Arroz con pollo is the Cuban comfort dish that lifts rice to its full potential

|     Tanya Sichynsky     |

FOR years, I have harboured a seemingly unpopular opinion in shame. But one of the cornerstones of being online is the broadcasting of your deeply held (if faulty) beliefs with unshakable pride, so *straps on helmet, elbow pads, knee pads* here goes nothing.

Rice is just okay.

When it comes to cooking grains at home, I’m of two philosophies: The grain – which in many households is long-grain white rice – should either be 1) boiled together with a dish’s other ingredients to absorb their flavours or 2) cooked plainly in advance and ultimately fried.

The greatest example of the first approach is a Cuban classic and, scientifically, the ultimate comfort dish: Arroz con pollo. Truly great rice is rice that’s boiled with rendered chicken fat, stock, grape juice, tomato sauce and saffron. If you disagree, please do not hesitate to @ me. But at least make this recipe first.

Like any respectable Cuban dish, arroz con pollo starts with a combo of garlic, onion and bell pepper sauteed in a little fat.

This holy trinity is called sofrito; much like a French mirepoix, it serves as the foundation on which you’ll build a flavourful meal. After a bit of browning and sauteing, there’s little work left for you as the rice cooks.

It’s an appealing set-it-and-forget-it dinner option if there ever was one. And whether you’ve got kiddos or large adult sons, this dish will feed (and fill up) a crowd.

Good news for those of us who love to make meals ahead: Arroz con pollo is better the next day. Storing the dish in a large, oven-safe glass container in the fridge will make for easy reheating.

If you live for crispy chicken skin, you can finish things off by re-searing the thighs skin sides down in a cast-iron skillet for a minute or two after you’ve warmed things through.

As far as specialty ingredients go, saffron – a spice that’s popular in Spanish and Middle Eastern cooking – imparts an unmistakable colour and flavour. A little tomato sauce will colour our rice slightly, but that coveted yellow hue can’t happen without those luxurious threads. Skip it, and you’ll have one of those “Something’s missing, but I can’t place what” moments. You don’t want that. – Text & Photo by The Washington Post

Arroz con pollo

Cuban-style chicken and rice (arroz con pollo)

SERVINGS: Four

INGREDIENTS

One lime, cut in half

Four bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

One teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

Freshly ground black pepper

One tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

One small yellow onion, finely chopped (about 3/4 cup)

One green bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed, finely chopped (1 to 1 1/2 cups)

Four cloves garlic, minced

1⁄3 cup pimento-stuffed manzanilla olives, sliced

1⁄2 cup plain tomato sauce or canned crushed tomatoes

1⁄2 teaspoon ground cumin

One bay leaf

12 ounces white grape juice

2 cups chicken broth

1 1⁄4 cups uncooked long-grain white rice, rinsed

A baby pinch of saffron threads

STEPS

Squeeze the juice of both lime halves all over the chicken thighs, then season both sides of the thighs generously with salt and pepper. Let them sit for a couple minutes while you prep the rest of your ingredients.

Drizzle the oil into a Dutch oven or another large, heavy-bottomed, ovenproof saucepan and heat over medium heat.

Brown the chicken, skin sides down, for eight to 10 minutes until golden and crisped, and then again for eight minutes on the meat sides. Transfer them to a plate.

You’ll see a little treat at the bottom of the pot. Gang, that’s rendered chicken fat – currency around these parts. Pour off all but two tablespoons into a heatproof container (for saving or discarding once the fat has cooled) and then dump the onion, bell pepper and garlic into the remaining rendered fat in the pot. Cook until the veggies have softened and the onion is slightly translucent, about five minutes.

Add the olives, tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes, cumin and the bay leaf. Cook, stirring every now and then, for three minutes.

Pour the white grape juice into the pot. Add the broth, rice, saffron threads and the teaspoon of kosher salt, and stir. Increase the heat to medium-high; bring everything to a boil, then reduce the heat to low.

Barely tuck in those crisped chicken thighs skin sides up, partially cover the pot and cook low and slow until the rice has absorbed nearly all the liquid, 30 minutes.

Toss out the bay leaf and let everything rest for five minutes. Fluff the rice with a fork before serving.