I remember the smell of the sofrito coming from the stove as I played with my two great childhood friends in their house located just a few feet from mine. Because I was a child I never fully understood that just a few years before this family lived a very different life in their native Cuba…before they were forced to make a dangerous escape to the United States as a young couple with two small girls and leave everything behind except the clothes they were wearing.
This extended family became a loving window to a larger world for me. One grandmother was a painter who patiently sat with us at the small dining room table as we drew and colored pictures trying to impress her. A grandfather was convinced that he could teach me to speak Spanish but gave up after a few days declaring with a smile and a wink that it was an impossible task due to my Southern accent.
The food that came out of that small kitchen was unlike anything I had ever imagined. Golden fried plantains, heaping bowls of black beans over white rice and for New Year’s, a whole pig roasted in a pit dug in their back yard and served on a giant platter complete with an apple in its mouth.
Arroz Con Pollo, or chicken and yellow rice, was always my favorite and one of the thousands of versions of it is still served at every church dinner, local festival or fundraising event around Florida.
“If the mockingbird is the Florida state bird and the orange blossom the state flower, then chicken and yellow rice may well have become the state dish,” Jane Nickerson wrote in her 1973 Florida Cookbook.
And while I have tried many “reinventions” of the recipe, the old Spanish-based one from Tampa’s Columbia restaurant remains the best. Unfortunately, work nights call for some short cuts but this is a delicious standby using a store bought rotisserie chicken and some items already in your pantry (especially the packaged rice when you don’t happen to have saffron on hand.)
But even in this short-cut version, the smell of that sofrito still carries me right back to those days on Crystal Terrace…
Work Night Arroz Con Pollo
1 store bought rotisserie chicken (I use either a no flavor or a mojo flavored chicken if you can find it)
1 small white onion sliced
Two cloves garlic minced
1 small can chopped tomatoes drained
1 small green pepper chopped
A 16 ounce bag of yellow rice mix (I use Vigo)
Frozen small peas cooked to package instructions
1 jar of sliced pimentos
Preheat the oven to 350
Quarter the chicken and set aside. Prepare the rice to package instructions preferably in a large covered oven proof pot. Sauté sliced onions and garlic until tender, and then add tomatoes and green pepper to heat through. When the rice is done, add the onion mixture to the pot and give a big stir. Add the chicken to the top, cover and place in the oven until heated through, usually about 15-20 minutes. Add heated peas and sliced pimentos to taste.
Serve with a warm loaf of Cuban bread (or any crusty bread) and ENJOY!