Hola! I grew up in a household where dinner could consist of meatloaf, ropa vieja (shredded beef), lasagna, picadillo (ground beef), fried chicken, masas de puerco (fried pork chunks) and sides were rice, pasta, broccoli or yuca (a root vegetable), to name a few regular offerings. Our Thanksgiving table held a golden-browned turkey, mashed potatoes, and sweet potatoes covered with melted mini marshmallows but also a pierna asada (roast leg of pork), frijoles negros (black beans) and rice, and yuca. My mother, who was a huge believer in breakfast, would send us off to school with a belly full of anything from a simple Cuban toast and café con leche (Cuban espresso with a good helping of milk) or pancakes and sausage. In other words, I grew up in a bi-cuisine home. And it was amazing!
One of the goals I have for this website is to share some of the Cuban cuisine I enjoyed growing up and provide some recipes for you to make them yourself.
I struggled choosing my inaugural first recipe though – one dish that best represents the flavor, complexity, and richness of Cuban cuisine. I was fortunate enough to get some help writing this article from some brilliant friends who had the opportunity to live in Cuba longer than I did and remember things much better than I. One of these lovely ladies, Alina Iglesias, told me, “Cuban cooking, as is the population of Cuba, is a melting pot of nationalities and ethnicities. There was a large Jewish population and influence, along with Chinese and Lebanese impacts, as well as that of Africans and Europeans.”
So many delicious choices! Having narrowed it down to two I am very familiar with, I even polled my family and friends: should I go with arroz con pollo or frijoles negros as the inaugural recipe? And the winner is (bongo roll, please!) – arroz con pollo!
Although most of those I polled did choose arroz con pollo, another sweet friend, Hilda Cohen, had the following to say about it and cinched the choice:
“In Cuba, the Sunday meal was always arroz con pollo.
We have to remember that in Cuba, we had two big meals. We started the day with a European style breakfast (the toast and coffee I referenced above), followed by a hearty lunch of soup, stew, meat, chicken or fish, then an afternoon ‘merienda (snack),’ followed by another big meal in the evenings, which was completely different from the one served at lunch.”
So, it is only fitting to start off this series of recipes with the typical “Sunday dinner” of my homeland. Without further ado, here is a wonderful recipe for this tantalizing dish of “soupy” yellow rice and chicken. This recipe is how my own mother made it, but if I recall, it originated in Cocina al Minuto by Nitza Villapol, a cookbook that is considered to be the authority on our cuisine and was in almost every Cuban household after its release in 1958. This entree is substantial, flavorful and can soothe anyone’s soul. Serve with a nice green salad or avocado slices drizzled with oil and vinegar and some salt and pepper. Of course, the most traditional accompaniment to this dish is a side of sweet fried plantains, but that’s a recipe for another day! If you try it, I would love to know what you think. Buen provecho!
Arroz con Pollo (Rice with Chicken)
(Makes about 8 servings)
- 2 fryer chickens (or equivalent parts but use dark and white meat with bone)
- 3-5 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 “naranja agria”(sour orange from Seville), juiced (if you can’t find these locally, use two parts orange juice, one part lemon juice and one part lime)
- 1/3 cup olive or vegetable oil
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped
- 1 green bell pepper, chopped
- 1 16 oz. can of whole tomatoes, chopped (or tomato sauce if you prefer less chunky)
- 2 8 oz. cans of pimiento peppers
- 1 small can of peas, drained (everyone in my family hated peas so Mom would omit these!)
- 2 tbsp. salt
- ½ tsp. pepper
- 2 tbsp. Accent seasoning
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 pinch of saffron (enough to give the rice a yellow-orange color. Since saffron can be expensive, a more budget friendly alternative is Bijol (annatto, cumin & corn flour). Look for it in the international section of your grocery store.)
- ¾ cup of “vino seco” (cooking sherry) (or 1 can of beer – equally delicious!)
- 2 cups of chicken broth (preferably homemade from the chicken giblets)
- 2 cups of water
- 4 cups Valencia type rice
- Additional water, as needed
- Use the chicken giblets to make 2 cups of broth and strain out giblets (or use a good store-bought broth)
- Cut chickens into quarters and marinate in crushed garlic and naranja agria juice for 2 or more hours.
- In a large Dutch oven or heavy pot, heat the oil and brown the chicken pieces.
- Add onion, bell pepper, tomatoes (or sauce), can of pimientos (including liquid), salt, pepper, Accent, bay leaf, saffron, vino seco, broth and water (start with 1 ½ cups and add up to 2 cups if needed). Simmer over low heat for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Add the rice and stir. Let it simmer over low heat until the rice is tender (about 15-20 minutes) and most of the liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat.
- Add the peas and garnish with pimiento peppers. Mom sometimes would even slice up a couple of hard-boiled eggs and use those as additional garnishes. I’ve also seen it with blanched asparagus spears.