In college, I had a roommate who introduced me to her arsenal of vegetarian dishes. Many of them involved a packet of seasoning, a pile of vegetables and a platform of some sort. Tofu scramble on a toasted bagel with cream cheese. Jarred tomato sauce with mushrooms on pasta. Vegetables and tofu in a sauce made from cubes of curry on a bed of rice. These became the defining dishes of those years. Years when I was trying to stretch my dollars, balance the shame of the previous night’s post-bar Hot Pocket with what I thought was a healthy meal, and learn how to begin to be a grown-up. The ease and economy of just adding a ready-made flavor to any variety of vegetable or protein was practical then and is just as relevant in my busy life now.
I had not made any of those flavor packet meals in years, but recently came across Sonoko Sakai’s recipe for a Japanese curry brick that looked just like what we used to eat, but I imagined would taste a million times better.
Her recipe combines a pile of aromatic spices, kombu and shiitake for umami, and a nutty roux which then solidifies and can be cut into portions and frozen for later. It makes a quick, deeply flavorful and customizable base that can be used in countless recipes. The veggie curry I made with those cubes brought me right back to college, but through a more flavorful, healthier lens. And while I finished the bowl, happy noises included, I started to think of what other flavors would work using this method.
The very first thing I thought of was achiote, which remains a favorite flavor in my recipe rotation. The ideas came fast: roasted cauliflower tossed in an achiote sauce with toasted almonds and cilantro! Saucy chicken tacos with onions and chiles! Roasted carrot or sweet potato soup! As I pulled spices from the pantry, I imagined how the deep orange annato and spices would turn out suspended in a roux brick. Roux brick! I realized I wasn’t sure what rubric actually meant outside the world of 5th grade science fairs and looked it up.
Merriam-Webster had this to say:
"Did You Know?
Centuries ago, whenever manuscript writers inserted special instructions or explanations into a book, they put them in red ink to set them off from the black used in the main text. (They used the same practice to highlight saints' names and holy days in calendars, a practice which gave us the term red-letter day.) Ultimately, such special headings or comments came to be called rubrics, a term that traces back to ruber, the Latin word for "red." While the printing sense remains in use today, rubric also has an extended sense referring to any class or category under which something is organized."
I DIDN’T know this, but I’m glad I looked it up. And so, I present, the three-part Achiote Roux Brick: the cooking of a protein or a vegetable, the addition of a liquid, the simmering of an achiote roux brick. My basic ratio for a thick sauce is 1 ounce roux brick to ¾ cup liquid. This can be adjusted with more or less liquid depending on how it is being used. I combined chicken broth and a squeeze of orange juice to toss with roasted cauliflower. For the chicken tacos, I browned chicken thighs with onion and poblano, deglazed the pan with pineapple juice then mixed in broth and some orange juice with chili powder and topped it with lime, sour cream and cilantro. For the soup, blend roasted carrots or sweet potatoes (and onions and garlic) with broth and a couple bricks, then simmer until thickened, season to taste.
The possibilities are endless and it is a weeknight dinner game changer. Thank you to the talented Sonoko Sakai for this inspiration and culinary time machine.
Test Kitchen Notes
This very smart use of butter—to carry flavor in 2 genius ways (blooming the spices and building the roux)—made this recipe a strong contender in our latest recipe contest, Your Best Recipe Starring Butter.
These richly spiced, fiery red roux bricks have been breathing new life (and excitement!) into our pantry and freezer meals. —Coral Lee
- Prep time 20 minutes
- Cook time 15 minutes
- Makes 16
Garlic Cloves, Minced
1 1/2 cups
Flour (plus 3T)
- Toast the coriander, cumin, peppercorns, allspice and cloves in a pan just until fragrant. Let cool. Add to spice grinder with annato seed and grind until very fine. Pour into a bowl and mix in garlic, orange peel, oregano and salt.
- Melt butter in pan over medium-low heat and whisk in flour, stirring often for about 15 minutes until the mixture has turned a light brown. You will see a noticeable change in the texture of the roux as it cooks. Remove from the heat and stir in the spice mixture. Pour into a loaf pan lined with parchment. Allow to cool, then place in the refrigerator until solid. Cut into 16 squares. Keep in the refrigerator or freeze.
- RECIPE IDEA #1: - Roast cauliflower florets at 400 until browned. Heat 3/4 cups broth or water in a pan and stir in 1 cube, simmering until thickened. Season to taste with salt and pepper and a squeeze or orange juice. Toss cauliflower in sauce and top with toasted almonds and cilantro.
- RECIPE IDEA #2: - Brown 3-4 boneless chicken thighs in a pan with sliced onion and poblano. Deglaze with 1/2 cup of pineapple juice and reduce. Add 1 cup broth and simmer until chicken is cooked through. Stir in 1 1/2 ounces roux brick and chili powder. Simmer until thickened then season to taste with salt, pepper and lime. Layer on tortillas with sour cream, cilantro and cheese.