A little history on Latin chicken and yellow rice, plus 'Arroz con Andy' recipe

Saffron is the pivotal ingredient in arroz con pollo, adding its unique nutty flavor and aroma as well as its vibrant yellow color.

In the 1940s, Miami-based R.M. Quigg’s Yellow Rice Brand Dinner sold rice packaged with “genuine pure Spanish saffron and other wonderful seasonings.” The company’s suggested recipe in 1950 is less than inspirational: Yellow Rice Au Gratin, with milk and unspecified “diced cheese.” Many other products followed, including Tampa-based Vigo Importing Company’s. Whatever the merit of those products, the popularity of pre-spiced yellow rice packets was the first step in people losing touch with what makes the dish special—saffron—and introducing saffron substitutes, food dye, and excessive salt.

By the 1960s, the process of adulteration was complete, and food writers were echoing recipes bereft of saffron. In 1968, The Miami News printed a yellow rice recipe under the headline “When you want to be elegant.” The elegance of yellow food coloring is debatable at best. The sly addition of paprika compensated for the lack of natural color.

It has since become common and acceptable practice to adulterate perfectly good chicken and rice in this manner. To make matters worse, the dish is often cooked in huge batches, leading to uneven heat, overcooking, and excessive chicken fat.

People may complain that saffron is expensive, but there is no real substitute. So let’s set aside the turmeric and annatto oil, shall we? Saffron never completely left Tampa’s collective cupboard. In addition to rice packets, Vigo imports pure saffron, available in most local supermarkets.

Tampa native Sylvia Fernandez learned two ways to make the dish, one from her grandmother, who arrived from Spain in 1895, the other from Academia Gastronomia, a culinary school in Madrid, during the 1960s. She adopted her mother’s onions, fried with the chicken pieces, and in Madrid she learned to grind her saffron with salt using a mortar and pestle. “I like a lot of saffron,” she notes. Fernandez adds the spice to the dish as it comes to a boil and rinses the pestle with broth, which she uses instead of water. She also adds a little tomato paste and always uses short grain rice.

The Columbia Restaurant re-examined its entire menu during a business crisis in the 1990s, and arroz con pollo received a great deal of attention. Chef Geraldo Bayona brews a lively sofrito for all of the Columbia’s locations: “Onions, peppers, lots of garlic, white wine, saffron and coloring, bay leaves, all the seasonings, and tomatoes. I would say, it’s probably one of our biggest improvements in all the areas food-wise.” During lunch, chicken and rice is cooked in batches, Sarapico style, named after the Columbia’s chef of the 1950s and 60s. By night, it is made to order Valenciana style and baked in a Spanish clay dish, or cazuela. The Columbia favors long grain rice, roasted red pepper, and white asparagus.

If there is any certainty about chicken and yellow rice, it’s that everyone has their own take on the dish. Like pizza and paella, there are endless variations. I call mine Arroz con Andy, and I have yet to taste a better version.

For my arroz con pollo, I want the rice and saffron to shine. I use a small amount of chicken to prevent the dish from becoming too greasy. The chicken is only present to lend its flavor. If I want chicken, I marinate it in mojo and grill it. That way, each main ingredient (rice and chicken) is prepared separately to feature their best qualities. Best of all, you cook the dish until the rice is perfect, without concern for large, potentially undercooked chicken breasts.

I build flavor with bacon, chicken, beer, chicken broth, saffron, and so on. To prep the saffron, I lightly toast it in a dry pan and crumble it into the beer. For consistent cooking, I bake the dish in the oven after I add the liquid. As a flourish at parties, I add a strip of crispy bacon to every serving, leaving it to the guest whether to nibble the bacon or crumble it onto the rice. The salt from the bacon and pimento garnish is welcome in this recipe, which does not contain much salt.

[image-1]Arroz Con Andy

8 slices of bacon

6 chicken parts (legs, thighs, or wings)

1 chopped onion

1 chopped tomato

1 chopped green bell pepper

8 cloves garlic

3 cups rice

24 ounces cheap beer (i.e.: Bud Light, PBR)

3 cups chicken broth, low sodium

1 teaspoon saffron, toasted and crushed/ground fine

4 bay leaves

1/2 cup frozen peas

Pimento, sliced or diced, for garnish

Salt to taste

Bacon, cooked and chopped, for garnish (optional)


1. Fry bacon until crispy. Remove bacon and reserve 3 tablespoons of the grease.

2. Brown chicken parts in grease and remove.

3. Fry onions and bell peppers, add tomato and garlic. Add rice and stir for one minute. Add beer and broth to deglaze pan. Add toasted, crumbled saffron, bay leaves, peas, and chicken to liquid and stir. Bring to a boil.

4. Cover and put in 350-degree oven. Cook until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender but firm, 15-25 minutes.

Serve immediately.

For many Anglos in the Bay area, chicken and yellow rice was an accessible gateway into the seemingly exotic world of Latin cooking. The dish was not radically different from some Southern dishes and Midwestern casseroles, and the novelty of bright yellow rice attracted the eye as well as the palate. Back in 1899, legend has it that a few of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders ordered arroz con pollo from the saddle at Tampa’s Las Novedades restaurant, opened in 1890. Ironically, the dish came to Tampa from Spain, who the troops would soon be fighting in Cuba.

Twelve hundred years before, war with the invading Moors brought arroz con pollo to Spain. The Spanish grew quite fond of this dish during the occupation, which lasted almost seven centuries. Today, chicken and yellow rice is perhaps the most common Spanish dish in the world. But its rise to fame came at a price: the dish has been degraded by short cuts. It may still be yellow, but arroz con pollo is but a shadow of its former self.

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