If you do an internet search for “authentic arroz con pollo recipe,” you will get at least a dozen pages of results, with very few duplicates. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Some of the ingredients are consistent across the recipes, but there are many variations and even the pictures can look dramatically different. The reason there are so many “real” arroz con pollo recipes is that there are many, many Hispanic grandmothers passing down their own recipes. And this dish—which is not definitively native to a single country or people—has become a blend of whatever ingredients are available in all the regions where those grandmothers have lived and cooked.
My previous experience of arroz con pollo—or “ACP,” as it is usually listed on many of our local Mexican restaurant menus—has not been completely positive, and that’s because here in the South, the recipe has morphed into an “Americanized” dish that is oozing with cheese and basically bland (it’s a rare instance of a dish being too much about the cheese, in my opinion). And that is a shame because at its roots, arroz con pollo has a lot going on!
Recently, I had a front-row seat to watch and learn the authentic, real-deal Puerto Rican version of this flavorful dish. During our vacation up north, my husband and I spent a few days on Long Island, where we visited his cousin, Evan. To my good fortune, Evan’s husband, Will, became my own personal “ACP” instructor! His mother hails from P.R. and his father is of Spanish heritage, so Will has good reason to be passionate about this dish that is representative of his family. We had a joyful afternoon in the kitchen!
Throughout this private cooking lesson, Will shared with me all the culinary wisdom handed down to him from his mother, who learned it from her mother, and so on. Because this was an authentic Puerto Rican variation of arroz con pollo, it was packed with layers of flavor, beginning with Sazón and finishing with saffron, and all in one giant pot, called a “caldero.” The pictures of Will’s family recipe tell the story far better than I can, so please join us at the stove as we celebrate this last day of Hispanic Heritage Month!
First, let’s take a look at the special ingredients that make this dish uniquely Puerto Rican.
Hold up, what exactly is “culantro?”
It can seem a little confusing, so let’s address the difference between cilantro, which most of us are familiar with, and culantro, which is an ingredient in both of these cooking bases. Unlike cilantro, which is wispy and delicate and mostly used to finish or garnish a dish after cooking, culantro is sturdier and stronger, both in texture and flavor. It has a similar flavor to cilantro, but its long, slender leaves are mainly included as a cooked ingredient, and during the cooking process, the hearty flavor calms down a bit. This herb is extremely common throughout the Caribbean, so of course it is a staple in the cuisine of Puerto Rico.
The remaining ingredients for the arroz con pollo included bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, corn oil, onions, peppers, garlic, tomato sauce and rice. I did my best to take notes and catch all the details, but this is the kind of recipe you make from instinct, and that’s exactly how Will prepared it. He was cracking me up as he went along, and reminded me so much of myself—occasionally cursing his stove and fretting about ways that his dish might not turn out perfectly. We are always our own harshest critics in the kitchen, can I get an amen? Trust me, this arroz con pollo was delicious!
At the end of the post, I’ve included a PDF that you can download for your recipe files. You will need to tweak seasonings to suit your taste and adjust cooking times for your own stove, of course, but my outline should provide a good starting point. Here we go!
Special occasions call for special foods. Whether you are preparing to celebrate an anniversary, a loved one’s birthday or some other kind of milestone, it makes sense that you would want to enjoy a meal that is a bit more extravagant than the usual. When I turned 10, my father and stepmother took me to a “fancy” restaurant for my first taste of lobster, and I still remember how lusciously sweet and rich it tasted, especially when dipped in the warm drawn butter. During pandemic times, of course, enjoying a special meal has more likely meant digging deeper into your own recipe vault and perhaps brushing the dust off some of your lesser-used cooking skills. You may have even been nudged into fresh culinary territory, taking the plunge on new equipment for your kitchen or learning new techniques or cuisines to make your favorite special foods. All of the above have been true for me over the past year, in addition to starting this blog, which has been a lifesaver for my mental health.
