Chicken with Caramelized Onions and Cardamom Rice

This post was supposed to be all about comfort—a favorite comfort food recipe from Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi accompanied by a wise anecdote about finding the comforts of home no matter where you happen to be. But, oh, how things can get screwed up.

First, I went to the pollería to get chicken thighs and — thanks to a grasp of the Spanish language that comes and goes as it pleases — I came home with drumsticks instead. Not my favorite piece of the bird, but not a big deal. Then, as I was pulling the spices I’d need from the cabinet, I realized I didn’t have cloves. This was irksome because I always have cloves around. Or, I used to always have them around. But I saw allspice in there, and I figured that would work instead.

For a quick moment though (a momentito), I was thrown off. I had zero idea why I had allspice, something I hardly ever cook with, when I didn’t have something I used to use so often. Who’s kitchen was this? Do you know how often I used to use cloves for mulled wine in Seattle? Let’s just say, only when it rained. So now I felt like I was rummaging around in someone else’s kitchen, and it was unsettling.

Feeling unsettled is something I’ve been trying hard not to pay much attention to since I moved to Spain. I’ve been so focused on schlepping all over town to do our shopping, learning the language, finally tracking down “exotic” things* like baking soda, and getting into any kind of routine that feels normal, that I keep looking the other way whenever something reminds me that none of this is normal.

I digress. Substitutions handled, it was time to get cooking. I was still confident that the recipe would taste fine, and I was looking forward to cooking what I consider to be an Old Friend of a dish. Something I’d made a zillion times before and that Mr. Natalie always devours and raves about. Cooking it again was going to feel like home.

It started out well. Caramelizing onions is one of my favorite cooking tasks. You begin with crisp pieces of raw onion in a hot pan, and then you stir and you wait. First the onion gets soft and slightly translucent, then it really starts to sweat, and then it starts to brown. But to caramelize, you keep going, well past the point where the nervous voice inside is shrieking that “things are going to burn!” You’re not done until the onions are a deep, golden brown, with a few dark bits here and there. At this point, they will also smell incredible.

Not quite caramelized yet …

So that part was fine. The browning of the chicken was fine. The adding of all the other ingredients and putting the lid on the pan and setting the heat to low and doing other things for 30 minutes — all fine. It was the stirring and fluffing and getting ready to serve where things went a little sideways. Why? The rice didn’t cook.

I have no idea why the rice didn’t cook. I suspect that a pocket of it was trapped under some chicken and didn’t have access to enough of the cooking liquid, and I didn’t notice this until I had stirred everything around and distributed that undercooked rice in with the rest of the otherwise perfectly fluffy rice. Out of obstinance (and hunger), I ate some anyway while I put the pot back on the stove to see if I could fix it for later, when Mr. Natalie would have it for dinner.

But sitting there, crunching a mouthful of cardamom rice, I had one of those momentitos again. A moment that wouldn’t be that big a deal under normal circumstances, but that somehow feels bigger when you’re an expat. All of a sudden, a Good Friend of a recipe doesn’t cooperate and you feel betrayed. Or, six months into your new life, you realize you’ve been putting the detergent in the wrong slot in the washing machine and you feel like a moron. Or you’re at the frutería and even though you’ve been repeating calabacín (zucchini) in your head for minutes, you say calcetines (socks) when the vendor asks what you need.

Screwing up — never something I was terribly comfortable with — is now a thing I do on a daily basis. I’m learning that it is as fundamental a part of expat life as paperwork and memorizing the time differences between you and your friends back home. And where I used to feel such deep embarrassment or frustration when I messed up at home, now I do it so often that it feels like a regular part of my day. Every time it happens, I try to shrug it off and recognize that I’ve learned something new. And since every day here brings unexpected challenges of all sizes, it’s actually comforting to know I’m going to screw a few of them up — because that means I’m a step closer to figuring stuff out. Hopefully.

Chicken with Caramelized Onions and Cardamom Rice

Adapted from Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Ingredients:

  • 1 handful raisins (roughly chopped) or 3 tablespoons dried currants
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, thinly sliced
  • 2 ¼ pounds skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs or drumsticks (or a mix)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 10-12 cardamom pods
  • Heaping teaspoon whole allspice berries or 1/4 teaspoon whole cloves
  • 2 cinnamon sticks, broken in two
  • 1 ⅔ cups basmati rice 
  • 2 ¼ cups boiling water
  • 1 cup chopped mix of fresh herbs (dill, cilantro, parsley)

Directions:

  1. Heat half the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion has turned a deep golden brown. (This almost always takes longer than you think it will — give it at least 20 minutes.) Scrape the onion into a small bowl and set aside; return the pan to the heat (though you may need to turn it down).
  2. While the onions are cooking, put the chicken in a large bowl and season with 1½ teaspoons each of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the remaining olive oil, cardamom, allspice (or cloves) and cinnamon and use your hands to mix everything together.
  3. Add the chicken and spices to the pan. Brown the chicken on all sides, working in batches so as not to crowd the pan. Set the chicken aside on a plate.
  4. Pour off any excess oil, leaving just enough to thinly coat the bottom of the pan. Add the rice, onion, 1 teaspoon salt, raisins (or currants) and a few grinds of fresh black pepper. Mix well and then nestle the browned chicken pieces into the rice mixture.
  5. Pour the boiling water over the rice and chicken, cover the pan and lower the heat. Cook at a gently simmer for about 30 minutes. Take the pan off the heat, remove the lid, cover the pan with a clean kitchen towel and replace the lid. Leave to rest for another 10 minutes.
  6. Scatter the fresh herbs over the dish and fluff up the rice with a fork. Adjust the seasoning again if necessary and serve.

*I still haven’t found crushed red chile flakes. If anyone out there knows where I can find them in Madrid (hell, anywhere on the Iberian peninsula at this point), let me know!

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