Lucia Santos Hernandez says arroz con pollo is her family's favorite meal, hands down.
|Lucia Hernanez with her chicken rice dish. (Photos: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
That goes for both the family she grew up in, and the family she heads as an adult.
"Back when I was young, my mom would buy a whole chicken. We knew what we were having for dinner."
It was going to be arroz con pollo, or chicken with rice.
"She would cut it all up; she used all of it."
For the next step, Hernandez' mom would fry up the chicken - "she used Crisco shortening - then remove it from the skillet. Mom then added just a touch more of shortening. This was to fry the rice to a golden brown.
"I loved watching my mom cook. She added lots of love. She ground all the spices fresh. The whole house smelled great."
The dish just invited seemed to build family closeness.
"We all sat at the table together. We would talk about our day. Those were great times."
Hernandez grew up in Woodville, one of eight children.
"Growing up, mom always made sure that we all knew how to cook. She taught us, and stood by us the whole time."
Another dish she successfully learned to make back then was carne asada, a type of meat with gravy. Later, visiting at other Latino friends' homes, she discovered that everybody's carne asada is different.
Hernandez had a harder time with tortillas.
"My tortillas didn't turn out to well. At age 11 my dad would tease me about them."
Both parents are now deceased, as are two of her sisters, one of whom was killed in an auto accident in Bowling Green at age 19 .
But while they were all still alive, everybody agreed Hernandez' arroz con pollo was hard to beat.
In fact, she was confident enough to make a few changes to the old family recipe.
"My recipe is a little simpler, and healthier, I hope."
She has quite a few preparation hints.
Above all, she warns, "never leave your rice alone when you're cooking it. Like pudding, keep stirring it; it'll burn quickly."
"Taste it as you're cooking it to see if you have enough spice in it." If too much, then just add a little more broth.
"I wouldn't use tomato paste, because that'll make it too thick."
For the chicken broth, she likes to use Swanson's brand boxes - the 32-ounce size.
Her mom used to raise eyebrows about that one.
"When I got older I would add the broth to the arroz con pollo, and she would ask 'Why are you doing that?'
"I just think it makes it taste richer," Hernandez explained.
"When I was in Texas - I lived there a couple years - I noticed they put peas in the chicken and rice. My mom never had. So I put fresh peas in it. It does give it a good flavor and a brighter color.
"For myself, I like it. But our family" sent Hernandez the message "don't mess with it. They like it like mom's."
Hernandez places great value on the art of cooking, feeling strongly that it evokes family and cultural ties that shouldn't be lost.
She never got too old to beg cooking advice from Mom. Tamales, for example, almost got the better of her.
"It was one of the hardest thing for me to make. I was a 58-year-old lady whining on the phone to my mom. 'They're just not right.'
"About half an hour later there was a knock on the door. My mom had had my brother drive her over. She walked over to the stove, tasted it, and said 'it needs more comino' (cumin)."
Mom to the rescue.
But the tortillas that frustrated Hernandez as a child have become another of her cooking triumphs.
"I make fresh flour tortillas. I've had people call me and ask 'Do you think you can make me a dozen tortillas?'"
"One young man in the service - a weekend warrior - he'll call and ask me to make five dozen."
Growing up, she and her siblings "usually never used spoons and knives and forks. We just wrapped it up in a tortilla."
Even today, she far prefers flour tortillas to bread or rolls, especially with the arroz con pollo.
Hernandez, as the oldest, has always found herself balancing the fine line between Mexican and U.S. cultures.
At 18 she decided to attend college at Bowling Green, a real culture shock.
"That was the very first time I was away from my family."
Hernandez, now retired, first worked for 12 years at Wood Lane, then later worked for the Wood County Educational Service Center in a classroom setting. Her job had her assisting a child with autism, one-on-one. "I learned a lot" and the on-the-job knowledge has since come in handy with one of her own grandsons, age 8, who is autistic.
"He's the only child I have a home right now, but I have five grandchildren."
Arroz Con Pollo (Chicken-N-Rice)
Cook time: 40 minutes
Prep time: 20 minute
2 Tbsp. olive oil, light (can use any oil you prefer)
11⁄2 cup long grain rice, uncooked
1 tsp. garlic powder
11⁄2 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp. onion powder (or small onion, chopped)
1⁄4 tsp. pepper (can use white pepper if you want)
1 tsp. salt
2 (32-oz.) pkgs. chicken broth
1⁄3 cup tomato sauce *
4 small chicken breasts, boneless and skinless, cut in cubes
1. Heat 11⁄2 tbsp. oil in 10-inch skillet (I use a 12-inch skillet). Once oil is hot, put in chicken cubes and cook until brown or juices are clear. Remove chicken from skillet; set aside.
2. Use remaining oil in the skillet. Stir in your rice. Fry until golden brown. Add chicken and broth, starting with about 11⁄2 cups of broth. Stir.
3. Add spices — cumin, garlic, onion, pepper and salt. Stir well so it will not clump up. Add tomato sauce and stir. Let it come to a boil.
4. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until rice is tender — about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat, let it stand for 5-8 minutes, then serve.
Serving suggestions: Lettuce and tomato salad, refried pinto beans. I prefer flour tortillas rather than breads or rolls.
* May substitute fresh chopped tomatoes. Equivalent amount: 11⁄2 large (over 3-inch) tomatoes.