When Valentine’s Day came around this year, I had already decided that lobster tails would be the highlight of our romantic dinner-for-two. I made them last summer when my husband, Les, celebrated his birthday and we both commented how much we enjoyed the lobster and should make it more often. Lobster feels decadent, and though I’ve never been brave enough to prepare a whole, live lobster (mainly out of fear that I’d have to become vegan afterward), I find lobster tails to be one of the simplest seafood preparations out there. Splitting the tail and broiling with nothing more than clarified butter, a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of fresh herbs is the way to go. For me, it’s the sides that require a little more thought—you want something elegant enough to pair nicely with such a luxurious main, but nothing too rich or fancy that would compete for attention or overwhelm the palate. Les requested easy roasted asparagus and a Caesar salad, which I glammed up with homemade green goddess dressing. And I wanted a starchy side, but not potatoes and definitely not pasta.
Enter risotto, stage left.
As I mentioned in my January post for the scallops with spinach on bacon risotto, there is no advanced skill required for making this Italian-born side, only patience and attention. I consider risotto a “blank canvas” food, in that you can easily switch directions with it to suit the rest of your menu. For our understated Valentine’s meal, I wanted light, lemony freshness, something that would match the simplicity of the lobster tails. I found a bottled lobster juice in one of our specialty markets, and it has all the luscious sweet aroma of lobster, with exactly the right amount of salt for flavor. Lemon zest gave echo to the fresh lemon we’d be squeezing over the lobster, and did I mention how much parsley we have these days thanks to our indoor hydro garden? I finished it off with a gentle splash of light cream, and the meal was perfectly lovely.
The other thing that is nice about risotto is that you don’t have to make a huge batch of it. For this meal, I wanted only enough to cradle our lobster tails, so I scaled down a basic recipe and used only 1/3 cup of Arborio rice. We had no leftovers, which was perfect.
Ingredients (two dinner side servings)
1 Tbsp. minced shallot
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/3 cup Arborio rice
8 oz. bottle Maine lobster juice* (see notes)
2 oz. dry vermouth (or dry white wine)
Filtered water, amount needed to finish risotto
1 Tbsp. finely grated lemon zest
2 Tbsp. light cream (or half and half), warmed
A couple pinches of fresh chopped parsley
I found this lobster juice in a specialty supermarket, same aisle as tinned fish. The label suggests a serving is a tablespoon, so I’m not sure what most people use it for. When I tasted it, I knew it would be perfect as a broth for my risotto, and I used the entire bottle. If you cannot find this product, consider a seafood stock from the soup aisle.
Combine lobster juice and dry vermouth in a saucepan over low heat. Bring this up to a very low simmer, and keep it warm for the duration of recipe. If you have a tea kettle, warm some water as well. You may need it to finish cooking the risotto and it will help to have it on standby.
Place a small, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Melt the butter; add minced shallot and sauté until softened and slightly translucent.
Add Arborio rice to the pan, and toss it around with a wooden spoon until all grains are coated and the rice begins to look lightly toasted in color. Reduce heat to medium low.
Add a small ladle of the warm lobster broth and stir rice around to evenly distribute it. Cook, stirring or shaking pan frequently, until the broth seems mostly absorbed. Repeat with only a small ladle of broth each time. As the recipe proceeds, you will notice that the risotto takes on a cloudy appearance. This is good! The starches are breaking down into different form, and this is what creates the rich, creamy texture. Keep going, but take it slow.
When you have nearly exhausted the broth, do a taste test. Perfect risotto should be tender, but not mushy. If it feels like it will stick to your teeth, it needs more time. Add warm water to the remaining broth and continue cooking. You should expect this process to take about 40 minutes from start to finish.
When the risotto texture seems right, add the lemon zest and fresh parsley. Stir in the light cream or half and half, and serve immediately.
To make clarified butter:
Place a small saucepan over very low heat. Add a whole stick (1/4 cup) of unsalted butter and leave it alone. You want the butter to warm slowly so that it melts but does not brown or burn. Avoid temptation to stir or swirl the pan, as this will reincorporate the milk solids. When the butter is completely melted (which may take as long as 30 minutes), turn off the heat and let it rest for a minute or two. Carefully tip the saucepan, pouring off the clarified butterfat, but leaving the milk solids behind in the bottom of the pan. Do this a day or two ahead, if you wish. Keep the clarified butter covered and refrigerated until ready to use. Reheat over medium-low heat, or in the microwave, but only 15 seconds at a time.
