Puerto Rican food is not as widely known as some other Caribbean cuisines (think Cuba and Jamaica), but when it comes to arroz con pollo — chicken and rice — you know what I am talking about. And I know I should have blogged this one for you a long time ago. Here, finally, is the one you’ve been waiting for.
Rich and complex in flavor, comforting in stodginess, friendly and nonthreatening; arroz con pollo is a welcoming and easy entry point to boricua (local parlance for Puerto Rican) flavor, but a bit more advanced when it comes to traditional preparation.
Don’t let that scare you! You can substitute the adobo and sofrito with commercial stuff for starters, while you figure out where to get the ingredients for a totally home-made version (I am actually growing some of the plants on my stoop here in New York, but if that doesn’t work, I will shrug it off and buy Goya products all winter until I can try again).
My dad and I made this for a recent dinner for the Goralskis (Marianne and I have been besties since high school; she and her husband Ted are my son’s godparents; Sean’s my godson, and his brother P.J. is one of my and Leandro’s favorite people). You rarely make this dish from scratch for anybody but Jesus (arroz con pollo being a quintessential Christmas dish), so you know how special they are to us.
We referred (and sometimes deferred) to the mother of all Puerto Rican cookbooks, Cocina Criolla by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli. This is the our Joy of Cooking, our Betty Crocker, the cookbook that every Puerto Rican who gets married gets as a wedding gift. Valldejuli (as we fondly call her), doesn’t mess about. I know one of her nephews, and he says she cooked for battalions of family and that her meals were as fun as they were apocalyptic.
Originally published in 1954, my 1990 edition is the 48th printing, and I have no idea which printing it is in now. It is available in English as Puerto Rican Cookery. You may have learned something about cooking by watching your abuelas and your tías, but when you are actually on your own trying to reproduce those flavors, Valldejuli is your fairy godmother.
We adapted slightly, of course, reflecting a modern sensibility: no chicken skin, a bit less salt (just a bit less, really – my dad and I fight over that and then compromise), no lard.
With it, we served tortilla (Spanish frittata, this one with potato and leek); hanger steak – in the style of Pedro’s Famous Churrasco; grilled shrimp; Leandro’s couscous with pesto; and a few more things that I can’t remember right now….and all was very, very, very good!
Arroz con pollo
3lbs chicken parts, (thighs and drumsticks, especially) bone in, skin off
2 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
4 whole black peppercorns
1 tsp dry oregano
3 tsp salt
2 tsp olive oil
1 tsp vinegar
SOFRITO (The vegetables and herbs in this part may be replaced with two Tbs of commercial Sofrito; Goya makes a popular one)
1 Tbs vegetable oil
2 -4 oz bacon, diced
2 oz cooking ham (ham steak is fine), diced
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 green cubanelle pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 tomato, cored
6 culantro (aka sawtooth coriander or recao) leaves, if available, chopped fine.
½ tsp salt
10 pimiento stuffed green olives
1 heaping Tbs capers
2 Tbs vegetable oil, seasoned with 1 tsp achiote (annatto)*
15 oz can of peas, drained, liquid reserved, or one cup frozen peas, thawed on the stovetop or in the microwave, drained and liquid reserved
3 Cups white rice
¼ Cup Latin-style tomato sauce (green peppers)
4 oz roasted red peppers, from a jar or homemade, drained
Wash and pat the chicken parts dry.
In a mortar and pestle, grind all the ADOBO ingredients into a rough paste and rub into chicken. Set aside.
In a large pot, heat the oil from the SOFRITO until fragrant and liquid. Add the bacon and ham and brown them rapidly. Add the chicken pieces, lower heat and brown them at medium heat until they lose all pinkness.
Add the remaining SOFRITO ingredients. Add the salt and stir occasionally until the onion has really softened.
Measure the liquid from the peas and add sufficient water to make 2 ½ Cups and heat this water to just under boiling. You will need the peas later.
When the onions are softened, add the olives, capers, seasoned oil, and tomato sauce. Mix well.
Wash the rice in a strainer until the water runs clear. Drain and add to the pot. Mix well and sauté for 2-3 minutes until well-colored.
Add the hot liquid and bring to a boil. Lower heat slightly, but do not cover or stir until the water can no longer be seen. Turn the rice so what was on the bottom is on top. Cover, lower heat and cook for approximately 40 minutes, opening and turning the rice only once (add a ½ cup of water if you think the rice is too dry too early.
Uncover, stir in the peas, and cover again, cooking another 15 minutes. Then transfer to a nice serving bowl, garnish with roasted red pepper, and serve piping hot.
*Annatto seeds (we call them achiote) were very popular with Caribbean natives and are still widely used today. Also known as “poor man’s saffron,” when heated, they release a reddish oil that imparts some flavor, but especially deep red-orange color. It is said that the natives used it also as mosquito repellant and war paint; could it be that “redskins” referred not to the natives’ natural color, but their achiote-painted hues? And next time you have a slice of Cheddar cheese, note the color. It may very well come from annatto seeds!
To make achiote oil, put a half teaspoon achiote seeds in vegetable oil and heat at medium low until you get a deep red-orange color, drain through a sieve to reserve the oil, and discard the seeds.