I am proud to say that this is my signature dish and a favorite of all my friends and family who usually ask for it specifically, by name, when I suggest dinner at our place. It is, at its essense, Cuban comfort food. Every Cuban household makes this dish and we all do it a little differently. In our household the best chicken and rice cook was undoubtably my grandfather, with my grandmother a close second. The dish that came out of their kitchen with its soft, sticky, yellow rice, tender dark meat chicken and all the lovely spices cooked together in olive oil had an unctuous mouth feel that would make bone marrow jealous! So beloved was this dish in our family that there was a time when it is all my brother would eat. It was so strongly associated with my grandaprents that the name for it in our house was not Arroz con Pollo, but Papa de Abo (food of the grandfather). Sadly, my grandparents are no longer with us, but I find that cooking this recipe and it having become my signature dish is one of the ways in which they remain a part of my life.
A word on the Chicken Traditinally this is a peasant dish. Chicken was not cheap in Cuba and so the rice was used to extend this pricey meat. In most of the developed world chicken is now very affordable, if not the most affordable protein on the market. So as you can imagine it came as a shock to me why my grandmother loved chicken so much. I remember asking my mom about this when I was younger and her responce was that it was the equivient of us moving to a country where Filet Mignon was 90 cents a pound. The reason I bring this up is to drive home the point that the chicken in this recipe is a luxury and should be treated as such, so buy good chicken, organic if possible. Also, this dish really comes out better with chicken thigh. For this version I use boneless skinless chicken thigh but if I have more time I really like using chicken thigh on the bone. I do not recommend chicken breast for this dish, it comes out too dry as it has to cook for over 40 minutes. The thigh meat on the other hand becomes tender with the long cooking and imparts far more flavor to the overall dish. If you are concerned about fat you can always add the chicken to the hot skillet without oil and cook it until it’s rendered all it’s fat. Before adding in any of the other ingredients, move the chicken onto a plate lined with a paper towel and remove any excess fat in the pan with another paper towel. I do this sometimes and it comes out delicious all the same, all be it with less of the unctuous mouthfeel I grew up loving.
A word on the Rice This recipe is meant to be cooked with pearl rice, which basically means short grain rice. That doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with other rices. I often make an Indian version with Basmatti Rice. That said, 90% of the time I use short grain rice. This rice is actually the cheapest AND most expensive in the grocery store. If you buy the Calrose rice that comes in paper sacks in the grocery store with Chinese letters, it is the cheapest. If you buy the box of Arborio rice that comes in a box with a vacuum sealed brick of rice inside, it is the most expensive. Both come out equally delicious so I say, go with the cheaper one. Oh and be greatful you don’t have to sift out the bugs as my grandmother used to tell me they did in Cuba, I know I am!
1 lb Boneless Skinless Chicken Thigh – Cut into large bitesize pieces
2 Cups White Wine – Dry NOT sweet and for gods sake not cooking wine
2 Garlic Cloves – Crushed
1/2 a Large Yellow Onion – Diced
2 tbs Cumin – Ground
1 tsp Garlic Powder
1 tsp Onion Powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes – this is not traditional at all, I do it cuz I love it
1 Pinch of Saffron – You only need a pinch
1 cup Rice
4 cups Water
In this method I cook the chicken and rice “paella style”, meaning in a pan without a lid in gently boiling liquid. This is much easier than doing it with the lid on in a pot. If for some reason you find you are out of water and the rice is still not done just add a bit more and keep cooking, it makes no difference to the end product. It also makes a nice crunchy crust at the bottom which is a fabulous contrast to the sticky rice. I prefer to use a nonstick skillet for this which guarantees that the rice doesn’t stick.
Step 1 – Place a large nonstick skillet (10″ or 12″) over high heat and add the Chicken and half the salt. Cook until the chicken has taken on some color and the juices are running out. About 3-4 minutes
Step 2 – Add the onion and the rest of the salt and cook until the onions begin to sweat. About another 3 minutes
Step 3 – Add the Garlic, Garlic Powder, Onion Powder, Cumin and Red Pepper flakes. Stir together and cook for 1-2 minutes or until the mixture has fully come together.
Step 4 – Add the wine and saffron and cook over high heat until all the liquid has pretty much evaporated. This takes 7-10 minutes on my stove.
Step 5 – Add the rice and stir to incorporate
Step 6 – Add the water and turn the heat down until it is simmering but not boiling. There should be bubbles but no explosions. On most stoves this would be medium to medium low heat.
Step 7 – Cook for 20-30 minutes. 15 minutes in, begin check the rice for doneness.
Step 8 – (totally optional) Once the rice is tender and the water has completely evaporated turn the heat up to high and cook for 1-2 minutes or until the rice forms a brown crust (brown not black). This creates what we Cubans call, la raspita, and it is the most prized part of the Arroz con Pollo. Usually there is only enough for the older men in the family, however, if you cook it like this you get a lot more raspita!
Serves 4 normal people or 2 VERY hungry Cubans. Recipe doubles phenomenally and if you find out last minute that more people are comming you can double everythine but the chicken and still get a great dish, some of my friends preffer it that way. This dish is also increadibly easy to chew 😉