Prepping and cooking the lobster tails:
If you have purchased the lobster tails frozen, it’s best to thaw them slowly in the refrigerator, as it makes separation of the flesh from the shell a bit easier. In a hurry? Place them in a heavy, ziptop freezer bag, squeezing out excess air (the shells have sharp edges, so sandwich-type bags won’t do). Put the bags in a large bowl or pot filled with cold water. Place something heavy over them to keep them submerged during the thaw process.
Use strong kitchen scissors to cut the top side of the shell lengthwise, clipping as far as you can to the tail fins. Next, carefully slide a sharp, slim paring knife between the meat and the shell, and shimmy it all the way around to loosen the flesh. Using one hand to gently pry open the cut shell top, carefully lift the tail flesh up through the shell opening to rest it on top. This affords the prettiest presentation. Blot away excess moisture with paper towels. Cover and refrigerate until you are ready to broil the tails.
Set your oven to high broil setting for about five minutes, with oven rack in the center position. Arrange the lobster tails, at least 4 inches apart from each other, on a baking sheet lined with foil or parchment, or use a broiler pan. If the tails don’t sit upright without tipping, you can make a nest of aluminum foil to hold them in position.
Drizzle a spoonful of clarified butter evenly over each tail. Broil on high for about 7 minutes, until flesh is plump and white, and shells are bright orange-red in color. Remove immediately, drizzle on more butter and sprinkle with fresh parsley. Serve on top of lemony risotto with wedges of fresh lemon.
Seafood has snagged the spotlight here on Comfort du Jour, and today’s post continues that trend, with a scallop and risotto dish that is both elegant and simple (yes, really).
If you have ever watched “Chopped” on the Food Network, there’s a good chance you have seen the elite panel of judges gasp collectively in sheer horror when a contestant announces an attempt to make risotto. Honestly, I gasp as well—not because risotto is complicated or difficult (it isn’t)—but because risotto is a tricky proposition in the very limited time the chef contestants usually have to complete their culinary challenge. Those chef-judges know from decades of experience that risotto in 20 minutes will not likely be successful.
The soft, creamy texture of risotto is achieved by the breakdown of the starch inside the rice grains. There’s a lot of science to explain why, but the upshot is that you need to cook it gradually, stirring all the while, so that the starches release and become a thick, slurry-like coating. Eventually, the grains are softened and the rice seems to be floating in a creamy sauce that doesn’t depend on cream at all, though most cooks add a little at the end. This kind of perfection doesn’t happen in a hurry.
Find an hour to spare this weekend and you can be successful with risotto. I’ve jazzed up this version with smoky bacon and mushrooms, and I also added a touch of cream. Then I draped it with a layer of sautéed spinach and topped it with perfectly seared sea scallops (also easy). It looks and tastes like it came out of a restaurant kitchen, but I’m going to show you how to whip it up in the cozy comfort of your own home.
Gather up your tools—you’ll need two skillets and a medium saucepan, plus a ladle and a wooden spoon. See? Not complicated at all. 🙂
Serves: 2 Time to make: 90 minutes Leftover potential: Oh, yes! (at the end of the post, I’ll show you how we enjoyed the leftover risotto)
3 slices smoky bacon
3 to 4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth (most of a standard carton)
1/4 cup dry white wine* (optional, see notes)
1 cup Arborio rice* (see notes)
1/2 smallish sweet onion, minced fine
Handful of cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
Fat handful of fresh baby spinach leaves, washed and chopped
A typical risotto recipe uses a few ounces of wine to flavor the broth, but that isn’t critical. Make up the difference with additional broth, if you wish. If using wine, go with something dry, such as Pinot Grigio. I frequently substitute dry vermouth, as I have a bottle in the fridge all the time. This particular day, I poured in the remnants of a champagne split. Whatever works.
