The very best Calle Ocho eatery, in the heart of Little Havana, places an asterisk next to the menu listing of their world-renowned Arroz con Pollo*.
*Our Arroz con Pollo is prepared to order, please allow our Chef the proper amount of time to create your selection. Feel free to inquire about the progress of your order, but expect a wait of approximately 45 minutes.
The place is somewhat stern looking. Heavy Spanish wood and leather furniture, red velvet wall hangings, no windows, large portraits of regal looking, ancient Spaniards in Court dress, and lots of very, very busy tuxedo-clad waiters—not a waitress anywhere in sigh—help to create an ambiance of timelessness and Old Country dignity.
Battalions of black-vested, scurrying busboys, who seemingly have mastered the concept of perpetual motion, move through the dignified hum of the dining room carrying large metal pitchers wrapped in red dinner napkins, pitchers that in spite of their linen sarong, manage to land a drop or two of ice-cold water on your lap as the busboy pours the water into your goblet over their side, rather than through the spout.
I take clients and out of town visitors for dinner there all the time, they rant and rave at the fare but I’m not very impressed with the place.
You see, I know where you can find the best Arroz con Pollo in Miami, or anywhere else for that matter. The place doesn’t have any asterisks on their menus, as a matter of fact there are no menus at all, just some pictures of my kids, covered from forehead to chin in black beans, stuck to the door of an aging refrigerator in a magnetic frame that reads “Grandma’s Biggest Fans”, and a Chef who can “create” something from nothing, in no time at all.
If you know Arroz Con Pollo, you know that there are as many recipes as there are kitchens and cooks, and that these recipes are all like signatures, or fingerprints even. No two are exactly alike.
I remember the smells of the apartment on a hill by the bay where I grew up. I could tell what was being prepared in the kitchen behind the last door on the right as soon as I began running down the hall, and it didn’t matter I how many other kitchens were active, or how many other pots brewing and stewing, I knew the smell of my mother’s kitchen like I knew the sound of her voice, or the soft feel of her hands on my cheek.
Arroz con Pollo was the dish she prepared for special occasions, for celebrations, or for what little company we would have for dinner in a country where food was rationed, and company for dinner recorded by the block chivato, the person in charge of reporting “suspicious activities” to the secret police; “suspicious activity” that included friends or family over for dinner.
The dish then, as I remember it, was a masterpiece of simplicity.
Mounds of steaming, bright yellow rice, colored by bijol—my mother’s most treasured season—a small canister of it always hiding in the deepest recesses of my her cupboards, glistened under a light coating of olive oil. The chicken pieces, spent after having given their essence to make el caldo (the carefully seasoned and pungent broth that would give life to the rice, and become the soul of the flavor), were mixed in with the rice, then the whole thing was topped off with a sprinkling of petit pois, negotiated from a neighbor in exchange for a plate of the finished product.
Mother would bring the pot out of the kitchen and place it on the dining room table were it was met by a veritable chorus of compliments, and then the only sounds heard for quite sometime were the sounds forks make when they strike china.
Mom doesn’t cook like that these days; she says that los viejos need to eat healthier, and that since retirement, Dad and her have developed high blood pressure, and a taste for bland food.
I have learned to curtail my culinary requests too. I used to call the day before coming for dinner with the family, and ask for one or another favorite dish, more often than not a good, Cuban Arroz con Pollo, with petit pois and everything; but lately it seems that I’ve become a bit more aware of how much slower she moves, and a bit less concerned with my antojos (cravings). So we go out for dinner, or just eat a lot of bland food, and give thanks for the meal.
But I miss her Arroz con Pollo, and try as I have, I can’t seem to find a restaurant that can make one to equal hers, or to even reproduce the recipe in my own kitchen.
I have sat many a time, and scoured the Internet for recipes. I’ve tried the ones that call for the very best chicken soup base to make el caldo, the ones that include sweet Spanish sausage, sliced and cooked in with the rice, the ones that call for alcaparras (capers), green and red bell peppers, and even a bottle of beer, and not one of them can satisfy my craving. I miss her Arroz con Pollo.
So I decided to ask for it just one more time, and to be there from start to end to take careful notes.
I told her that I wanted to make the dish and invite some people over, and I think she believed me; mothers are so good at ignoring our little white lies and making us feel like we are getting away with them.
When I got there, Dad was outside tending to his mango and avocado trees, and carefully maintaining the berm around a small lime tree that had been cut down once, but whose strong roots survived, and thrived in the good soil of their backyard. The kids said hello to Nana, and ran out to “help” Papa; mother was where I’ve always remembered her… in our kitchen.
