Thank heavens I was drunk.

Chicken and Rice Beware

I was overjoyed to find that BJ’s stocks wine glasses this morning, saving me a separate trip with the Sisters Sledge. Two trips, actually, since the smallest quantity available was twelve, and half the box is now in my basement. It’s difficult to judge an item’s size in a warehouse club, and upon unpacking the first half dozen, I realized that I could fit both my fists in the cup area of a glass. Perhaps it should have been obvious that the majority of people who pick up twelve wine glasses with their pallet of paper towel would prefer them to hold as much as possible, but these come close to novelty scale. I’m not much of wine drinker myself, yet the chalices are so impressive that I’ve got one filled up right now with Riesling. It doesn’t seem that the meniscus has budged over the last half hour, though the children have become much more bearable and the overhead lights are really beginning to grate.

Braced with enough of a buzz to risk a failure in the kitchen, this evening I took on a recipe for Chicken and Rice Casserole that I’ve been considering for the past year, but that’s always struck me as a little too weird. Mrs. Peña becomes dangerously fearless, however, with a little of the grape coursing through her veins, so even as the aroma of garlic wafting from the oven carries a little too much char for my taste, I’m not worried. An entire large pizza is rather appetizing right now, anyway.

Oh, Simply Recipes. Although I knew this day would come, the smack across my face still brings tears to my eyes. Why would you subject rice to such treatment? If aiming for a consistency between aspic and tapioca, one usually turns to cornstarch instead. And why would you do that to garlic? Eating this is like kissing a man who just ate scampi and chased it with a shot of foot. And where, for the love of all things holy, is that cloying sweetness coming from? I re-sampled my sour cream to verify that it hadn’t gone off, but now I wish I just assumed it had, since the alternative is that this tastes good to someone.

My grandmother had a way of writing someone off that sent shivers down the spines of those who witnessed her ruling. While I’m not adequately furious with Simply Recipes to “leave them to God,” another culinary fiasco on their heads and I might have to become a Catholic.

The harsh light of this particular morning finds me doubtful that this casserole merits such scathing criticism as above. More likely, my gripe tank couldn’t withstand the pressure of one more minor disappointment and, as it burst, spewed forth the rantings of a tipsy perfectionist. Further, Mr. P enjoyed two servings as I withheld my commentary, having eaten earlier, and his verdict was an enthusiastic “delicious!” Keep in mind, though, that I married a smart man.

Sorry, Chef Ramsey, they can’t all be “the most magnificent.”

TMI Chicken Soup

The first day of Mr. P’s long awaited nine-day Thanksgiving break found all five Peñas sick as dogs. We, the house-bound four, had been chewing on this particular bug for twenty-four hours, initially tipped off by Billy the Kid’s impressive reverse-vacuum all over my bedspread, while Mr. P efficiently wrapped up all loose ends at work on Friday before succumbing to the inevitable, compounded by the standard general start-of-vacation collapse. By the time I dragged the king comforter out of the dryer two hours after its ordeal, I was in full denial of my own doom. I was not ill. By Saturday afternoon, I was still the most functional, but only because I refuse to negotiate with disease, my ability to ignore discomfort having increased tenfold after carrying twins with a perforated appendix.

Note to potential and current gestators: if you point to the side of your enormous pregnant belly and tell your doctor, “this hurts and I can’t eat,” don’t downplay the pain and nausea, or you’ll receive the standard “why don’t we take a look after the baby comes.” I’m betting that liability near-miss still keeps a certain OB/GYN up at night. I’d heard of women being sick while in labor, but getting off an operating table seconds after receiving an epidural and seconds before a c-section, throwing up, and remounting just as all feeling drained from my legs reassured me that I possess excellent time management and multi-tasking skills. Unfortunately, it also detracted from focusing on the miracle of life and whatnot. Had my concerns been addressed, however, I might not have come out the other end fifty pounds lighter and then I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy creeping out Mr. P with my ultra-slender “tween starlet calves” for a month before returning to my preferred state of sturdiness.

Back to the present, with a mere low-grade fever and repulsiveness confined mostly to my head, the task of making chicken soup with rice fell to me. When visiting Epicurious, I prefer to to limit my options to recipes that boast four entire forks, but three and a half are apparently the mediocre standard in this case, so I settled on one that conformed to Mr.P’s request for “not weird.”  I found the absence of onion unsettling, so I threw in half a chopped yellow, and combined a tablespoon each of fresh thyme and parsley, scoffing at the direction to limit myself to one or the other. Then I salted and peppered the dickens out of it.

I regard chicken soup as a food of necessity, and since one can’t taste much of it when one needs it the most, and wouldn’t make it if one didn’t need it, it doesn’t really matter that this one is exceptional to a fully functioning palate. The rice leaves relatively little broth, but just enough to avoid the dreaded bisque effect. The carrots and celery remain brisk and cheerful, having just cooked through upon serving, and lend an appealing primavera quality that’s often appetizing to an invalid. I suppose Epicurious’ three-and-a-half-forks rating is, indeed, appropriate; even at it’s best, chicken soup is still just chicken soup.

