Like Nik, Cathy, and Dree-el, I learned to cook from my late grandmother and mother. They both told me, “since you like to eat, you should like to cook,” and that mantra has served me well. Whether times were lean or plentiful, whether I was alone or among loved ones, two of the three constants have always been education and cooking; to me, they are interchangeable. I learn about different cultures when I cook new recipes, and I teach kids in my family how to cook. My first constant has been television: I’ve loved it ever since my mother brought me home as a baby and put me in a crib that she wisely positioned next to the tv. Ironically, over the last couple weeks, I’ve traveled and learned the most about different peoples the most I ever have in my life. With the late Anthony Bourdain, Phil Rosenthal, and Guy Fieri as my guides, I’ve had Senegalese tieboudieune for dinner (the national dish consisting of rice and fish), Argentinian choripan for brunch (smoked sausages with bread and lettuce), and San Diegan spicy garlic wings for “linner” (wings marinated in a habanero-spice mixture for a day, then fried to a crunchy gold). In all my “travels”, I’ve seen how cooking, learning, and teaching all serve to bring people together, and these lessons are being reinforced especially now when we’re all indoors and forced to turn to our pans, stoves, and televisions. I have a feeling that our grandmothers would at least endorse the first two.
As you may guess, my favorite dish is the next one I learn to cook. However, a favorite standby of mine is called pélau (pronounced pay-lahw) – an all-in-one meal consisting of meat, rice, and diced vegetables cooked in browning. It is best accentuated with a cool, zesty coleslaw and a refreshing lemonade. The pélau is a metaphor for integration and unity as all the ingredients come together in a single pot and combine to create a sumptuous, nutritious, heartwarming meal.
- Fresh bone-in chicken (stew pack or cut to stew-size) and a fresh lime or lemon or 3 tbsp. vinegar
- 2 cups parboiled rice (next best option is basmati; avoid brown rice and sticky types of rice)
- 2 cups vegetables (diced carrots, diced bell peppers, green peas) and ½ cup coconut milk.
- 1 cup Chopped Green Herbs (chives, thyme, parley, celery, chadon beni or culantro)
- Spices: pressed garlic, grated onion, salt, pepper sauce
- Brown sugar (3 tbsp.) and vegetable cooking oil.
Put the chicken in a bowl large enough to hold twice as much. Add enough water to just cover the chicken, then add the juice of a whole lime or lemon, or a few tablespoons of vinegar and let it stand for about 15 minutes. This helps clean the chicken and commence breakdown of meat, thus allowing easier and faster cooking. Then, rinse the chicken pieces and put into a clean bowl of similar size. Add the spices (to your taste) and chopped green herbs (about 1 cup per 3 lbs of chicken) to the chicken and ensure the seasonings are shared evenly among all the pieces of meat.
Get that favorite deep pot that you use to make stews, and heat to the point where it a single drop of water hisses to evaporation immediately on contact with the hot insides. Then pour in enough oil to barely coat the bottom of the pot. A minute later, add the sugar and stir continuously until the sugar begins to darken; this part is tricky but critical – it should turna foamy light brown just before it starts to darken. Timing the browning is key, so ensure to add all the seasoned chicken just at the commencement of the darkening; adding it too early or too late ruins the meal. Use your pot spoon to stir the chicken around and coat all the pieces with the browning. Lower the heat to medium, cover the pot and allow it to cook for 5-7 minutes.
At the point the liquid is just about gone and the chicken calls for some water, add 2 cups of warm water then add the rice. Stir again, ensuring the chicken and rice are all mixed in. Cover again for another 5-7 minutes on medium heat. For the final stretch, stir in the vegetables and coconut using a fork so that all the contents are mixed in evenly. Leave the pot uncovered, lower the heat, stir every now and again and monitor closely until all the liquid is gone. All the rice and chicken should be evenly browned with the brightly-colored vegetables cooked enough to retain their colors and have an edible crunch. Bon Appetit!