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A Cuban take on a Julia Child classic

  • Cuban braised chicken and red rice.<br/><br/>Hillary Nelson for the Monitor

    Cuban braised chicken and red rice.

    Hillary Nelson for the Monitor

  • Spicy red beans<br/><br/>Hillary Nelson for the Monitor

    Spicy red beans

    Hillary Nelson for the Monitor

  • Cuban braised chicken and red rice.<br/><br/>Hillary Nelson for the Monitor
  • Spicy red beans<br/><br/>Hillary Nelson for the Monitor

One of the most popular recipes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking is Poulet en Cocotte Bonne Femme, chicken slow-roasted in a covered pot with bacon, potatoes and onions. Unlike chicken cooked on an open pan in a hot oven, which comes out with browned, deliciously crispy skin, chicken cooked in a closed pot in a slow oven comes out with pale, soft skin that isn’t (in my opinion) worth eating.

So why cook chicken in a pot? Because the meat of an en cocotte bird is unbelievably moist and tender. And because the lid keeps the chicken’s natural juices from evaporating, lots and lots of rich gravy collects in the bottom of the pot, which needs nothing more than a quick straining before it’s ready to pour over the sliced meat.

Though I love Julia Child’s classic, I recently decided for a change of pace to try a Cuban-style twist on it. I first marinated the chicken in a citrus and garlic blend, before slow-baking it along with bell peppers, onions and a bay leaf. The results were delicious.

And while the chicken was roasting, rather than letting the empty shelf-space above it go to waste, I came up with some side dishes that could cook along with it: Spicy Red Beans and Red Brown Rice. If your oven is small, either of these recipes can be cooked over a stove-top burner.

Cuban Chicken
in a Pot

4-pound whole chicken

juice from 1 large orange or 2

juice from 2 limes

1 whole head of garlic, peeled and minced, or pounded to a puree in a mortar

1 to 2 teaspoons salt (to taste)

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (or to taste)

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

2 small onions or 1 large onion, peeled and sliced in rings

2 small bell peppers or 1 large bell pepper, seeded and sliced in rings

1 bay leaf

Rinse the chicken and pat it dry, then place it in a bowl. Combine the juices, garlic, salt and pepper in a small bowl, then pour over the chicken. Rub the chicken all over with the marinade, cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight, turning occasionally so it marinates evenly.

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a big heavy pot with a lid, such as a Le Creuset (6 to 8 quarts is about right). Scrape the marinade from the chicken; reserve the marinade. Pat the chicken dry, then brown it in the pot, turning it so that it becomes golden brown on all sides. Be careful not to let the bottom of the pot blacken.

When the chicken has browned, remove it from the pot, add more oil if necessary, then add the onions and peppers, cooking until the onions become golden. Add the leftover marinade and the bay leaf to the pot, and cook for several more minutes, until the garlic loses its raw scent.

Place the chicken breast-side up in the pot and scoop some of the vegetables over it. Cover the pot with a piece of tinfoil, folding it down all around the sides of the pot (this ensures the lid will fit tightly), then place the lid over the tin foil. Place the pot on the bottom shelf in the preheated oven.

Cook for an hour and 10 minutes, basting occasionally, then use an instant read thermometer to test the chicken’s temperature in the thickest part of its thigh. It is done when the thermometer reads 160 degrees (it may take as long as another 20 minutes to reach this temperature depending on the size of the chicken).

Put the lid back on the pot and return the chicken to the oven if necessary, but be careful not to overcook it. When the internal temperature of the chicken reaches 160 degrees, remove the chicken from the pot to a cutting board and cover it with a tent of aluminum foil.

Allow it to rest for at least 15 minutes before cutting it.

Pour the vegetables and the juices from the bottom of the pot into a fine mesh sieve set over a bowl or large measuring cup, pushing on the vegetables to extract all the flavor from them.

Discard the vegetables, then scoop off the fat floating on top of the gravy and discard it.

If desired, remove the skin from the chicken and discard it before slicing the chicken into pieces. Arrange the chicken on a platter, and serve it immediately, along with the gravy.

Spicy Red Beans

For the beans:

2 cups small red beans, such as cranberry, rinsed and soaked in cold water overnight

4 quarts water

1 onion, peeled and chopped

2 green peppers, seeded and cut into rings

2 to 3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 small hot dried red pepper

1 bay leaf

a few sprigs of cilantro, including the roots, if possible

1 to 2 teaspoons salt (to taste)

For finishing the beans:

1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into chunks

1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into chunks

1 fresh jalapeno, chopped (optional – remove seeds if you don’t like a lot of heat)

1 canned plum tomato or 1 fresh plum tomato

1 small onion

1 small bunch cilantro

1 teaspoon oregano

1 tablespoon vinegar (cider or sherry wine)

1 teaspoon Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce (or to taste)

1 teaspoon salt

freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil

Place the soaked beans in a heavy pot with all the other bean ingredients and bring to a simmer on the stove top. Remove from the heat, cover the pot with a piece of tinfoil, then place the lid over the tinfoil and place the pot in the preheated 250-degree oven. Cook for about 11/2 hours, or until the beans are tender. Remove the bay leaf and hot pepper and discard.

While the beans are cooking, combine all the finishing ingredients with the exception of the olive oil in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until pureed.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat, then pour the puree into the skillet and cook for several minutes, until it is bubbling and the flavors have combined well.

Pour this mixture into the cooked beans and stir well.

Taste for seasonings and add more salt, pepper, hot sauce or vinegar as needed.

Serve immediately, with rice if desired.

Makes 8 servings as a side dish or 6 servings as a main dish.

Red Brown Rice

1½ cups long grain brown rice

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, minced

a few sprigs of thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1 bay leaf

1 small dried hot pepper

1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

2 cups water

1 cup canned plum tomatoes with their juice, chopped up a bit

leaves from several sprigs of cilantro, washed and chopped

1 small bunch scallions, washed, trimmed of roots and chopped

Rinse the rice well in several changes of cold water. Heat the oil over medium heat in an oven-proof pot with a lid.

Saute the onions until translucent but not browned, then add the brown rice and continue cooking for another 5 minutes or so, until the rice becomes glossy and smells a little toasted.

Add the herbs, salt, water and tomatoes and stir well. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then remove from the heat.

Cover the pot with a piece of tinfoil, then place the lid over the tinfoil and place the pot in the preheated 250-degree oven.

Cook the rice for about 1 hour, or until the liquid has been completely absorbed and the rice is tender. Remove the bay leaf, whole hot pepper and thyme sprigs, then fluff the rice up with a fork.

Place in a serving bowl, sprinkle with cilantro and scallions and serve immediately.

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