually makes a lot of sense!
Fast forward to a trip I took to Oaxaca, Mexico, during the February "vela" or festival season. At each neighborhood vela, the women brought out numerous platters and bowls of homemade food. My favorite was a pit-fired chicken dish that had been marinated in a thick chipotle mixture.
The minute I tasted the rich meat with a tangy, slightly smoky crust squirted with a burst of fresh lime juice, I knew that this was one souvenir I had to bring home.
I asked our guide, Mexican food expert Susana Trilling, if she could find someone who would let me come to their home and show me how to make this dish. The next day we went to the home of the village's best cook. She had everything set out on the counter for the dish — chipotles in adobo, onions, limes, chicken thighs and. mayonnaise!
As we made the marinade, I realized how smart the mayo was. You can add a lot of flavor to mayonnaise and it stays suspended. Traditional marinades tend to separate. Because the flavors are spread evenly through the marinade, the food you are flavoring gets a more intense and consistent flavor. The mayonnaise also tempers any harshness.
The chicken not only was delicious and memorable, but taught me a great cooking lesson. Today, I frequently use mayonnaise as my "secret" way to impart flavor. A classic Nantucket swordfish steak is made better slathered with mayo. And pork chops are kept flavorful and moist with a pesto mayonnaise.
But my favorite way to use it is this chipotle chicken adapted from a tiny village cook in Mexico.
I created this recipe to capture the essence of the food that I ate and cooked during my two-week culinary exploration of Oaxaca. This wet rub can be used equally well on thick fish steaks or large whole fish, such as snapper.
Start to finish: 3 to 5 hours (20 minutes active)
7-ounce can chipotle chilies in adobo sauce
1 medium white onion, chopped
1/2 small jalapeno, seeds removed, chopped (add more to taste)
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Juice of 4 limes
2 to 3 cups mayonnaise
2 whole chickens, cut into pieces (or substitute 12 chicken thighs)
1 whole lime, cut into wedges
In a blender, combine the chipotles with adobo sauce, white onion, jalapeno, cilantro and lime juice. Add a pinch of salt. Blend until smooth. Transfer to a large glass or stainless steel bowl. Fold in 2 cups of mayonnaise. Taste and adjust seasonings. If it is too spicy, add more mayonnaise.
Add the chicken pieces, turn to coat, then cover the bowl and marinate in the refrigerator for 2 to 4 hours, turning occasionally.
Heat the oven to 325 F. Set a metal rack over a rimmed baking sheet.
Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and place bone-side down on the rack. Roast until the breast meat near the bone registers 165 F and thigh meat registers 180 F, about 45 minutes. If you don't have a meat thermometer, cook until no longer pink and the juices run clear.
Use tongs to carefully transfer the chicken to a platter to rest 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Serve with wedges of lime and mango slaw.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 690 calories; 500 calories from fat (73 percent of total calories); 56 g fat (13g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 180 mg cholesterol; 3 g carbohydrate; 42 g protein; 0 g fiber; 390 mg sodium.
Cool Orange, Jicama and Mango Slaw
Mango adds a cooling sweet tartness to this traditional Mexican combination of citrus and jicama. The grating of the jicama gives the dish the texture of an American slaw and is a welcome change from the cabbage and mayo versions we eat all summer.
Start to finish: 20 minutes
1 1/2- to 2-pound jicama (the size of a small grapefruit)
3 navel oranges
2 mangos, peeled, pitted and cut into chunks
3 to 4 sprigs fresh cilantro, leaves removed
Cayenne pepper, optional
Slice off the top and bottom of the jicama, then carefully peel it. Use a box grater to grate the jicama.
In a medium bowl, toss the grated jicama with the juice of 1 of the limes.
Use a paring knife to trim off the tops and bottoms of each orange, then cut off the remaining skin. One at a time, hold the peeled oranges in a cupped hand over the bowl of jicama to catch the juices. Cut each orange section between the membranes to make individual sections, adding them to the jicama as you go.
When you have cut all the sections, squeeze the leftover membranes to extract as much of the juice as possible. Toss well, then mix in the mango.
Arrange in a bowl or on a platter. Garnish with whole cilantro leaves and a light dusting of cayenne pepper. Cut the remaining lime into wedges for serving with the slaw.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 100 calories; 5 calories from fat (3 percent of total calories); 0 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 25 g carbohydrate; 2 g protein; 8 g fiber; 5 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."