Cocina Criolla cookbook

Cooking Cuban – Arroz con Pollo

I sat at the table watching my grandmother uncover the large pot sitting on the stove. As steam billowed from under the cover, the fragrance of oregano, garlic, onion, tomato, chicken and a hint of white wine, tickled my nose and made my stomach growl. I eagerly awaited my plate of arroz con pollo piled high chicken with rice dotted with green peas, bell peppers and red pimentos. Before I dove into my dinner of this dish, that I consider my childhood favorite, my grandmother placed a paper towel lined plate piled high with tostones, twice fried green plantains, sprinkled with the right amount of salt. The tostones would serve as part food item, part utensil, helping push the rice and chicken onto my fork before I took each mouth-watering bite.

This is the vision I have of Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s house. She lived in a townhouse, three blocks away from the apartment I shared in Chicago with my mom, dad and older brother. It was a  different world from my multicultural German, Cuban household. In her house Cuba was the root of everything, or so I thought in my child’s mind. Her cooking, the music she played and her language, was all Cuban. Thanks to her, I learned to cook tostones and arroz con pollo. And whenever I want to get in touch with my Cuban roots, energizing my Cuban DNA, and remember my grandmother I cook these two things.

Cocina Criolla cookbook
Some ingredients and Cocina Criolla by Nitza Villapol.

This time I needed some help to remember the ingredients. Thanks to inspiration from My Big Fat Cuban Family blog and the cookbook my grandmother left me, Cocina Criolla by Nitza Villapol, I began my journey towards feeling Cuban in Seattle.

Not only did I want to reignite my internal Cubana, I wanted to use up some food I had in the house. Nitza’s recipe calls for two whole chickens. I had two boneless, skinless breasts in the fridge, this was a problem. I recalled my grandmother loved cooking with chicken thighs, for flavor and for economic reasons, so I headed to the store to buy four chicken thighs plus strained tomatoes, plantain, an onion, dry white wine and bell pepper (red and green). The rest were in the pantry or cupboard.

chicken marinading
Marinade chicken in sour orange juice (made with orange juice with a splash of lime, since I can’t get bitter/sour oranges in Seattle).

The first step is to marinade the chicken in a cup or two of sour orange juice and several cloves of garlic (minced) for at least an hour. Since I live far from where bitter oranges grow, and have never looked to see if it is sold bottled anywhere in Seattle, my trick is to use orange juice and a splash of lime.

Charred pepper on grill.
Charring the red bell pepper.

While the chicken was marinading, I began prepping the rest of the ingredients. My grandmother never liked cooking with canned or bottled vegetables, but most recipes for arroz con pollo call for canned peas, asparagus and bottled pimentos. Since I grew up with a mother who cooked from a can, box and frozen meals, (she was a woman caught in the age of “easy food”), I too stay away from those things. So I made my own pimiento with red bell pepper (yes I know pimiento is different from red bell pepper), used frozen green peas (petite peas would be better) and fresh asparagus (which I just so happened to have in the fridge).

Peeled and sliced - reserving some for garnish.
Peeled and sliced – reserving some for garnish.

To make my version of bottled pimiento, I fire-roasted the red bell pepper to char the skin, about 10-15 minutes, turning every few minutes, to get an even char. Then I place the roasted bell pepper into a paper bag to continue steaming the pepper, about 5 minutes. Now the pepper was ready for pealing, the skin should come off fairly easily with your fingers. What I love about this method, is you get a nice smokey flavor on the bell pepper and the consistency is just like the bottled pimiento.

Making sofrito
Making sofrito.

I browned the chicken in some olive oil using a large, deep skillet. Once browned, take the chicken out of the pan and deglaze pan with white wine, getting all the flavor-filled tidbits off the bottom of the pan. The pan is now ready for making the sofrito. Add the green bell pepper and onion, stir until they are soft. The smell of the sofrito will transport you to my grandmother’s kitchen. Find an album by Paquito D’Rivera (I was playing Havana-Rio Connection album playing in the background) and you may get a nostalgic vision of Cuba B.C. (before Castro)

Rice bathed in sofrito
Adding rice.

