Apparently every Spanish-speaking country has their version of this classic dish. Being half-Spanish, I grew up eating a traditional arroz con pollo from Spain. When I started cooking myself, I took a somewhat Spanish-American approach. That meant I used no-fail Uncle Ben’s rice and strictly adhered to the directions…2-1 liquid, bring to a boil, lower and cover for 20 minutes. Even when I did it in a paellera in the oven, I covered it with foil.
Interestingly, I realized as I wrote this post that the literal translation of this dish is ‘rice with chicken’; yet, it is popularly translated and referred to as ‘chicken and rice’ (and that’s the way I used to make it.) Do you see the distinction?
Differences from one country to another generally revolve around the herbs, bases and/or vegetables used. Though I haven’t tried all the varieties, I have eaten Puerto Rican arroz con pollo many times — and I love it!
To get you in the mood, here’s a visual of the island accompanied by the voice of Marc Anthony singing “Preciosa”; lyrics by Rafael Hernandez, a musical legend in Puerto Rico. It’s the unofficial national anthem of PR.
What Makes Puerto Rican Arroz con Pollo Different (read ‘better’)
• The Chicken. I always made it with large (whole) pieces of chicken and viewed the rice as an equal or slightly lesser component. In the Puerto Rican kitchen the name of the dish is literally translated and rice is the star. Instead of whole pieces, the chicken is generally cut it into smaller pieces so that it’s well-mixed through the rice and you get a bite of chicken with almost every forkful…and every forkful of rice has the taste of chicken! This makes so much more sense, doesn’t it?
• Flavor. There are some distinct flavor differences coming from ingredients not familiar to Spain or readily available in all American supermarkets. Chief among them are achiote (annatto oil), culantro (coriander) leaves and cilantro.
• Like many one-pot dishes in PR, it all starts with a green cooking sauce called recaíto. The typical recaíto is a blend of onions, garlic, ajicitos, green bell pepper and lots of cilantro and culantro which are pulverized in a pilon (mortar and pestle). It is basically the same ingredients as Puerto Rican sofrito, but without the red color from tomatoes and red peppers.
You’re looking for a pesto-like ratio of herbs to oil. Being lazy and always in search of an efficient way, I used the blender: about 1 cup cilantro, 1/2 dozen culantro leaves, 1/2 bell pepper, 2 cloves garlic, 1/2 onion, 1/3 cup of olive oil, 1/4 tsp dry seasoning.
• Another big difference (and the one that intrigued me most) is the technique used to cook the rice. I’ve marveled over the years when I’d see my friends throw rice in the pot, add an unknown amount of liquid and let it cook bubbling (uncovered) for an unspecified amount of time. Dios mio…no measurements? No following Uncle Ben’s directions?
Yet, it was always perfectly cooked — and it was always delicious.
When I returned from a recent trip to PR with an unsatisfied yen for arroz con pollo, I decided to give it a try.
FOODalogue touches: Puerto Rican cooks generally don’t add chorizo or gandules to their ‘arroz con pollo’ dishes. Instead, those ingredients are reserved for specific dishes like pork-flavored arroz con gandules or a potage of garbanzos and chorizos. Sometimes, red beans (habichuelas coloradas) are served as a side dish.
…but, I like what both of these add to the pot.
Taste Test. I love the taste that culantro imparts so I used the whole package (first in the recaíto and then some whole leaves mixed in with the rice).
And about that rice…it was delicious, just like they make in Puerto Rico! I found it surprisingly soft but not mushy, even in reheating the leftovers which I ate for lunch AND dinner the next day. I couldn’t help myself . Does anyone know if that softness is attributable to the shorter grain or the method of cooking?