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Panamanian Arroz con Pollo

As Gina Barria, from Panama City, Panama, taught Lindsay Sterling in Freeport, Maine, May 2011

Serves 6
Cooking Time: About 2 hours

4 bone-in chicken legs and thighs
1/2 + 1 stalk celery 
1 onion, peeled
2 cloves garlic
1 green pepper
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 small can tomato paste
2 cups rice
2 Tbsp "Better than Bouillon" Chicken paste
1/4 habanero pepper, diced (no seeds) (buy a bunch and keep in Ziploc in freezer)
small handful cilantro leaves or 1 culantro leaf
1 cup pitted Spanish green olives
plantain or banana leaf, (substitute tinfoil if you can't find this at your Asian or Latin market)
1 small jar roasted red peppers, drained and medium-diced 

Put two of the chicken leg-thighs in a soup pot half full with water, and turn heat on to boil. Add one half stalk celery (leaving the remaining stem for later), one layer of the onion flesh and 2 tsp salt to the water. You are making a broth here that you will use instead of plain water to cook the rice. You are also cooking half the chicken - which you'll pull off the bone once it's cooked. Keep this at a low boil as you do the next steps, skimming off the foam and amber colored liquified chicken fat at the surface with a large flat spoon.

On a cutting board next to the sink, pull the skins off the remaining 2 chicken leg-thighs. Trim and discard any fat. Cut the meat off the bones and dice meat into small bite-sized pieces. Put the bones in the broth pot with the other chicken legs. Put the meat pieces in a large shallow pot or saute pan with lid. Wash with soapy water everything that touched the raw chicken (cutting board knife, hands). On the clean cutting board, cut the rest of the onion, the green pepper and the celery all into a medium dice (1/4 inch cubes), and mince the garlic and habanero(s).

Add about 1/4 cup total of a little bit of the all of the vegetables you just cut up to the chicken in the frying pan with a couple tablespoons of oil and saute until chicken pieces are opaque all the way through. And 1 Tbsp of the Better than Boullion paste. The final dish has a much more robust flavor than any rice dish I've ever made in my life. I think this boullion paste is one of the secrets that makes it that way. The final dish as she made it wasn't just good. It was groan-inducing, so I recommend you do the Boullion paste thing. She says she likes this "Better than Boullion" brand because out of all the brands this one tastes the most natural. There is no MSG in this one, which I like.

Take one of the boiling chicken legs out and cut into it to see if it's opaque through all the meat. Take the two legs out and put them on a plate to cool. Keep the broth on the stove on low, you'll be ladling it hot into the rice and chicken dish in a bit. When chicken is cool enough to touch, pull the meat off the bone, discarding all the skins and any fat blobs, and pull the chicken meat into strips. Add this chicken to the chicken in the saute pot. So the dish has two two textures of chicken - sauteed bites and pulled pieces.

Add the whole can of tomato paste to the chicken meat. Add the rest of the chopped vegetables (onion, celery, green pepper, garlic, habanero) to the chicken, and mix all together into a red pasty chicken mass. Saute on medium heat, stirring frequently to keep the tomato paste burning on the bottom of the pan. Do this for about 3 minutes or until all the ingredients have really taken in the deep red of the cooked tomato paste. It should look less like a bunch of different ingredients and more like a uniform mass. When the tomato threatens to burn, add 3 ladles full of the the chicken broth to loosen.

In another large fry pan (or low large pot) with a lid, generously coated with oil, fry the rice, stirring constantly. (You do this to keep the rice grains separate in the final dish, not sticky or mushy). When the grains turn opaque but before any turn brown, add three ladles of broth to wet. Then mix the chicken and the rice together, and keep adding ladles of broth (about 7) so your mixture becomes loose like a thick soup. When you usually cook rice, you cover the rice about an 1/2 " with liquid. This was different. The rice grains in this case were incorporated into a red sauce, some grains showing on the surface of it, then sinking after thirty seconds so the top is just barely just liquid. Add cilantro or culantro (a stronger variety that grows like gangbusters in Panama) and olives. Taste the broth now. She added a little more salt here, and a teaspoon more of the bouillion paste. It should taste ooohhh so satisfying and perfect, kind of beyond belief good. If it doesn't, add more salt and more bouilion paste. Go ahead. Be brave.

Cover pot with a plantain or banana leaf (or tinfoil) and put lid on top and press down. This is to hold in steam in and infuse the rice with warm banana-leaf-aroma. If you can't find the banana leaves (in the freezer at your tropical-themed market), cover pot with tinfoil, press edges around the outside of the pot and put lid on top of that. Cook on medium low for 12 minutes. Cut the roasted pepper into medium dice. When twelve minutes is up, lift top and banana leaf and gently turn rice over with seven or eight turns of a serving spoon so the grains on top are on now on the bottom. Sprinkle roasted red pepper on the top, re-cover with leaf and lid, and cook another twelve minutes on low (I used setting 3 on my electric). The arroz is done when grains of rice break at the touch of a spoon, all the liquid has disappeared, and you have a sunset orange, delicious rice dish.

This dish is traditionally served at parties with with gorgeous, pink potato-and-beet salad and sauted yellow plaintain slices, but we just sat and ate it straight. UNBELIEVABLE!

Sauteed Plantains

serves 6 as a side dish
time: 20 minutes

4 yellow plantains with some black spots
vegetable oil

Heat a layer of oil in large saute pan on medium high. Take skins off plantains, and slice lenthgwise into 4-5 slices per plaintain. Cook in the oil about 5 minutes on each side until the pieces turn a deep yellow throughout with some golden brown on the outsides.

Panamanian Potato Salad

serves 6 as a side dish
cooking time: 1 hr

1/2 onion
1/2 stalk celery
3 eggs
2 large beets, skins on
1 carrot, peeled
5 medium potatoes, skins on

I haven't yet seen Gina do this in person, but she told me how to do it and the result came out great - earning groans from my brother- and sister-in-law, niece and nephew - all who said they don't even like beets! And I don't think they were just being polite. They loved the festive pink color. Here's what I did.

In a large pot, boil together beets, carrot and potatoes (skins on). In a separate smaller pot, hard boil the eggs (simmer for 14 minutes, drain, soak in cold water, then peel while still a little warm).

While those are cooking, dice celery and onion and put in salad bowl with cider vinegar and oil (equal parts), and generous salt and pepper - you want this mixture nice and wet so that the vinegar and salt will mellow out the sharpness of the raw onion, shave off a little bit of the raw crunchy factor, and then add intense flavor all the boiled potatoes and beets which are pretty boring on their own.

When you can poke the carrot's inside with a fork, take it out. You want it to be not crunchy, but not mushy. When you can poke with a fork the potato's inside without resistance, take the potatoes out. Keep cooking the beets until you can poke their insides with a fork without resistance. Once the veggies are cool, peel the skins off with a paring knife, and cut into 1/2" pieces and mix into the salad bowl with the marinating veggies and dressing.

Peel the eggs, cut up and mix into salad, and/or decorate the top with yellow and white wedges or slices.

Where to Get Ingredients

Banana leaves and plantains grow in hot, tropical places. You can find them at immigrant markets - African, Asian, and Latin American. In Portland, Maine, where I live, I find them at Mittapheap World Market (61 Washington Ave. 773-5523) and La Bodega Latina (863 Congress St. 207-761-6661).

copyright Lindsay Sterling 2011