Arroz con pollo: Spanish Chicken with rice
Every time I go back to San Francisco, there is a crush of people that I want to see. In addition to everyone that I want to catch up with, there’s also a whirlwind of places I want to go to visit, from favorite taquerias to new chocolate and pastry places. (Not sure what happened in my absence, but the city has really ramped up the bakery options.) I stopped trying to do (and eat) it all because there’s nothing worse than a vacation where you don’t get to relax and just go for a walk. But I do regret not being able to see all my friends.
One such friend is Joanne Weir. Part of the reason I don’t get to see her is because she’s always going off somewhere, traipsing around Greece, Morocco, Italy, or Provence. And so far, she has declined to take me along. However I feel like I’m with her when I read her newest book, Kitchen Gypsy, stories of her travels around the world, including how she became a cook, starting doing the more elemental task at Chez Panisse – making the daily pasta for the café – to eventually learning to cook with the great, and mercurial, Madeleine Kamman, before becoming a cooking teacher, cookbook author and television personality. And now she even owns a restaurant, Copita, yet another place that I have to put on my list to visit in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In her new book, she talks about our time together at Chez Panisse. I remember liking Joanne instantly. We were both New Englanders, young, and eager to cook. And she just has that kind of personality that draws you in. Joanne included a story about me in her book, along with a picture that’s probably twenty years old, when I made an ice cream inspired by Madeleine Kamman, who I both admired and was completely terrified of.
Unlike others who took her cooking program (half the students left right before graduation when Joanne was there), Joanne stuck it out and learned much about cooking from the legendary Madame Kamman. She was a legend because she wrote some of the most highly regarded, outstanding books on cooking and French cuisine. But also earned her reputation for being sharp, difficult, and unpleasant. (She was notoriously irked that Julia Child became so popular writing about French cuisine.) You can read some of the tales in Joanne’s book, along with how finding a fly in a bottle of French wine led to a lifelong friendship with the winemaker in France, why she wanted to become a cooking teacher, and how she came to travel around the world, cooking her way through France, Italy, North Africa, and Spain.
Because Joanne has been a cooking teacher for so many years, her recipes are especially well-written. The one that appealed to me most, though, was Arroz con pollo, or Spanish chicken with rice. I went out and bought a chicken, a few slender red peppers and a tin of pimento-stuffed olives, pulling my paella pan off the shelf, a gift from David Tanis, who we both worked for, and with, at Chez Panisse. Which seemed fitting to use right now.
I was super fortunate because at a booksigning I did in the states a year or so ago, a lovely Iranian-American woman pressed a packet of saffron in my hand, which was one of the best gifts I ever got. When I put a picture of it on Instagram, people from Iran told me that it was, indeed, the best saffron. And that’s something, considering that no matter what you use or have, or where you go, if you post a picture of it on social media, someone always tells you there is something better. This saffron is the ne plus ultra of saffron. (And if you write something in French, someone will tell you that it’s nec plus ultra, although Webster’s offers up a different spelling in English.)
All I know is that it’s amazing saffron and made a fragrant base for the Spanish-style rice.
Speaking of which, I was a little concerned about the rice. Joanne calls for Spanish bomba rice. It’s not a sticky rice and in fact, in France “round” rice is sold for the cuisine sucrée (desserts), in addition to savory cooking. I don’t have much experience using it for savory cooking and did a little reading up about it as it’s often mentioned in the same breath with its cousin, arborio rice.
But it’s worth tracking down short-grain “round” rice for Arroz con pollo. The article I linked to just above gives locavore Russell Moore‘s trick for turning California Japanese short-grain rice into Spanish-style rice. Russell is another friend who worked with me and Joanne…and David…at Chez Panisse. Amazing how many of my former co-workers I could weave into this one dish, but it’s Joanne that I have to thank here for her friendship over the years, and this hearty Spanish-inspired dish.