Cow and Chicken

Chicken Chicharrones

I resent Chick-fil-A for three reasons. Long before I’d been unlucky enough to live within a drivable distance to the fast food establishment that considers itself above operating on Sundays (I am a staunch advocate of separation of church and chicken, so that’s reason number one), I worked in the screen-printing sector for a spell, where I came across the ambiguous logo for the first time. I assumed the pronunciation was “chick fillah,” and figured the company had been founded by a surly aviculteur with a strong Boston accent, who supplied chicken filling for nuggets, patties, and the like. Obviously, reason number two addresses the all too common liberties taken with the alphabet.

Reason number three arose the first time I acquiesced to BK’s pleas for a Chick-fil-A kid’s meal from our mall’s food court, a routine I was unaware Mr. P had allowed to develop. I’ll note that our mall, though relatively close by, is actually in another state, one that boasts a long line of historically bad ideas. To my delight, I saw that the nuggets looked homemade, identifiably chicken, and lightly breaded. But then I tasted one, and a specific rage rose up out of my chest, one reserved for the slap in the face that is misleadingly appealing fare. I don’t know if the trademark “flavor” originates intentionally from a specific “seasoning,” or if I’m just experiencing the complex flavor profiles of grease, but those obsequious cow mascots need to offer at least bearable fare if they don’t want to end up in my sandwich.

I recently came across a recipe for chicken chicharrones on the always reliable, and jumped at the chance to impress Mr. Tilde with some flavors from the mother protectorate. Upon plating the piping hot, shimmering with oil yet obviously crunchy little chunks, I noticed a hint of physical resemblance to the insipid little orts slung by CfA, but hoped that half an hour marinating in rum, lime juice, and soy sauce would yield a much more palatable product. Palatable is an understatement, and elastic waistbands are called for once again, as well as a table-side candy dish filled with Tums. A squirt each of lime juice and hot sauce are legally mandated in this case, and I find diners are especially delighted if the lime wedges are presented in a small communal bowl.  I’ve never been much of a deep-fryer, especially when peanut oil is involved, but I’m going to need to start that new gym membership, now that I’ll be eating this three nights a week. And when I finally have a few too many chicharrones sometime after Christmas, I’m coming for you, beefcakes.

We have to stop eating like this.

Really? Malta Short Ribs

Like many Americans, we don’t watch TV anymore; we watch laptop. We have a Roku box hooked up to the TV, to which we stream our Netflix account and Amazon On Demand purchases, but since I spend most of my day in the living room, I like to move into the office for a change of scenery in the evening. Ultimately, Billy the Kid has a wall-mounted flat-screen HDTV, and his parents watch the majority of their programs huddled around a 17″ computer screen. Of the handful of shows we follow, the most painfully awaited each week is, without a doubt, Top Chef.

We are obsessed with Top Chef, and by we, I mean Mr. P. I deem the Bravo reality show solid (and hunger-inducing) entertainment, but in the absence of cable television, my husband has redirected the zest he would have invested in football toward competitive cooking. I usually draw or decoupage for the beginning of the show, focusing in mainly when a final dish is plated or a winner/loser announced; my husband not only ranks his favorite seasons and players/chefs within each season, taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of each, but also validates his appraisals through sites like this. Wait for it…there’s even more.

I had never heard of short ribs before I started watching the show, but it quickly became clear that the rib/plate/chuck combo cut could either open new doors for contestants, or windows out of which to throw them. While watching a back episode from Season 4, in which the particularly brazen Richard Blais wins Round I of the finale (held in Puerto Rico) with his Pork Ribs with Malta and Soy Glaze, I searched online for a similar recipe, and found one that looked fairly reasonable on this visual trainwreck of a site. I’ve typed out the recipe below, since the contributing chef seems too distracted to actually get all his ingredients into the dish. To his credit, his ribs are absolutely delicious, and so succulent you can leave the knives off from the place-settings. But really, can there be true redemption from such abhorrent self-editing?

3 lbs short ribs (by definition, beef)
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 packet Goya Sazon
1/8 to 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
3 cachucha peppers, minced (or any small, mild peppers)
1 12-oz bottle Goya Malta
1 1/2 C beef stock
1 small can Goya Spanish-style tomato sauce
Salt and pepper
1 tbsp olive oil

Set your oven to 350. Heat the oil in a large cast iron skillet over medium-high, and dry the meat off on a paper towel. Rub the ribs with salt and pepper, then brown them on each side for 4 minutes. Remove them from the pan, add the onions, and cook for about 4 minutes, until they start to soften. Add the peppers and garlic and cook for 2 minutes, then add the tomato sauce and cook for 2 minutes more.

Return the ribs to the pan, add the Sazon, cayenne pepper, Malta, and beef stock, and stir it up until combined. Add salt if you didn’t adequately cake your ribs prior to browning, and cook the whole thing for another 3 minutes, then cover the pot and stick it in the oven for 3 hours.

These were superb with Puerto Rican-style white rice, and I have a feeling they’d also pair well with boiled Russett potatoes. Unfortunately, I’ll never know, since I now have a tilde in my last name.