We chatted a bit, and then I showed her the kid’s new school pictures. We wasted our first half-hour digging around her picture boxes for a snapshot of me at four years old—dressed in the very best Elvis outfit that she could find in Cuba just after the fall—to compare with the picture of my youngest, also four; even I was amazed at the resemblance…blond hair and all. She called the old man in from the yard to show them to him, and told him that she would need to go buy frames the next day.
Then we got down to business.
Her hands seemed to take on a life of their own as they moved over the familiar tools and ingredients, and the age seemed to drop off of them.
She talked as she worked, and I took careful notes.
She cut the chicken and remembered that in Cuba, we used hens instead of chickens, and that her mother, my abuela was never satisfied with an Arroz con Pollo made without the fattier, richer meat of a hen.
“Tu abuela tenía un sazón muy bueno.” – That roughly translates into ‘your grandmother had seasoning game’. “People would compliment her all the time. I learned by watching her cook.”
I knew that. I loved that old woman’s cooking nearly as much as I loved her; but I loved my mother’s Arroz con Pollo above all.
She worked and talked, and I took notes.
She browned the chicken to a golden perfection (she had already made the caldo), and talked about the way she had to stretch the recipe in Cuba during the hard times. I remembered how she used to crush fine egg noodles to add to the rice by rolling an old Coca Cola bottle like a rolling pin over them. Then she made the sofrito.
I watched the mixture of fresh crushed garlic, tiny-diced onions, and bell peppers soften in the smoking hot olive oil as we reminisced and I took notes. We laughed at the stories of Dad smuggling things from the countryside into Havana; roared when she remembered the time when Grandfather, carrying a contraband pound of coffee on his lap in the bus to Havana, answered “café!” when asked for the time by a man dressed in an Army uniform.
“Compañero, could you tell me what time you have?”
“No compañero, I want to know what time it is, not what you have in the bag.”
She returned the chicken to the pot with the garlic/onion/pepper mixture, and added cumin and crushed tomatoes while I tried to remember the names of all the people who lived in our apartment building in Havana…she remembered them all.
Her hands moved with an economical efficiency that I can only compare to that of an Executive Chef, and I have seen some of the very best in action, as she added rice, el caldo, a bay leaf, and a pinch of bijol from a tiny, beat up canister she retrieved from a dark corner in her pantry, to the pot.
I took more notes, and we reminisced some more.
We discussed all the other recipes I had tried, and she reminded me of all the things she began to add to the pot after we arrived from Cuba, the abundance of ingredients available fascinated her, but she would always return to the old recipe.
Then she covered the pot, and reduced the heat.
Dinner was every bit what I had expected it to be. The smells coming from the kitchen even sparked the interest of my four year-old “macaroni and cheese monster”, who ate Nana’s Arroz con Pollo with a gusto seldom seen in him.
Mission accomplished, belly full, and antojo satisfied, I carefully folded my notes, stuck them in my pocket, said our hasta luegos (roughly translates into “see you later”—Cubans are notorious for not saying goodbye) for the night, and headed home.
I chatted with the kids so they would stay awake until we got home, they’re getting a bit heavy to carry upstairs to their beds, and complimented both of them on how well they had eaten Nana’s Arroz con Pollo. I told them that I had learned the recipe, and that I had written all the ingredients down so that I could make it for them at home.
“But Daddy… I won’t like it.” — My youngest child, the problem eater, making his favorite dinnertime prediction.
“But honey, you liked it tonight.” – Reasoning with a four year-old with the blonde hair his Daddy had at four. “How can you say you won’t like it? It’s going to taste just the same.”
“No it won’t Daddy. I’m only going to like it when Nana makes it.”
I let them sleep after that, my mind lost in the past.
That’s when I realized that I would never find the most important ingredient of them all, and that my four year-old macaroni and cheese monster was right.
I’ll never get it right, because I can never duplicate the most important ingredient, and like my little blonde-headed boy, I only like it when Nana makes it too, and after that’s no longer possible, I want to miss it forever.
So, if you want a truly magnificent recipe for a proper Arroz con Pollo, with nearly all the proper ingredients, and using all the proper cooking utensils, you may want to look for a tear-stained, crumpled up sheet of paper bouncing about on the north-bound lane of the Palmetto Causeway, somewhere between exit #16, and the most sacred and precious memories of my life.
Happy Mother’s Day Mami, I love you.
And a Happy Mother’s Day to all Moms.