If you’re craving arroz con pollo—Puerto Rico’s super-hearty national comfort food—here’s a throwback recipe and food story of my mom’s delicious take on the dish.
If I found out that tomorrow is my last day on this earth, I’m ready: last meal-wise, it’s Mom’s arroz con pollo with pimento-stuffed olives, roasted red peppers, and asparagus. It takes me right back to childhood: to the island I grew up on.
Arroz con pollo makes me think of Puerto Rican mothers in Puerto Rican kitchens: my mother Marisa, and her mother, my grandmother Rocío, and her mother, my great-grandmother Antonia de los Angeles Travieso Nieva. She was born in 1885 and died during childbirth, in 1912, leaving six kids. They were parceled out to uncles and aunts across Puerto Rico and one back to Spain. I like to think that the ones in Puerto Rico were able to see each other every so often, over arroz con pollo Sunday dinners: sibling sustenance.
When Mami made arroz con pollo, my sister and I would crowd in the kitchen and watch her brown the chicken—marinated overnight in garlic, salt, olive oil and red wine vinegar—in her big, metal caserola. She never premade sofrito, like my neighbor Doña Felipa does. She’d just saute onions, green pepper and garlic in a pan, add tomato, salt, pepper and cumin, and call it a day. Mami also did not use sazón packets like everyone else. She was anti-MSG and pro-low-salt, even way back in 1970s Puerto Rico. She’d use white rice only if guests were coming. She’d then add chicken stock (never water), a bay leaf, cilantro and olives—put the lid on: And that was that until los invitados sat down. On arroz con pollo nights, the house smelled amazing: garlic, green pepper, cumin.
Her arroz con pollo ingrediento secreto? A can of asparagus she’d add at the last minute. Canned is key—the asparagus has this vinegary, concentrated, shriveled-savory-tart taste. Then she’d sprinkle a can of baby peas, diced roasted red pimento, and a last flourish of chopped cilantro.
The dish is foolproof. The guests ate every last bit. Back then, people smoked—never my mom, sometimes my dad. They’d all go take a cigarette and maybe a dance break and then come back to the table for brandy and Mom’s Always Requested Flan.
Now I’m the one cooking arroz con pollo, and I will make it often for mom, when she comes to live with us next summer. I’ve tweaked our family recipe in three ways. One, I add white meat (Mom only uses thighs). Two, gracias to the many batches Doña Felipa and I made and froze, I start with thawed, pre-made sofrito. And three, I sneak in a packet of adobo achiote seasoning, to make it super-típico Puerto Rican and give it that traditional ruby-orange color and island sabor.
I know, MSG. Sorry, Mom.
Here is my slightly updated version of Mom’s family recipe, my last meal on earth.