The sofrito continues to cook by adding the tomato sauce (about 1.5 cups), white wine (1.5-2 cups), cumin (1 tsp), and oregano (hefty tsp).  Once combined, the pan is ready to add the rice (3 cups), chicken stock (2 cups), two bay leaves, and annato for color (1 tsp).

Ok, here is another place where I deviate from Nitza’s and other recipes. Many recipes ask you to add Accent or some spice pack from Goya. I don’t add these because their main, if not only, ingredient is MSG (you know the stuff you don’t want to eat at Chinese restaurants, monosodium glutamate). Instead, I add a little more salt than the recipe calls for, and then put it on the table.

beer
Adding beer!

Since I used a deep skillet, I was able to place all the chicken in the pan without having to use a dutch oven. Cover and let cook until the rice is done – about 20 – 30 minutes. To finish I added some beer I had in the fridge. I then placed the garnish of fresh asparagus, thawed peas and fire-roasted red pepper. And voila dinner is served.

finished product.
Final result.

How to roast a pig…

It begins with a homemade caja - cooking box.
It begins with a homemade caja – cooking box.

Disclaimer: This post is not meant to be used as a recipe and it may contain images that vegetarians and vegans may find offensive. Yes I am an omnivore, please don’t judge me.

A pig is roasting over smoldering coals above an aluminum box under palm trees, a garlic tinged smokey haze drifts through the warm humid air, Cuban relatives chatter urgently about their Christmas shopping adventures, saliva escapes my half open mouth and my stomach growls. It is Christmas Eve day and I am witnessing a ritual woven into my culinary DNA, in a world far away from my Seattle WA home; Miami Florida.

My first pig roast was Christmas Eve 1980, I was only ten. It was in the backyard of my cousin’s house. It was a huge backyard that bordered Alligator habitat, a canal, a place where we kids weren’t supposed to go near. The advantage of living near alligator habitat was the topsoil. The layer above the ancient coral reefs that make up most of south Florida was deep enough for my cousins to dig a hole to roast a pig by burying it. All night, as I played with my little cousins, all I could think about was tasting my first authentic Cuban roast pig. The roast pig I had back home in Chicago wasn’t authentic, it was cooked in an oven.  But after several hours of cooking, the clock ticking closer to Christmas, the pig was finally unearthed, only to find it was still raw in the middle.

Fast forward 33 years – that many really?- and I am witnessing my second Cuban pig roast. This time we were in a part of Miami where burying a pig was out of the question. Instead a cooking box or caja was used. There are several ways to make a caja, this one is made from a large aluminum sink cabinet reclaimed from a restaurant that went out of business. The bottom of the caja is layered with charcoal then lit. When the coals are hot, the caja is ready for the pig.

Weapons of Mass Marination

The pig began marinating the morning of the roast. The secret – making the marinade or mojo with lots of garlic and using sour oranges picked from a tree a few feet from the caja,  then injecting it into the muscle of the pork.

 

When the coals are ready the dressed pig comes out under a veil of banana leaves. The banana leaves, also from the backyard, cover the splayed corpse of a pig sandwiched between two aluminum mesh holders secured with wire. The holder fits perfectly on top of the caja, where the pig is placed skin side down.

 

 

The pig arrives...
The pig arrives…
Making sure the pig is okay.
Making sure the pig is okay.
Pig placed atop the caja.
Pig placed atop the caja.

After checking to make sure the pig is positioned correctly, the banana leaves are replaced then topped with a metal sheet. The pig is left for about twenty minutes to sear the skin.

Caja top...
Caja top…

Once the skin is seared, then begins the several hour long process of flipping the pig, every hour or so, to ensure proper cooking.

Turning the pig.
Turning the pig.
Turning the pig.
Turning the pig.

Unfortunately, our relative visiting schedule didn’t allow me to stay for the end result – something I will have to change the next time I visit. I just hope it is sooner than 33 years.

Note: If you want some instruction on how to roast a pig – Cuban style – or ideas of a marinade called mojo – you can google “Cuban roast pig” or visit these two website one on Martha Stewart’s website really? and one on the three Cuban guys website.

A big Gracias to my cousins and their friends who let this gringatina from Seattle observe this succulent ritual.