One in a collection of essays celebrating the cooking of our mothers.
On road trips throughout the Dominican Republic, my mother likes to point out her favorite houses. They’re never mansions. They’re the tiny wooden ones, painted the hues of a highlighter, with aluminum roofs she says make a soothing sound when it rains.
I’ve never understood it. I grew up in Santo Domingo, the country’s capital city of 3 million, roaring with reckless motorcyclists and banged-up cars booming reggaeton. It wasn’t my mother’s childhood, and the differences don’t end there.
She spent her early years shuffling from one sugarcane field to another as her father worked his way up in a sugar company. She has nine siblings. I have one. By night, her childhood home was ablaze with gas lanterns; I hated it when the occasional blackout interrupted my marathons of The Sims. She had ducks, chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl, pigs, goats and horses in her backyard. I had a goldfish once.
When my mom was a kid, my grandmother would kill a backyard chicken and make locrio de pollo, a Dominican paella-like dish. When she was about 33 years old, my mom started making her own version – arroz con pollo, or rice with chicken.
Locrio and arroz con pollo look like twins but are prepared in different ways: For locrio, the chicken and rice are cooked at the same time, a togetherness that can result in dried-out meat or soupy rice. Arroz con pollo fixes that. The chicken is stewed with red onion, peppers, cilantro and tomato paste then removed from the pot and set aside. The rice cooks in the same pot, to which my mother wisely adds a splash of Presidente beer.
The two parts, rice and chicken, reunite when it’s time to eat.
Lots of countries — Spain, Peru, Puerto Rico, just to name a few — lay claim to their own versions of the dish. But as far as I know, Dominicans are the only ones who have a savvy way to avoid pale stewed meat.
When making the dish, my mother doesn’t brown her chicken in oil alone. Instead, she builds a caramel base with sugar and oil. Once the caramel turns dark amber, she adds the meat and tosses it around until each piece is tinted deep gold. Even after stewing, the chicken emerges from the pot looking perfectly tan.
It’s the dish I make when my friends ask for a Dominican meal. Otherwise, I’d probably serve slow-roasted salmon or something pretty by Ottolenghi. I don’t cook the same recipes as my mother, but she was the one who taught me that food can provide both nourishment and joy.
My mother makes her arroz con pollo whenever my brother and I return to Santo Domingo with our American spouses in tow, which inevitably leads my father to make his favorite joke: “How come you only cook like this when they come to town?” (In reality, everything she makes is fantastic.)
Occasionally, she skips the conventional supermarket bird and orders a chicken, hard-boned and flavorful, straight from the Dominican countryside. It’s a reminder of what life was like when she was a kid – just like the framed photo of the tiny wooden house, colored white and bright blue, that for years has hung in my parents’ bedroom in Santo Domingo.
More Mother’s Day essays:
4 or 5 servings
In this Dominican arroz con pollo dish, the chicken is cooked separately from the rice, allowing the chicken to pick up the flavor and color of its caramel sauce.
MAKE AHEAD: The chicken needs to marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. The chicken can be covered with the sauce and reheated in a 350-degree oven just until warmed through.
Culantro is a relative of cilantro with a more pronounced aroma and stiffer leaves. It’s available at H Marts. Sour orange juice is available at most Latin American markets.
From Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, resident Oneida Moscoso.
For the chicken
3 pounds bone-in, skinless chicken parts, such as breasts, thighs and legs
1 teaspoon garlic paste
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sour orange juice (may substitute apple cider vinegar; see headnote)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon water, or as needed, plus 3 cups water
1 medium red onion, minced
2 tablespoons seeded, minced red bell pepper
2 tablespoons seeded, minced cubanelle pepper
2 tablespoons minced cilantro
2 fresh culantro leaves, chopped (see headnote)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon drained, minced capers
1 tablespoon pitted, chopped green olives
For the rice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon minced red onion
1 tablespoon seeded, minced red bell pepper
1 tablespoon seeded, minced cubanelle pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon garlic paste
2 teaspoons salt
4 cups water
1 cup Pilsener beer, preferably Presidente brand
2 stems cilantro
3 fresh culantro leaves (see headnote)
1 bay leaf
3 cups long-grain white rice
Sliced roasted red bell pepper
Small handful cooked sweet peas
For the chicken: Cut any chicken breast pieces in half so all the pieces are about the same size.
Whisk together the garlic paste, salt, pepper, sour orange juice and oregano in a large mixing bowl. Add the chicken and turn to coat thoroughly; cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Heat the canola oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the sugar. Cook for about 5 minutes or until the mixture turns a dark amber color. Add the marinated chicken and brown on all sides for 15 minutes or so, adding a tablespoon or so of water (as necessary) to prevent scorching. Transfer the chicken to a platter.
Add the red onion, the red bell and cubanelle peppers, cilantro and culantro to the pan. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring a few times, then add the 3 cups of water, tomato paste, capers and olives, stirring to incorporate. Reduce the heat to low; cover and cook for about 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.
Transfer the chicken and vegetables to a plate. Reserve 1 1/2 cups of the pan liquid (for the rice); discard the rest.
For the rice: Heat the olive oil in the same saute pan over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the red onion, red and cubanelle peppers, tomato paste, garlic paste and salt; cook for about 5 minutes, then add 1 cup of the pan liquid, the water, beer, cilantro, culantro and bay leaf. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, then add the rice. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 30 minutes or until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is tender. Discard the cilantro, culantro and bay leaf.
Spoon the rice onto a wide platter. Top with the chicken and the remaining 1/2 cup of pan liquid.
Garnish with roasted red peppers and sweet peas.
Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.
Recipe tested by Emily Codik; e-mail questions to email@example.com