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Picture this: a large, round, wooden table with thick-set legs crowded with at least sixteen people noisily pulling chairs in and out, screaming for this or that platter, bread, something to drink. My paternal grandparents' house in Granada, Nicaragua, was home to my father and his nine siblings, as well as first cousins and more distant relatives who came in and out as they pleased, their favorite visiting hours being those when meals were being served at the King Arthur-style round table. Today, the house has fewer lunch and dinner guests, but the ghosts of the past and my grandmother's habit of mounding food on outsized platters remains.
Arroz con pollo is a classic of the Nicaraguan kitchen repertoire. It frequently goes by the stage name "arroz a la valenciana," which for English speakers will translate literally into Valencian rice, aka paella. Arroz con pollo is far from paella, but one can imagine how our Spanish forefathers may have prepared it in their colony, adapting their traditional recipes to their new regions' ingredients. The passage of time, the advent of canned foods, and the ease of convenience products led to the total bastardization of the original arroz a la valenciana, but it remains among the top favorite dishes of the populace.
How, exactly, have Nicarguans "customized" paella? The main protein is always chicken, rather than shellfish, eel, rabbit, snails, etc., and rather than the plump bomba rice used in Spain, this arroz is the more slender long-grain white. Since saffron is, for lack of a better word, scarce in our region, tomato paste and ketchup do the job of tinting the rice an orange color. Some people use annatto paste to achieve the desired marigold hue, but I find it to add an unpleasant vinegar-like flavor (annatto or achiote is sold as a seasoned paste in Nicaragua).
Additions to the rice include diced carrots, small green peas (usually canned and charmingly referred to by their French name petits pois), capers, pimento-stuffed green olives, sliced sausage, and chopped ham. At my grandmother's house there is a stack of white toast, shiny with butter, and a pile of finely grated queso duro (a salty, dry, crumbly unpasteurized cow's milk cheese) or Parmesan to go with the dish.
Arroz con pollo is a bit labor-intensive since each item is prepared separately to achieve maximum flavor: You poach your own chicken, make the rice, and have to chop a long list of ingredients, but the yield is quite impressive and makes great leftovers. The mixture may seem a bit odd and you may scoff at what liberties have been taken with the original recipe, but once you've tried it you'll understand why it is such a beloved dish.
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