Of the two most joyful meals to cook over an open fire, choosing one over the other is always the same gut wrenching dilemma. For if you favor one, the other will surely stew in a fit of jealousy and next time you cook it, be prepared — for revenge is sweet and chooses its moment to strike, whether in confab with local weather systems like winds from nowhere, a sudden shower, or mysteriously misplaced kindling — or the coincidental malfunction of a refrigerator door left unhinged and dangling overnight, and now what sarcastically seeps out is the ring of skank from questionable clams within. For there is a lot in life that we mortals will never understand. After all, it’s a thin line. Although one thing I have learned over the years for sure: do not fuck with the kitchen gods.
Whether the job site is your back patio, a roof top, a local park or anywhere in the great outdoors, you go through the same rigmarole: should I choose chicken or should I use fish? If you go with chicken, you’re making Arroz con Pollo. If you use fish, you’re making Paella.
Both dishes, coming from a Latin pedigree are strikingly similar. Both use rice cooked in stock, both use the crucial sofrito as a base, both are seasoned with saffron and both are fiercely independent and needless to say, handsomely delicious. Some say the safest approach, if appeasement is an issue, is to use chicken and seafood together.
We recently enjoyed a balmy, December Sunday sunny afternoon that was either a gift from the kitchen gods or else it was a hoax invented by the Chinese. Either way, I took my chances and went with Arroz con Pollo cooked over an open fire.
The quality of your stock matters. Best to make a chicken stock from a couple of saved carcasses. Rice matters too. If you can find Spanish Bomba or Calasparra, that’s the way to go. They are a little less creamy and firmer than Italian Arborio.
And fire matters. Your wood’s gotta be bone dry. I used peach wood from a deceased neighborhood tree. I gave it three hours to burn down to a decent amount of coals. Use a couple of logs or bricks to support the sides of your pan so that air can get underneath and keep the fire going.
Sofrito is of extreme importance. It’s usually a mix of onion, garlic, green pepper and tomato, finely diced and cooked slowly for 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how cooperative your fire is, or until it all melts together. It’s the founding block for a solidly built Arroz con Pollo or Paella.
For this Arroz con Pollo I used leek instead of onion, because that’s what I had and I used green poblano chile instead of green pepper. I found a few late season heirloom tomatoes which I chopped up skin and all. You could use canned too. I also added some chopped celery.
For the chicken, I suggest a thigh per person, and a leg if you will, generously seasoned with cumin, smoked paprika, salt and black pepper. Cut the thighs into tasty morsels and season them overnight, or at a least a couple hours before you cook them. (Prepare them just before you light the fire). Bone in or boned out thighs work. I removed the thigh bones and added them to my stockpile in the freezer. If you want to save the hassle you can buy boned out chicken thighs. Brown the chicken in olive oil or clarified butter. Remove from the pan and set aside.
Add olive oil to the pan and cook the soffrito. You may have to move some coals around to lower the heat.
I use about a 1/3 cup each of onion (or leek), green pepper (or green chile), and tomato per person and a little garlic and celery all finely diced and slowly cooked in olive oil at lowish heat for thirty minutes or so. (You can save time by doing this in your kitchen the day before and cook it for 45 minutes to an hour at very low heat). I use a light weight carbon steel paella pan. If you don’t have one, use what you’ve got.
For the rice: use 1/3 cup and 1 cup of stock per person seasoned with a little saffron.
When you feel like the sofrito is ready, add the rice and toss it around for a couple of minutes and then, move coals back to the center and pour in the stock. It should bubble insistently. Add the chicken along with any juices that have released. Add salt and give the whole thing a bit of a stir making sure that the chicken is submerged safely under the stock. Adjust the fire so that the rice no longer boils; let it simmer for twenty minutes or so. Don’t cover it.
The bottom will be cooked but the top may be a little underdone. Remove from the fire and cover it with a dampened towel for ten minutes and you’ll be good to go. During cooking you may need to move the pan around a bit to insure even heat. To do this safely a pair of gardening gloves comes in handy. To finish, add a few lemon wedges, sprigs of parsley and strips of roasted red pepper if you like.
Once you start, remember—after that first stir, even the most mild mannered of Spaniards will accuse you of unpardonable treason if you stir it again. Best leave it be and allow the crispy crust, the socarrat, to form on the bottom. Too little and you won’t have the real thing. Too much and you’ll have a burnt pile of rice. Like love and hate, It’s a thin line.