Cinco de Mayo is this weekend– the 5th of May– a date observed in the United States as a celebration of Mexican heritage and pride. It’s a common misconception that Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Independence Day– it’s not. Mexico’s national Independence Day is celebrated on September 16. Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican army’s victory over France at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Vastly outnumbered and up against the very strong and better-equipped French army, 4,000 Mexican soldiers defeated 8,000 French soldiers at Puebla. It marks the last time in history that a European military force invaded a country in the Americas. The day is celebrated with traditional Mexican festivities– music, dancing, drinking, and eating… lots and lots of eating!
A 1901 poster commemorating the Siege of the Puebla (El Sitio de Puebla). Image courtesy of the Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library
With Cinco de Mayo on the horizon, I’m gearing up for a weekend full of Mexican food. Luckily I have one of my best friends to guide me. Sandra is my right-hand girl, one of those friends that has become like family over the years. We’ve been through a lot together– her kids are like my nieces and nephews. She is most definitely one of my BFF’s (best friends forever). Sandra was born in Mexico and she’s an awesome cook. Who better to teach me a traditional Mexican recipe for Cinco de Mayo? After talking about it for a couple of days, we settled on Arroz con Pollo, a simple, delicious one-pot meal. The recipe produces a wonderful, comforting meal that my whole family enjoyed. It’s easy, healthy, and affordable, too!
This is one of my favorite pictures of Sandra, sipping a fruity cocktail in Maui. Yeah, my BFF and I went to Hawaii a few years ago. That’s how we roll.
Because of the low and fairly slow cooking process, the rice in this dish becomes quite soft. Back in Mexico Sandra’s family sauteed the rice in pork fat. While tasty, it’s not kosher, nor is it particularly healthy. Here she opts for healthier vegetable oil instead (we used grapeseed). I’m guessing you could use schmaltz (chicken fat) if you wanted something a little more flavorful– and of course, if you’re not kosher, feel free to make it the way her Mexican family would, “con puerco.” Dotted with the sweetness of corn, peas, and carrots, the rice provides a perfect base for tender slow-cooked chicken. This dish doesn’t require a lot of prep work– once everything is in the pot, you can just leave it alone, checking on it a couple of times during cooking to make sure it’s not getting dry. When it’s finished, you’ll have a pot full of soft aromatic rice topped with delicious and tender chicken. Enjoy! Or, as Sandra would say “en Español”… buen provecho!
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- 2 cups white rice
- 1 1/2 lbs roma tomatoes, halved
- 1 garlic clove
- 1/2 medium onion, peeled
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil (we used grapeseed)
- 1/2 tsp chili powder (mild)
- 1/2 cup diced carrots
- 1/2 cup corn (fresh or frozen)
- 1/2 cup peas (fresh or frozen - not canned)
- 6 pieces chicken - legs and/or thighs
- 2 tbsp chopped cilantro for garnish (optional)
- Rinse the rice well in a mesh colander, then shake to drain. Let the rice continue draining over the sink while you blend together the cooking liquid.
- In a blender, combine the roma tomatoes, garlic, onion, and 1 1/2 cups of water.
- Blend till the mixture is smooth. Pour the tomato mixture through another mesh colander or sieve into a large bowl, pushing the solids to extract as much flavored juice as possible.
- Reserve the juice and discard the solids.
- Heat up 2 tbsp of oil in a nonstick pot over medium high heat. Add the rice to the pot. Saute the rice, stirring almost constantly, for 10-15 minutes till the grains of rice start to turn golden. Be careful-- when they begin to turn golden, they can easily go to brown/burned if you don't watch them carefully.
- Measure the reserved tomato liquid into the pot by cupfuls. You will need 6 cups of liquid total. First measure the tomato liquid and pour into the pot (there will be about 3 cups). Once you know how much tomato liquid there is, you can measure out the remaining amount of liquid needed-- in our case, we needed 3 more cups. Add that amount of water to the pot to make 6 cups of liquid total.
- Stir in the diced carrots, corn, and peas along with 1 tsp of salt.
- Sprinkle the chicken pieces with salt (skip salting the chicken if you're using kosher meat) and chili powder. You can use up to six pieces of chicken in one pot. We took the skin off of our chicken before cooking to make the dish a bit lighter. You can leave the skin on if you prefer, which will add more flavor to the dish.
- Place the chicken pieces on top of the rice and vegetables, covered in the tomato liquid. Bring the mixture to a slow boil.
- Reduce heat to a slow, even simmer over medium low heat and cover the pot. Let the mixture simmer for 1 hour till all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender. Check at 30 minutes to see if the pot looks too dry. Add additional liquid as needed, and additional salt to taste, if desired. We ended up adding another 1 cup of water to the pot after 30 minutes-- the liquid absorbs pretty quickly into the rice. Check the rice again for dryness at 45 minutes. When all of the liquid has absorbed and the rice, vegetables, and chicken are tender, remove from heat.
- Serve the chicken over the rice, garnished with chopped cilantro if desired. I decided to debone the chicken and cut it into pieces before serving for a prettier presentation. You can serve it on the bone if you like. The rice will be quite soft-- this is the correct texture for this dish. It all comes together in a very warm, cozy, filling one-pot meal. It's simple, homey, healthy Mexican comfort food.