My babysitter, Jennie, took great care of me and my brother for a decade, starting when I was three years old. Now, more than twenty-five years since we met, she and I maintain a close relationship. When I was a kid, the kitchen, unsurprisingly, was my favorite place to spend time with Jennie, especially when she cooked dishes native to St. Vincent, the small island in the Caribbean where she’s from. Caribbean chicken pelau, a one-pot meal of chicken, rice, and vegetables (that stretches a little chicken into a lot of food), was something she made all the time. It’s not unlike arroz con pollo or even paella. I thought that since I’d eaten pelau so many times, I could probably cook it on my own just by remembering the flavors.
But every time I made it, something was missing. Recently I asked Jennie to show me how she makes it, and she started by burning sugar in oil until it was smoking. I couldn’t believe this first step nor would I have ever figured it out on my own. Small victory: You really can learn something new every day. Another small victory: Have a few one-pot meals up your sleeve—they’re perfect for when you want a home-cooked meal but don’t feel very much like cooking (check out the Spin-Offs for a few more ideas). I’ve added coconut milk to this (something, just for the record, Jennie never used) because I love its sweet, rich undertone, but feel free to just use chicken stock or water in its place. Finally, the preparation belies the long ingredient list. This recipe is very easy to make and so very comforting, and burning the sugar lets you feel like you get to break the rules.
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp sweet paprika
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs, cut into 1-in [2.5-cm] cubes, at room temperature
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 Tbsp sugar
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
2 carrots, diced
1 large or 2 small celery stalks, diced
1 small green bell pepper, cored, seeded, deribbed, and finely diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
½ jalapeño chile, halved, seeded, and minced
Leaves from 4 fresh thyme sprigs, minced
2 Tbsp ketchup or tomato paste
One 13 ½-oz can full-fat coconut milk, shaken
1 cup water
One 15-oz can green pigeon peas or black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained
1 cup long-grain white rice
In a large bowl, stir together the garlic powder, paprika, and 1 tsp salt. Add the chicken and toss to coat with the spice mixture, rubbing it in with your hands to make sure each piece is evenly coated. Set aside.
Turn on your exhaust fan if you have one and open your kitchen window. In a large heavy pot over medium-high heat, combine 1 Tbsp of the vegetable oil and all of the sugar and cook, stirring constantly, until the sugar is not only dissolved, but totally black and smoking and burned, about 4 minutes. Immediately add the chicken pieces in an even layer and cook, stirring now and then, until they are deeply browned all over, about 4 minutes (this happens faster than usual because you’re browning the chicken in burnt caramel, which is already incredibly hot and very dark).
Turn the heat to medium-low and add the remaining 1 Tbsp vegetable oil, the onion, carrots, celery, bell pepper, garlic, jalapeño, thyme, and a big pinch of salt. Cook, stirring now and then, until the vegetables are slightly softened, about 10 minutes.
Stir the ketchup, coconut milk, and water into the pot. Turn the heat to high and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring everything with a wooden spoon to scrape the bottom of the pot to release any flavorful bits that might be stuck. Then, turn the heat to low and stir in the pigeon peas, rice, and a big pinch of salt. Give everything a good stir, cover the pot, and cook until the rice is tender, about 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the pelau rest, covered, for 10 minutes.
Season the pelau to taste with salt. Serve immediately.
For a Mexican arroz con pollo, heat a slick of olive oil in a large pot and brown cut-up chicken that has been seasoned with cumin, salt, and pepper.
Remove it to a plate. Add a large chopped onion, a few minced garlic cloves, and a chopped red bell pepper to the pot and cook until soft. Add 1 cup white rice and stir until the grains are opaque. Add 2 cups chicken stock, return the chicken to the pot, and bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the rice is tender and the chicken is cooked through, about 25 minutes. Add a handful of frozen peas, cover the pot, and let it sit for 10 minutes, so the residual heat cooks the peas.
Serve sprinkled with chopped cilantro.
For arroz con chorizo, brown a diced chorizo sausage in some oil in a medium pot. Add 1 cup white rice and stir until the rice is toasty. Add 2 cups stock or water, along with a can of rinsed and drained black beans. Cover and cook over low heat until the rice is tender, about 20 minutes. Scatter a large handful of frozen peas over the top, put the lid back on, and let the whole thing sit off of the heat until the peas are cooked in the residual heat. Fluff with a fork and serve with chopped cilantro, salsa, diced avocado, and sour cream.
For a one-baking-sheet Caribbean chicken dinner, season diced potatoes with salt, pepper, minced garlic, and olive oil. Roast, turning everything once or twice, until they’re nearly tender and a little bit brown, about 20 minutes. Add seasoned bone-in chicken breasts (salt, pepper, maybe a little paprika if you’d like) and continue to roast until the chicken is browned and cooked through and the potatoes are tender, another 20 to 25 minutes. Add a big bowl of spinach that you’ve coated with olive oil and seasoned with salt and roast just until the greens wilt, a final 5 minutes.
For an easy one-pot pork meal, brown large-ish cubes of pork in olive oil in a deep pot. Add a few diced carrots, a couple of diced parsnips, and a diced apple.
Add enough stock, apple cider, or water to come halfway up the sides of the pork and vegetables and scatter over a handful of dried cherries. Simmer until the pork and vegetables are tender, about 1½ hours. Sprinkle with chopped parsley before serving.
Reprinted from Small Victories by Julia Turshen with permission by Chronicle Books, 2016.