On Curry and Child Rearing

Initially Insecure Mango Chicken Curry

I’ll admit that I’m rather nationalistic when it comes to cooking. I assume that Italian food made by non-Italians never quite hits the mark, and that in thirty years I still won’t be able to make Puerto Rican white rice that passes. Unsurprisingly, it’s never occurred to me to take on Indian cuisine, aside from a WASPy dash of curry powder in an occasional chicken salad. Once more, thanks goes to Simply Recipes for tonight’s magnificent, seconds-even-though-we-already-hurt dinner of Mango Chicken Curry over non-native Puerto Rican white rice (I don’t keep basmati on hand…yet). The vegetable-based sauce that serves as the eventual pur
ée takes a pass through the blender to achieve that surreal texture, and I suggest using your Cuisinart Mini-Prep Food Processor for the initial pre-cook chopping. What, don’t have one!?! Skip dinner and pick up McDonald’s on your way to the mall.

I can’t imagine why I shouldn’t take the liberty of retyping the recipe with several necessary alterations, since I find the idea of making ad money off this sort of thing unseemly and crass. I discourage SR from taking offense at my edits; I don’t expect everyone to have such a refined palate as mine.

Vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped or processed
1/2 red bell pepper, finely chopped or processed
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp minced fresh ginger
2 tbsp yellow curry powder
1/2 tsp cumin
2 mangos, peeled and diced or processed (you will not use the entire second mango – snack at will)
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 1/4 C water
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts (using the suggested 1 1/4 lbs resulted in a surplus of lonely sauce), cut into 1″ chunks
1/3 C golden raisins
1/2 C heavy cream
Salt and pepper
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
No cilantro**

**Cilantro is suggested as a garnish in the original recipe. Fresh cilantro has only one purpose: to reprimand swearing children. Soap in the mouth is child abuse, but a single leaf of a pepper-free cooking herb sends a message nicely with no chance of getting the state involved. To anyone who wonders whether this is indicative of my own child-rearing practices, don’t worry – my children are perfect angels, speak/gurgle with flawless non-regional accents, and consider using FCC-banned words utterly beneath them.

Heat 2 tbsp of oil in a deep skillet or large saucepan over medium-high. Add the onions and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes or until soft. Add in the pepper plus another tbsp of oil and cook for 3 more minutes. Toss in the curry and cumin, cook 3 more minutes, adding extra oil if anything starts to stick to the pan. Add the ginger and garlic, stir, and cook for 1 minute.

Stir in the vinegar, water, and half of the mango chop. Increase the heat and bring it to a thick and icky boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring every minute or so. Pour the sauce into a blender and purée until it’s smooth, then return it to the pan. Dump in the chicken and raisins, stir, and bring the whole thing back to a simmer. Cover it up and cook for 10 minutes, until the chicken is done but not dry.

Add half of whatever quantity of mango chop you have left, then stir in the cream. Cook over low heat for a couple of minutes while you add quite a bit of salt and some pepper and adjust seasonings. I threw in a sprinkle of crushed red pepper for some heat that was blatantly lacking from the original, and I found it necessary to splash in another few tsp of vinegar to cut the mango.

As noted, I served this over Puerto Rican white rice (defined by a painfully specific and elusive texture and consistency), and I don’t know that the conventional basmati accompaniment would stand up as well to the sauce as the denser medium grain. Again, feel free to garnish with cilantro if you feel like ruining the entire thing, but if you absolutely need some green for contrast (<<cough>>simpleton!<<cough>>), throw some parsley florets onto the plate and fully acknowledge your, as Heidi Klum would offer, questionable taste level.

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.

Sometimes you want your dinner in a bowl.

West Meets West Rice and Sausage

Thanks go out to Sra. C for this hearty, sinus-clearing, one-pot meal. My mother in law freely admits that she’s an easily distracted cook, but when it comes to white rice, she’s always on her game. Plain Puerto Rican white rice is one of the most difficult things for an outsider to master, but that will be an entirely separate post, and a snarky one at that.

The base for this button-popper is a sort of sauce called sofrito, a Puerto Rican staple used in many rice dishes, soups and stews. Every home cook on the island has their own signature recipe for the blend of peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes and cilantro, but the two essential ingredients are an herb called recao, and ají dulce, a sweet pepper grown on the island. The red color comes from the annatto oil in which the vegetables are cooked, and oh yeah, that stain’s not going to come out. Since I have neither access to the necessary peppers nor a life-long cultivated sense of pride in the matter, I use Goya sofrito, which comes in a jar found in, you guessed it, the international section.

1 16-oz pkg spicy Italian sausage
2 C uncooked medium grain white rice
4 C boiling water
1 8-oz can Spanish style tomato sauce
1/2 C sofrito
1/2 C vegetable oil
1 tbsp capers
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper

Slice the sausage into 1″ rounds, keeping the casing intact on as many chunks as possible. Heat 1 tbsp of vegetable oil in a large saucepan over medium-high, and brown the meat on all sides (it does not need to be completely cooked), then transfer the sausage to a bowl. Leaving the drippings in the pot, add the tomato sauce, sofrito, oil, capers and spices. Mix everything together and cook it over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the sausage and rice, then pour in enough boiling water to come up 1″ above the rice. Stir once, and boil uncovered over medium-high until all the water is absorbed. Turn the heat down to low, cover the pot, and cook for another 30 minutes.

I trust that by this point I’ve got you feeling appropriately nervous about undercooked meat, but I assure you, this method gets the job done.

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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