On Saturday night, I went to a sushi-making party at a friend's house. It was one of those international evenings, where almost everyone is from a different country and you can hear at least four languages that you don't understand (five, counting English, which I also stop understanding after the third shot of sake...). Two of the girls were Chinese and they were telling us that Cantonese has nine different intonations - that's right, NINE. So potentially, one word can have nine different meanings. They gave a couple of examples, and really, I'm not sure I should ever learn Cantonese because, especially after a few drinks, we would have big problems of the YOU IDIOT!-oh...-I mean,-please-pass-the-pepper variety.
I had a similar reaction when I initially began researching recipes for arroz con pollo, which a friend asked me to make (how did you guys like that transition? Smooth, huh!). Arroz con pollo is practically the national dish in many Latin American countries, and when I saw the variations with which it is made, my eyes rolled back into my head and I felt like chucking the whole undertaking there and then because, how can I compete with the cooks in Latin America, creators of all things dulce de leche, ceviche, asado, empanadas, tamales and a million other delicacies with such mouth-watering names as "Churrasco," "Mariscada," and "Pamplona de pollo"?
After a tolerably brief (and mostly successful) wrestle with panic, however, your intrepid heroine then took a long, deep breath and defrosted the chicken. Because, as everyone knows, after you defrost the chicken, there is just no going back.
I decided to go back to the basics and use just the ingredients that most people have in their pantry. Because delicious doesn't always have to mean a trip to the market, right? Keep in mind that there are countless variations. I saw a three page debate about the use of bell peppers alone, and don't even get me started on the saffron mafia (they are very, very scary). Some people use chorizo, which they fry right before the onions are added, and some people throw in a handful of cooked peas at the end. Whatever you do, it's easy to add your own choice of spices and veggies based on what you have on hand or on how fancy you want to make the dish. At its base, however, arroz con pollo is a hearty, colorful, satisfying one-pot dish that earned me a really loud "MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM...." from my family, and that is really the only thing that matters. I used this recipe from Simply Recipes as my base.
Arroz con pollo
For the chicken:
4 chicken thighs (or 2 thighs and 2 breasts, or whatever pieces of chicken you happen to have at the moment that would serve 4 people)
2 tbsp olive oil
Flour for dredging
For the rice:
1 cup of rice (I usually use jasmine or basmati rice, but short grain is more traditional)
2 cups of chicken stock* OR 1 cup chicken stock and 1 cup saffron water**
1 cup diced tomatoes (canned or fresh; liquid drained if canned)
1 tbsp tomato paste
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp cumin
salt & pepper to taste
Heat 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil in a large skillet that has a cover on medium heat. In a bowl, combine flour, paprika, salt and pepper. Dredge the chicken in the mixture, shaking off the excess flour. Brown the chicken for a couple of minutes on either side until nicely golden, sprinkling some more paprika on top. Remove chicken from the pan and set aside.
Add the rice to the pan to brown. Stir it first to coat in olive oil and then leave for about a minute. Then stir again, not too often, to continue until the rice is also a golden color, about 2 more minutes. Be careful not to burn the rice (like I did). Add the chopped onions, garlic and chopped bell peppers, if using. Sprinkle a little salt on it and sautee, stirring often, until the onions are soft, about 4/5 minutes (add the additional 1/2 tbsp of olive oil if you feel that it's going to burn).
Place the chicken skin side up on top of the rice. In a bowl, mix the chicken stock (and saffron water, if using) with the chopped tomatoes and tomato paste. Pour over the chicken and rice. Sprinkle with a little more salt and pepper, oregano, thyme, cumin and any other spice you want to use (hello, chili powder and smoked paprika!). Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low, cover tightly and simmer for 20-25 minutes (depending on the instructions on the rice package) until the chicken and the rice are done. At this point, you can sprinkle in the peas if you want. Fluff the rice with a fork and enjoy. I'd tell you to wait until it cools, but it looked and smelled so good that we totally didn't, so why should you?
*Please follow the directions on the box for the rice when you do the proportions of liquid to rice -- mine was 1:2, but I've seen 1:1.5 sometimes, so you have to be careful.
**If you want to use saffron in the dish (I didn't), dissolve 1/4 tsp saffron in 1 cup of boiling water.