Traveling to Cuba will open your eyes to a wonderful culture of healthy, colorful and flavorful dishes like arroz con pollo (rice with chicken). The tropical paradise of Cuba has been heavily influenced by the Spanish culture. After Christopher Columbus landed on the island, an area roughly the size of Pennsylvania, the European settlers formed a Spanish colony there that thrived for many generations. The food is a blend of European and native cuisine, and arroz con pollo is a favorite.
The significance of dishes like arroz con pollo is that it is a remnant of the European influence in cooking where simple foods like rice and chicken are combined with fragrant herbs and spices to create a visually stimulating dish. The yellowness of the annatto in the rice contrasts nicely with the roasted chicken. Traditionally served as a one-dish meal, it is simple but wholesome cooking for the whole family to gather around. The complex carbohydrates mixed with the complete protein in the chicken makes a satisfying meal. Add in the vitamins and minerals from the sauteed vegetables and you have a powerhouse of nutrients.
Arroz con pollo is a pairing of beautiful and fragrant short grain rice, crispy-skined yet butter-soft roasted chicken, a sauce of sauteed vegetables, a broth called sofrito and a special clay baking dish. The rice is flavored with annatto although it can be exchanged for saffron threads for a more extravagant dish and sometimes even tumeric is substituted when annatto is in short supply. The chicken is a staple in the Cuban homes as beef is almost never seen in Cuba and pork is more expensive than chicken. Some choose not to brown the chicken before the whole dish is baked in the clay pot, but the browning adds a fragrant dimension to the flavor. Sofrito is a delicious mix of garlic, tomatoes and peppers simmered in a broth of beer and spices. The healthy combination of each of these elements not only keeps a low glycemic load on your pancreas but is a stabilizer of your blood sugar as the protein in the chicken slows down the metabolism of the carbohydrates in the rice.
Arroz con pollo is found mainly on the western side of Cuba where the European culture remains. The east side was heavily influenced by the Carribean and African cutlltures by the trading routes operating in their ports. However, the traditional arroz con pollo can still be found anywhere on the mainland, for those looking for a healthy alternative to fast food or fried food.
Since much of Cuban cooking can be heavy in fats used to saute the vegetables, rice and chicken, some adjusting is necessary to make it a little healthier for the calorie conscious. During the cooking of the chicken, the skin can be removed and instead the meat can be simmered in the sofrito sauce. In addition, instead of sauteing the garlic and onions in oil, try using a little spray oil on your skillet and stir the chopped vegetables until they are golden and fragrant, being careful not to scorch them. The rest of the traditional recipe is very healthy with the use of herbs and spices. The garlic is reputed to lower blood lipids and is a powerful antifungal agent. The tomatoes are a great source of glyopene, a strong antioxidant that prevents oxidation in your cells, while the peppers pack a good source of vitamin C.
This dish is wonderful prepared fresh but it is also great for preparing the day before for a large party. Cover the finished product and the next day, fluff the rice and heat it slowly in a warm oven. You might find that it actually tastes better the second day. Make a little extra sofrito sauce to add on the side and to add a character of freshness to the dish. Chop some fresh tomatoes and peppers with fresh chives to add some live enzymes and bright color. Everyone will be clamoring for more of this healthy Cuban dish.