The not-so-secret but magical ingredient is saffron, the dried stigma of a particular type of crocus. Saffron imparts a yellow color when cooked with a pleasing aroma, and rich flavor. I can’t compare it to anything else. Saffron is just saffron. I bought a small box when I was in Florida, but have found it in Paducah as well. Saffron is considered to be the most expensive spice in the world by weight, but a little goes a long way, and compared to a gallon of gasoline, is a bargain.
I consulted several recipes and tried one technique to cook it, but this is, what I think I will do to prepare it next time. The ingredients are all the same, just a different, easier technique to cook it well. My technique here involves a three step process, but finishes on the stove in a pot, rather than in a casserole pan as my first effort did.
To begin with, take about a pound-and-a-quarter of boneless chicken tenders and cook them in a hot skillet with two tablespoons of olive oil. Season the chicken as it cooks with a little salt and pepper, a quarter teaspoon of cumin and a half teaspoon of garlic powder. For once, we want to give the chicken only a hint of flavor, and not overwhelm the saffron we will add later. Brown the chicken on both sides. After that, remove the skillet from the heat, and cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces. If it is a little undercooked now, don’t worry, we’re not done with it yet.
Take a large, five-quart pan and add another tablespoon of fragrant extra-virgin olive oil. Dice a sweet onion and a green pepper and add it to the oil with one clove of chopped garlic and sauté well. As the onions begin to grow translucent, add a single tomato cut into fairly large pieces and continue cooking the vegetables. I added just a bit of salt and pepper along with two tablespoons of fresh parsley and maybe a half teaspoon of oregano. Any more than that would have been excessive.
Now we come to the third part of cooking, the rice. Add one can (two cups) of chicken broth and one bay leaf to the pot and bring it to a boil. For rice, I used one cup of brown rice. Traditional arroz con pollo usually calls for long grain white rice. I still prefer the brown rice for additional fiber, flavor and texture. If you like white rice, or want to be traditional, feel free to. Return the mixture to a boil. As it boils, add a quarter-teaspoon of the saffron threads- really just a pinch you can crumble between your fingers. Two tablespoons of white wine add flavor and moisture, while two tablespoons of drained pimentos add festive color. Rice usually needs salt as it boils, but I added about a quarter of a teaspoon. The broth usually has some salt, so no need to go overboard. Cover and cook at a low simmer for 15 minutes.
After that time expires, re-add the chicken and stir well. Re-cover the pot and simmer for another half-hour.
As a condiment for the arroz con pollo, I drained and heated a small can of green peas. Spoon a little on top of the chicken and rice as you serve it.
For a side dish, I sautéed one-quarter of a sweet yellow onion and a minced clove of garlic in a small saucepan. After the onion grew tender, I added one can of black beans, another Cuban favorite. Heat to simmering and serve topped with diced raw onion. If I could have found some crusty Cuban or Italian bread, it would have been at home on the table. Sooner or later I am going to need to learn to bake.
This meal had been deferred for two days due to long meetings and guests from my family visiting Cadiz. When Hawkins finally sat down, armed with a fork to attack his full plate, he said, “I think I have a new favorite.”
My mistake was trying to cook everything together in a casserole. Covered or not, the rice didn’t get tender enough for my liking. Hawkins didn’t seem to mind a bit. I still have some saffron and know I can do it much better the second time around. The meal made plenty for two hungry reporters, with good leftovers. For larger meals, double or triple it to serve four or six. With Hawkins’ enthusiasm for arroz con pollo, I expect I will be called upon to cook it regularly in the months to come. He now has a new favorite, and I have a handle on how to cook it, so a good time was had by all. Good eating.