One of our readers once pointed out that the recipe for Sancocho was not complete without “agrio de naranja”.
“What’s that?” you may well ask yourself: It’s an uniquely Dominican spicy sauce, homemade, and preservative-free. It arrived on our tables well before famous bottled brands arrived in our colmados. It adds the kick your stew might be lacking. If you haven’t noticed yet, I’m a sucker for home-made, natural and frugal, and this is something that hits the trifecta. Let me share this “secret” with you.
If you know Dominican cuisine well you’ll probably have noticed that the first picture depicts something that looks decidedly not like agrio de naranja. Calm down, trust me, I’m a professional (although not on anything cooking-related, just saying).
Agrio de naranja is prepared with bitter oranges. Bitter oranges are the ugly stepsisters of the citrus family. Not only do they have a rough, ‘warty’ skin, they are also very sour, and with a touch of bitter that makes them useless for the same uses as limes and lemons. Despite this, they are used extensively in Dominican cooking as an ingredient in meat dishes (used to scrub meat before cooking), and as the main ingredient in this recipe.
Another ingredient used in this recipe is hot peppers. As you probably know (or suspect), not all hot peppers are created equal. The variety that is most-commonly used in our cuisine is the scotch bonnet pepper, those deceptively cute round peppers that look treacherously like the sweet variety also used in our cuisine (we call the non-spicy ones ajíes gustosos, or “flavorful peppers”).
Now, what’s with the sauce in the first picture? Lest you think it was my idea, I have to confess I found this served at one of our favorite traditional Dominican eateries, Parador Bonao. The good old homemade vinegar gets all the more potent when blended, something we can appreciate in this home of spicy food-lovers.
Something important about the traditional vinegar is that it is usually left to ferment (as are all vinegars). I am not entirely convinced my university chemistry classes allow me to go down that route. I like some fermented foods (boruga, for one) but this can be a little risky. If you want your vinegar to ferment don’t add the salt and keep it outside the refrigerator long enough for it to start to ferment, then refrigerate. Do this at your own risk. Since I find the fermentation does not add anything in the way of flavor, I add the salt (it makes it inhospitable for bacteria and yeast) and keep mine refrigerated at all times. I also prepare mine in small batches to keep it fresh.
Yes, I am a wuss.
I will present you here with two varieties of agrio de naranja: the traditional one, and one of my own. In either case the ingredients are the same.
- A large, clean glass bottle or jar
- 5 bitter oranges
- 10 Scotch bonnet peppers, halved
- 3 cloves of garlic, halved
- 3 sprigs of fresh oregano
- A sprig of thyme (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt (or whatever salt you have)
- Wash the bottle or jar with soapy hot water, rinse well and let it dry completely.
- Wash the sour oranges and halve.
- Squeeze the juice and sieve.
- Fill up the bottle and add the remaining ingredients.
- Macerate for a few days in the refrigerator.
- Mix the bitter orange juice with the remaining ingredients (only use the leaves of the herbs), and blend until it turns into a coarse paste.
- Keep refrigerated.
- Use to season stews (usually it is put on the table so each person adds enough to their liking).
If you cannot find Scotch bonnet peppers use any other type of spicy pepper you find.
Unfortunately no substitution is possible in the case of the bitter oranges. You can find the bottle juice in Caribbean and some Asian stores.