Mayonnaise can show up in lots of interesting recipes — cake for instance — and it always seems like a preposterous addition.
But then you taste the food and suddenly it makes 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 why not use mayonnaise?
Recently, on a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, I ate 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 accompanying recipe calls for regular mayonnaise but you can use low-fat, which will lower the fat grams An olive oil mayonnaise won't lower total fat but will decrease saturated fat.)
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 village cook in Mexico.