Sometimes I take one for the team.

Pollo en Qué-es-cabeche

I recently came across a recipe Mr. P had scribbled on a leaf of small notebook paper some time ago. While this is another example of the put-everything-in-the-pot-and-cook method that always sets me on edge, Mr. P knows his home cooking, so I called him at work to make sure that, “really, no water? just that much oil and vinegar?” (I should also mention that, while in the Spanish language, escabeche usually refers to pickled dishes, the Puerto Rican version calls for chicken cooked in a vinaigrette and olive oil sauce). With a go-ahead from the Protectorate, I executed the following instructions, transferred everything into a Tupperware container, and stuck it in the fridge for Mr. P’s dinner. I don’t go in for this kind of thing, myself.

Held up by a compelling appointment with a Mr. MC Frontalot in the city, Mr. P returned much too late for a meal, so the chicken marinated for another sixteen hours before making its debut earlier this evening. I still haven’t tried it, but according to the man, chicken was falling off the bone and leaping into his mouth. I have a feeling that “escabeche” is a love-or-flee flavor combination. Do you get really excited about vinaigrette dressing? How do you feel about a whole lot of oil-boiled peppers and onions? Does the aroma of the pickling process make you anxious? These are all questions you’ll want to answer before you get too invested.

2 lbs chicken breasts, bone in, skin on (one split breast did it for me)
1 lb storage/yellow onions, sliced into thin rings
1 large green bell pepper, cut into thin strips
6 large or 8 small cloves garlic, whole
3/4 C olive oil
1/2 C vinegar
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
salt and pepper for rubbing

Rub the chicken with salt and pepper. You want a big pot for this; I used a large, deep skillet with a tight-fitting cover, but a large saucepan is fine, too. Set the pot over medium-high heat and add 2 tbsp of olive oil. Once it’s hot, sear the chicken breasts for 2 minutes on each side (all 3). Add the onions and peppers and mix them in, under the chicken, before adding all the other ingredients. Get the liquid to a boil before turning the heat down to medium, then cover the pot and let it cook for 40 minutes. Check in every 10 minutes or so and turn the chicken to prevent burning. After 40 minutes, remove the cover, and cut into the chicken to see if it’s done. If not, cook uncovered for 10 to 20 more minutes.

My chicken looked dry after the initial 40 minutes, and I was relieved when Mr. P reported succulence. So, you’ll want to immediately transfer everything from the pot into a plastic container and stick it in the fridge overnight. Oh, did you not want to start tomorrow’s dinner this morning? Also, this should be served with the elusive Puerto Rican white rice, so make sure you’re self-confidence tank is full before taking it on.

Rice: it should be so simple.

Infuriatingly Enigmatic Puerto Rican White Rice

The dinner menu should ideally vary as much as a debutante’s wardrobe, with no single item making more than one appearance over the course of a week. While my ongoing attempt to embody this principal provides me with a sense of abstract superiority and adds a flavor of Russian Roulette to Mr. P’s anticipatory ride home, a particular basic food group strikes fear into my heart once every seven days: starch. The seven weekly starches are as follows: baking potatoes, red potatoes, pasta, fresh bread, noodles, packet rice, white rice. Yes, I just admitted that I buy Rice-a-Roni, Near East, etc. I can hardly tolerate them, but Billy-the-Kid loves the rice pilaf and broccoli/cheese varieties, so I take one for Team Peña every now and then.

The white rice, however, sets me on edge like no other culinary undertaking, not even the crown roast of lamb of the spring of 2007 or the duck a l’orange the following summer. White rice is done Puerto Rican style in Mr. P’s casa; when we first lived together in 2000, I was unpacking groceries one day when I noticed him standing frozen and silent, staring in bewilderment at a package of Uncle Ben’s, before slowly lifting his head toward me with eyes full of pity and second thoughts. A few hours later, I was introduced to Goya’s Canilla Brand Extra Long Grain Rice, “a favorite for generations and a staple in the Hispanic diet…known for its role as a must-have for many classic meals.” I’d write this off as generic marketing tripe, except Canilla has, in fact, been used for generations in Mr. P’s family. The passing down of brands is evidently more continental than I would have expected.

The most maddening aspect of preparing Puerto Rican white rice (it’s probably identical to those of a few other countries, but I’m not married into their cuisines) is that anyone raised on it can detect minute imperfections, which just don’t register on an outsider’s palate, regardless of how many years you invest practicing. The best a newcomer can hope to achieve is a 75% success rate after 5 years of at least monthly practice. My resident Puerto Rican describes the ideal white rice as “unsplit, separate and well-defined grains (not mushy or sticky), with just enough salt and oil so that you don’t taste them, but you’d miss them if they weren’t there.” I’ve included photos because describing the desired final appearance is more than I have left this late in the evening (note that the top of the rice has been fluffed with a fork – when you take the lid off it will be flat, fluffing should be performed immediately before serving).

