Monday, June 23, 2008

"Puerto Rican Dishes" - Sour-Sweet Hen (Chicken)

Date I made this recipe: June 20, 2008

Puerto Rican Dishes by Berta Cabanillas and Carmen Ginorio
Published by: Editorial De La Universidad de Puerto Rico
© 1974
Recipe: Sour-Sweet Hen (Chicken) Gallina (Pollo) a lo Agridulce – p. 43

Today’s recipe is in honor of Stephanie Izzard who won Bravo TV’s Top Chef prize a few weeks back on the island of Puerto Rico. ( Let me just say that now that summer is here and it finally quit raining, it’s challenging to get dinner on the table much less do so within a reasonable time after the contest ended.)

Although one of the challenges the semi-finalists had to endure was to cook recipes using an entire pig (in Cuba and in Puerto Rico, pigs rule), I went with an interesting and tasty recipe for sour-sweet hen.

The recipe book I used is the only one I have of Puerto Rican cooking but it comes straight from the island itself, purchased by me five years ago when I was in Puerto Rico for a law school class. That’s right, a law school class.

Almost every law school offers a study abroad program and I was one of fifteen people on the first school trip to the island. Classes are taught by local professors and are geared to giving an overview of that country’s laws. And what better way to escape the January cold front (-20 when we left and -20 when we got back) then to escape to an island where the temperature was a consistent 85 degrees?

But as idyllic as it sounds, the trip was not without its problems. First, we immediately checked in and immediately checked out of the flea-bag hotel (and I mean flea-bag in the truest sense of the word—ask the women from my group who were bitten) that was manned by a drunken desk clerk (but have no fear, we found lovely accommodations at a nearby Best Western where my roommate and I negotiated a group rate for the entire stay. It’s not for nothing we were lawyer wanna-bees). After that, we had public transportation challenges to the law school but solved that by renting a car and then carpooling as well as weather challenges. In fact, it rained on our only day off on the trip. (But might I just say that the roads in Puerto Rico need work. We thought we had pothole problems in Minnesota!)

But for every problem we had, there was also a funny moment or two, the best one coming on a Saturday when we were required to be in class for a half day. Bitch, moan, bitch, moan—you never heard such kvetching—at least, that is, until the instructor for the day walked in. This man was absolutely gorgeous and suddenly every woman in the room (there were only two men on the trip) went from bitching to uttering a very interested “Well, ho-la!!” Jaws dropped open, lipstick was hurriedly applied and eyelashes fluttered. I had to laugh when, after chatting with him on break, my classmates treated me like I had just met a movie star: “Oh my god, you talked to him!! What did he say? Isn’t he gorgeous? Did you find out if he was married?” (For the record the answers are: a) We talked about where to eat b) yes, he was gorgeous and c) I didn’t talk to him long enough to find out!

So suffice it to say, people, we hung on this man’s every word. Never has Puerto Rican history been so interesting. And when he came back on Monday to teach another portion of our program, there was much rejoicing.

Now, before I go on to the recipe, you might be puzzled as to why on earth we went to Puerto Rico to study foreign law and so a brief history lesson: Puerto Rico was initially settled by the Spanish and as a Spanish territory, followed the Spanish Civil Code (also known as the Napoleonic Code since Napoleon Bonaparte took what the Romans initially developed and made it into a more formal system). Most European countries still follow this code today, at least in civil matters. It’s hard to describe the differences but things like real estate, family law and contracts are just handled a bit differently than in the US.

Puerto Rico eventually became a US territory but got to keep the Spanish Civil Code for their civil matters as well. They are finally coming around to using US law in criminal matters and that’s a good thing as the criminal code is rather barbaric, starting with the fact that you’re guilty until proven otherwise, the exact opposite of US law. And for bonus points at your next cocktail party, you can also tell people that Puerto Rico is part of the federal court system’s first district and so matters involving US law are heard in federal courts. (Bankruptcy and trademark law, for example, are governed by federal law/federal courts instead of state law/state courts). It seems a little confusing to me to have two systems but they seem to like it just fine.

The dish I made for this blog would likely fail to meet the standards of the Top Chef “court” (judges Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, Padma Lakshmi, and Ted Allen), particularly since I didn’t create it, but it’s a good dish that’s easy to make. I consider it my own personal winner!

Speaking of which, I would have been happy had Richard “Kewpie Doll” Blais had won because I liked him but it was time for a woman to come out on top so congratulations, Stephanie! Ladies, let Stephanie be your inspiration—get out there and get cooking! We have contests to enter and win!

Sour-Sweet Hen (Gallina a lo Agridulce) – 6-8 servings
1-3 pounds ready to cook hen (I used the same-sized chicken)
1 tablespoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
2 chopped cloves garlic
1 tablespoon vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons fat
4 ounces chopped ham
2 Spanish sausages (I used chorizo)
4 cups water
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup vinegar

Rub chicken inside out with salt, pepper, garlic, vinegar (1 T) and olive oil and leave over night. (And by “leave over night” I’m sure they meant “in the refrigerator” but you never know).

Put the fat into a kettle (Dutch oven or other pot) and add the chicken, ham and sausages. Mix the water, sugar, vinegar together and pour over the chicken. Cover and cook over low heat turning occasionally until the chicken is tender and the gravy thick.

Notes: I hate when recipes do not get specific on cooking time. How long does it take for a chicken to get tender anyway? I cooked it for 2 hours and the chicken was very tender but the gravy wasn’t what I called thick. Also, I sliced the sausages as well because putting them in whole seemed boring. This added a lot of fat to the dish but once refrigerated, it will easily skim off. The other thing you should know is that when I refrigerated the leftovers, the gravy settled into a Jell-O/aspic consistency but that Jell-O texture will dissolve once you reheat it. Finally, I served this with rice to complete the meal.

No comments: