Yucatan pickled red onions (Cebollas Encurtidas)
One item that appears on almost every plate here in the Yucatan peninsula are the brightly coloured pickled red onions. If you look at any cook’s kitchen here you are sure to find a jar or a dish of this lovely condiment hanging around to be used with just about every food other than dessert.
There are various ways of making these pickled onions but what is unique here is that they make them with the juice of sour oranges. Sour oranges, aka Seville oranges, are available in the winter months but I seldom see them in Canada where we live. These are not the Seville oranges that you make marmalade from, it’s a different breed sometimes called “ugly orange” because of the bumpy, irregular shape of the fruit. The high acidity makes it great for marinades, dressings and sauces.
At first I was trying to replace sour orange with regular orange but that did not create the right flavour profile. You can try and substitute lime juice but that too is not quite the same and can be too acidic. I read that you can substitute sour orange juice with a combination of lime, orange and grapefruit juice. I haven’t tried it yet but here is what the experts say. Rick Bayless mixes 3/4 cup grapefruit juice with 6 tablespoons lime juice and 1/4 teaspoon zest of an sweet orange, let it marinate 2-3 hours and strain to make 1 cup sour orange equivalent. David Sterling of Los Dos cooking school in Merida who is an authority on Yucatan cooking mixes 2 parts lime juice with one part each orange and grapefruit juice to use as substitute for sour orange juice.
You can also make these with vinegar and it is perfectly fine, but there is something about the sour orange that once you try it you want to stick with this method.
This is the method I use to make this condiment, adapted from various recipes I consulted according to what I have on hand:
2 red onions
1 cup sour orange juice
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 jalpeno, seeded and sliced
1 teaspoon peppercorns, lightly crushed
Peel the onion and cut in half vertically.
Slice the onions into thin half moons cutting horizontally.
Place onions in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let soak for 5-10 minutes, then drain well.
Add remaining ingredients to the onions and let sit at room temperature tossing them every now and then until the onions soften.
Taste and add salt as necessary.
Keep in a jar, refrigerated.