Editor's Note: A few weeks back, you, the Serious Eats Community mentioned in a Talk thread that you wanted to see some more coverage of Latin cuisines from the Americas South of Mexico. Well you spoke, and we listened. Check back each week for recipes from Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Nicaragua, Peru, and beyond.
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My wife's travel schedule is not gentle. I'm not sure whether it's me, Hambone, or Yuba that pushes her over the edge, causing her to jet off to impromptu cryptography conferences in Amalfi or to deliver emergency homomorphic encryption seminars in Boston. Come to think of it, I'm not even really sure what she does that makes her services so invaluable to such a wide slice of the population. She's told me a few times, but I can never quite remember whether cryptography has to do with computers and math, or with tombs. The latter would be far cooler.
One things for sure: I get to spend a lot of time at home alone with the dogs, which leaves me simultaneously overjoyed at my good fortune and bitter at the unfairness of it all. (I'm sure parents can understand the feeling). How do I get my revenge? By cooking all of my wife's favorite Colombian foods while she's gone and writing about them.
Honey, this one's for you.
The first time I had arroz con coco—the savory-sweet, nutty brown coconut rice common to the coast of Colombia—was on a vacation to Cartagena before we were even engaged. We sat on the beach, picking at fresh fish slashed and deep fried to a crisp golden brown served with the crunchy fried green plantains known there as patacones (see here for a recipe), wedges of aromatic orange limes, and a big pile of coconut rice.
It was the rice that stuck most in my mind. Deep brown with crunchy flecks of crisp coconut meat, it's got a definite coconut aroma, but not as in-your-face as, say, a Thai style coconut rice or some of the coconut scented rices I've had in other Central and South American countries.
At its core, arroz con coco is a pilaf—rice grains toasted in oil before being steamed, but in this case the oil comes directly from coconut milk. You start by dumping a can of coconut milk in a pot, and slowly boiling it off until all of the water content is removed, the coconut oil breaks out, and the solids begin to brown. From there, it's a slow process of stirring and toasting until they are a deep, crunchy golden brown before finally adding sugar, salt, and rice.
Toasting the rice gives it a bit of extra nuttiness, though as the rice steams, the coconut solids give of plenty of the pigment, turning the rice a coffee brown color as it cooks on the stovetop. Your kitchen should smell awesome while this is happening.
I tend to like mine a little sweeter than most recipes out there call for, and when I have it on hand, I'll use panella, a raw sugar from Colombia sold in blocks with a similar flavor to turbinado or demerara (you can use regular sugar or brown sugar, if you'd like).
The only tricky part in the whole deal is getting the right coconut milk. Make sure you take a look at the label:
If you see stabilizers like crystalline cellulose or xanthan gum, you'll have a hard time getting your solids to separate properly from your fat, making the whole thing difficult to brown. If that's all you can find, you can coax it into breaking sooner by adding a bit of vegetable oil to the pan once the coconut milk is reduced down to a few tablespoons.
Hurry home dear, before I finish all this myself.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.