The Participant Observer Recipe of the Month is for Arroz con pollo. Ubiquitous in Latin America, this tasty dish has many local variations.
Arroz con pollo may be the most divisive and beloved dish in the Spanish-speaking world. Modern arroz con pollo can trace its lineage to the eastern coast of Spain, notably the region around Valencia, paella's home. Paella's cultural importance doesn't extend much further than the community of Valencia in Spain, where it is emblematic of Valencian cuisine and culture. Arroz con pollo's importance extends far beyond one community. The dish unites and divides palates because of its ubiquity and variety.
Paella and arroz con pollo do share some similarities. Rice forms the basis of the dishes; protein and seasonings are mixed into the rice and the entire concoction cooks as one. When made with a skilled hand, both dishes will emerge from the stove with a crispy layer of rice below the aromatic and enticing one pot meal. There are obvious points of divergence between these two types of "arroz a la valenciana" (literally Valencian rice). The first and most important is the rice. According to many aficionados on Spanish cuisine, if paella is not made with the bomba variety it hardly constitutes paella. This variety of rice is unique because of the short grain and starch composition, which makes it highly absorbent and not sticky. Arroz con pollo does not share this extreme specificity. The rice used varies from country to country. Long grain and medium grain varieties do seem to be most prevalent overall, but this is not a hard and fast rule. As for protein, paella's various forms include a wide range of protein: rabbit, pork, clams, langoustines, shrimp, squid, snails, duck, and chicken. By contrast, arroz con pollo must be made with rice and chicken; it's in the name! Additionally the cooking method for paella is stylized and specific. The distinct flat-bottomed pan used to make paella bares no resemblance to the variety of Dutch ovens, aluminum pots, and heavy bottomed saucepans from which arroz con pollo emerges. Similarities do emerge via the cooking techniques (sautéing the protein, vegetables and aromatics before adding the rice and simmering everything together) but regardless of relationship, the two dishes are completely different animals in the modern perspective.
The seemingly simple dish of chicken and rice has provided a canvas for countless cooks. Working with the items they had access to, home cooks throughout Latin America left their mark on it. The beauty of this dish lies in the permutations. If you were to ask a cook from Puerto Rico, a cook from Cuba, a cook from Peru and a cook from Mexico what ingredients go into arroz con pollo you'd likely receive four different answers. There are common themes: tomato is often included as sauce, paste or the natural fruit; saffron or annatto for color; peppers, onions and garlic are ubiquitous aromatic inclusions; but overall the dishes vary depending on the cook and country.
The adaptability of a seemingly simple dish like arroz con pollo allowed it to take root all over the Spanish-speaking world. Besides the two main ingredients, anything else can be added. In Puerto Rican versions ingredients like capers, salt pork, culantro and Spanish olives are not uncommon; though annatto oil and sofrito (also known as recaito) are necessities. In a Filipino equivalent Arroz Valenciana, patis (fish sauce), coconut milk and a base of jasmine rice give a distinctly South East Asian flair to arroz con pollo. The inclusion of items like chorizo de bilbao (Spanish style dry sausage), bell peppers, and tomato show the influence of the old Spanish dominion.
At its core arroz con pollo is a dish that came into being through a long history of cultural diffusion. The chicken we consume most came from a variety of places (and may predate Columbus), the rice came to Spain via Arab merchants, Phoenician traders introduced saffron to Spain and thus the new world, the Americas contributed items like tomatoes, peppers and annatto. Arroz con pollo is a harmonious amalgamation of international influence reflected and refracted through the mysterious and beautiful prism that is humanity. It's also delicious, which is arguably more important.
- 1 1/2 pound skinless chicken thighs, halved
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 cups long-grain white rice
- 3 Bay leaves, dried
- 10 Pimiento stuffed Spanish style olives, sliced
- 1 tablespoon of capers, whole
- 1 Red bell pepper, diced
- 1 Jalapeño, minced
- 1/4 pound green beans, cut into ¼ in lengths
- 1/8 teaspoon Saffron threads, ground and mixed into ½ tsp water
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 medium yellow onion, minced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 4 cilantro leaves
- 1 1/4 cup culantro, chopped (note: this is often called "Mexican cilantro" but differs from cilantro)
*note: If culantro is unavailable, store bought sofrito works perfectly well. Look for "Recaito," rather than sofrito. Recaito is made with culantro and without tomato, making it ideal for this recipe. Use 2 tablespoons of recaito as a substitute for the sofrio mix.
- Combine the halved thighs, cumin, salt (kosher is best) and ground black pepper in a bowl and set aside.
- Place the rice into a bowl, rinse with cold water and gently mix the rice with your fingers. Drain and repeat the mixture until the water in the bowl is clear.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy bottom Dutch oven over medium high heat and add the chicken pieces in batches, making sure not to crowd the bottom of the pan. Brown on all sides and then place the chicken on a plate.
- In the oil add all the sofrito ingredients to the pot and sauté over medium heat until softened, 5-8 minutes.
- Add the peppers and green beans to the sofrito mix and continue to cook over medium heat another 2-3 minutes.
- Add the rinsed and drained rice to the pot, stirring to coat the rice with oil. Toast the rice, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes or until fragrant.
- Add the chicken, capers, bay leaves, olives and saffron mixture to the rice. Stir to combine.
- Add 2 1/2 cups of water to the pot (ensuring the chicken and rice are both submerged) and bring to a boil.
- Allow the water to reduce slightly, until the rice is barely visible. Then cover the pot with a length of aluminum foil, lid the pot and reduce the heat to low.
- Allow the mixture to simmer until the rice is cooked through (check at the 20-25 minute mark) and then remove from the heat.
- Fluff the cooked rice with a fork and serve immediately.
Recipe and photos by Liam Fox
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