Arborio rice is specifically used for risotto because of its starch makeup. You will likely find it specially packaged in the rice section of your supermarket. In a pinch, choose any white rice labeled “short-grain,” and follow the same instructions. It may not result in the same level of creaminess, but it will be close. It is unusual for me to choose anything other than brown rice, but I will share honestly that I haven’t yet found success with brown rice risotto, although some internet resources suggest that soaking it overnight may help. I’ll save that challenge for another day. 😉
The addition of cream at the end is not absolutely essential, but I love the softness it lends to the finish of the dish. If you are trying to eat lighter, you might try substituting an equal amount of low-fat evaporated milk. It has similar consistency with lower fat and calories.
Before you begin…
Risotto is best served immediately after reaching perfect consistency. This recipe also requires cooking of mushrooms, spinach and scallops. You may want to employ a helper for these additional tasks, unless you are confident you can manage to cook them simultaneously while tending the risotto. You might also choose to cook the mushrooms and spinach in advance, and re-warm them at plating time. Either way, it’s best to have every ingredient, tool and utensil ready to go before you begin.
As usual, the images tell the story, but I’ve offered written instructions below, plus a PDF version you can download for your recipe files. Enjoy!
In a skillet large enough for cooking the risotto, begin by cooking the bacon until crisp. Transfer to a paper towel to cool, reserving the bacon fat (or drain the fat and substitute butter or olive oil for the next step). When cool, crumble or chop the bacon into small pieces and set aside.
In a medium saucepan, heat vegetable broth over medium-low heat, and keep it simmering. I usually begin with the full amount of broth, but if you prefer to heat it in batches and use only what you need, that’s OK. Begin with 3 cups, plus wine (if using). Season it with salt and pepper.
In a second skillet, brown up the mushrooms in a bit of olive oil. Transfer them to a bowl, and then sauté up the spinach leaves and transfer them to a separate bowl. If you’re uncomfortable multi-tasking, you can do this work ahead, or ask a helper to work alongside as you cook the risotto.
To the same skillet used to cook the bacon, add the dry Arborio rice to the fat (or butter or olive oil) in the skillet. Over medium heat, stir the rice around with a wooden utensil until it’s completely coated in the oil. Continue to cook until rice has a lightly toasted aroma, which should be only a couple of minutes.
Add chopped onions to the rice and continue to cook and stir another minute, just long enough for the onions to appear translucent.
Use a ladle or small cup to scoop about 1/2 cup warm broth into the skillet. Stir it around in the rice, scraping any browned bits of flavor off the bottom of the pan. When most of the liquid is absorbed, add another 1/2 cup of broth and repeat. Continue this effort until the broth is nearly gone. After about 30 minutes, give the rice a taste. It should feel creamy but slightly firm, similar to pasta that is cooked just beyond al dente. For me, risotto usually takes about 40 minutes total. You may end up using the full 4 cups of broth—I usually do.
In the second skillet, melt the unsalted butter over medium heat. Arrange the sea scallops, allowing a bit of space between them for easy turning. Do not move them around, but allow them to cook several minutes until browned. Turn scallops (only once) to cook the other side. Season them with salt and pepper.
To the finished risotto, add the bacon crumbles and cooked mushrooms. Add half and half (if using) and stir to blend.
Plate a mound of risotto onto serving plates immediately; top each portion with sautéed spinach and parm-romano blend, then scallops.
You’ll probably have extra risotto after plating, and that is not necessarily a bad thing (see below).
As risotto cools, the starches gelatinize and the mixture becomes somewhat clumpy—similar to the way cold oatmeal sets up, and it isn’t necessarily delicious. Rather than trying to “loosen” it up again (which doesn’t work, by the way), I took a chance on the waffle iron. And wouldn’t you know? It was fan-freaking-tastic.
We had about 1 1/2 cups of cold leftover risotto from our scallop dish. I added 1/4 cup panko crumbs and 1/4 cup parm-romano blend, and stirred until the mixture was uniform. It had a thick, clumpy consistency that was similar to cold cookie dough.
I preheated our waffle iron to 400° F, and scooped the risotto mixture into it and pressed the lid closed. A few minutes later, voila! We had crispy exterior and smooth, soft and creamy interior. It reminded me of arancini, but in waffle form.
I made a quick onion-herb gravy with chunks of leftover roast chicken, and another fab 2.0 dinner was served!