3 1/2 C cold water
2 C Canilla Brand Extra Long Grain White Rice
1/3 C vegetable oil
1 Tbsp salt

The proper vessel for cooking this would be a caldero, a cast aluminum pot with a tight lid. Something horrible happened to mine a few years ago and I haven’t replaced it, so I’m forced to make due with an all-purpose medium aluminum pot with a slightly thinner surface. You don’t need to make any adjustments to the recipe depending on your vessel, just keep in mind that the caldero is basically one of the ingredients, and you’ll be greatly rewarded (75% of the time, at best) if you invest a few dollars in one at your supermarket. Seriously, it’s a shockingly inexpensive cookware item.

Heat the water in your pot over high. Add the salt and oil and wait for it to come to a rolling boil. Add the rice, and stir once. That means one rotation of the spoon around the pot. Believe me, I understand. As soon as the water is boiling again, turn the heat down to low-low, but not the “warm” setting, if your burner has one, and cover the pot. Leave it alone. You might be inclined to give it a good stir or two — don’t do it. Let it cook until you don’t see any water when you lift the lid, not even any starchy goo. Skim a small spoonful off the top and nibble a few grains between your front teeth – if they exhibit any crunch or snap whatsoever, the rice is still raw, and it needs to be cooked until there’s no hint of al dente. Once the rice is done, leave the heat on and remove the cover. Let it cook for a few more minutes to dry out some of the condensation before serving.

If your first attempt is catastrophic, you might be inclined to give up and move on, and I really can’t blame you after washing my hands of risotto; I can’t even bring myself to link to the posts. But, if you’re now intrigued by the challenge, I’ll advise you as to the probable culprit in what I assume turned out to be sticky, al dente mush. The heat has to be low enough so that the the insides of the grains have enough time to cook, but not so low that the water temperature drops below a simmer, resulting in a warm, starchy bath. It’s difficult to tell once the water level drops out of sight but hasn’t yet completely evaporated, which is why the nibble-test is crucial.

After living with the arroz-monkey on my back for almost a decade, I still get smacked with a yearly train-wreck when I least expect it, so don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it, more or less, eventually.

He’s Lebanese, right?

My husband is the Puerto Rican Ben Kingsley. What I find most interesting (and charming) about the ethnic assumptions strangers frequently make about him is that they all want to claim him as one of their own. “Because he’s so obviously Jewish?” someone asked when introduced to Mr. P at a party and told by the host he reminded her of her husband. The local pizzeria proprietor in our old neighborhood couldn’t be convinced, and repeatedly asked if he was sure he wasn’t Lebanese. Right after 911, friends and family suggested he give the beard a little time off because of his uncanny resemblance to an Egyptian hijacker. That the hijacker had died hijacking went unmentioned. When I met Mr. P for the first time back in ’99, I thought “Penya” must be Italian and started researching Lasagna recipes. Then I got wind of the tilde. Cuban by way of his father, it was his Puerto Rican mother, Sra. C, who did all the cooking, so most of my attempts to recreate the comfort foods of his childhood hail from the Territory as opposed to the Republic. The following is a common P.R. Thanksgiving main dish, and for the years that I’ve made it in place of a roasting a whole bird, I’ve gotten delightful reviews and tryptophan poisoning tantamount to that of a traditional WASP turkey dinner.

Pavo en Fricasé

1 substantial but modest turkey, cut up into official pieces, with skin

4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 packet Sazón (in the “international” section with the Goya products)
salt and pepper

4 oz ham, chopped
1 large bay leaf
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 hot pepper, your choice
1 C seeded, peeled and chopped tomatoes (submerging the whole tomatoes into boiling water for a few minutes will shrink the skin for easier removal)
2 C chicken stock
1/2 C green olives, sliced
1 tbsp capers
2 pimentos, chopped
olive oil

Mix the garlic, oregano, vinegar, Sazón, 1 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper together, and rub the resulting paste all over the turkey pieces. The annato in the Sazón will stain your fingers up through your next two shampoos if you don’t use rubber gloves. Rub the seasoning under the turkey skin where possible. Wrap it up on a plate and chill it for 4 hours.

Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium high heat in the deepest pan you have. Saute the onion and ham for a few minutes to brown slightly. Transfer them to a bowl, add a little more oil to the pan, turn it up to high, and then put all the turkey in, shoving the pieces together to give each as much pan-contact as possible. Brown the turkey on high for three minutes, then turn the pieces over and brown for three minutes more.

Now add back the onions and ham, as well as the bay leaf, pepper, tomatoes and chicken stock. Stir it all up with the turkey in what will be the most awkward spoon-work of your life. Keep the heat on high until the liquid boils, then add only as much water as necessary to cover the turkey completely. Cover the pan, turn the heat down to low, and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes, until the turkey is cooked all the way through. Remove and toss the pepper and bay leaf, and add the olives, capers and pimentos. Heat uncovered over low for 5 minutes to warm up the last ingredients.

This should be served with medium-grain white rice, prepared according to package directions; Canilla is Sra. C’s brand of choice, therefore our brand of choice. Putting some of the sauce on the rice is a great idea.

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