I’ll never forget coming home after my first year away at college. As I walked into the house, my mother gave me a teary hug and I peeked over her shoulder toward our dinner table. It was set with the flower-printed table-cloth she reserved for special occasions, a sign that lunch was ready. Served straight from a caldero, the arroz con pollo my mother had made that morning was perfectly golden. Its consistency resembled a stew-like risotto and there were thin strips of red pimentos on top. She scooped some on to my plate, placed it in front of me and said “Come, m’ija.” I inhaled the aroma and felt as though I could smell it in my heart. I placed a forkful of rice with a sliver of chicken into mouth and took my time chewing. The chicken was impossibly moist and the saffron, tomatoes and peppers danced in the creaminess of the rice. My eyes welled up that very moment. I tasted home.
Every Latino I know has an arroz con pollo story, or a mom or grandmother who makes it “perfectly.” For sure, recipes for this most classic of Latin American dishes abound, with each country (if not each family) interpreting it differently. And that’s exactly what I love about most about this dish—there’s no one way to make it. Arroz con pollo is an expression of who we are and where we come from, in all of our diverse glory. Today, I’m offering up my own arroz con pollo (no, not my mother’s because I gave up a long time ago trying to recreate her perfection) which is made Cuban style, using short-grained Valencia rice to create a creamy stew-like consistency and beer which provides a zesty counterpoint.
I’ve also rounded up several great arroz con pollo recipes from around Latin America to show just how different the dishes can be. Take the Peruvian one featured in the For What It’s Worth blog, which is flavored with pureed cilantro and aji amarillo. At DominicanFlavor.com you’ll find a step-by-step to making what dominicanos call locrio de pollo (another way of saying arroz con pollo). And the Laylita’s Recipes blog features an Ecuadorean Chaulafan de pollo, or chicken fried rice, that has a clear Asian spin. If you have one of your own recipes, or if you know of variations not included here, please share them with us below. We’d love to hear YOUR arroz con pollo stories!
For the chicken
1 1/2 lb chicken (a whole chicken, about 3 lbs, cut into 8 pieces, skin on, bones in; or the parts you prefer, such as thighs and breasts. The key is to leave the bones and skin in for flavor.)
3 garlic cloves
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp oregano
1/2 cup fresh Seville orange juice (substitution: 1/4 cup orange juice, 1/8 cup lime juice, 1/8 cup lemon juice, all freshly squeezed)
For the rice
3 cups Valencia rice
1 tsp saffron threads
3 T olive oil
1/2 cup thinly sliced chorizo
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 6.5 oz jar red pimentos, drained, liquid reserved, finely chopped (plus more sliced into thin strips for garnish)
2 T sweet smoked paprika
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp oregano
1 bay leaf
1 8 oz can tomato sauce
Salt and pepper
1 12-oz beer (preferably a pale lager like Budweiser)
1 qt. low sodium chicken stock
1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed and cooked.
1. Start by marinating the chicken: Smash the garlic to a paste with the salt and transfer to a large bowl. Stir in the cumin, oregano, pepper and Seville orange juice. Toss the chicken parts in with the marinade until coated. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
2. To prepare the rice, place in a medium-sized bowl. Stir the saffron threads into 2 cups of warm water. Add the water to the rice, stirring to combine. Set aside.
3. Make a sofrito. Cook chorizo in olive oil in a 6- to 7-quart dutch oven or caldero over medium-high heat, stirring until some fat is rendered, about 3 minutes. Add onions, bell pepper, pimentos and cook, stirring until softened, about 5 minutes. Add paprika, cumin, oregano, bay leaf and cook, stirring another 5 minutes, or until onions are translucent and peppers are tender.
4. Add tomato sauce and chicken (reserving the marinade) to the pot, cover and cook for 10 to 12 minutes turning chicken over once. Add the reserved marinade, beer, chicken stock and reserved pimento liquid to the pot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Add the rice, reduce heat to low, cover and allow to simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the rice is cooked and tender. Most of the liquid will thicken but the final consistency should be that of a stew-like risotto.
5. Allow to rest for about 5 minutes. Garnish with thinly sliced red pimentos and/or peas. Serves 8 to 10.