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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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)
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.
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.