By Denise Oliveira
She worked in film, and never thought she’d write a cookbook. But then she started a food blog, and everything changed. “I’ve always been attracted to stories, and it turns out a cookbook is just a way to tell a story. Every recipe has its narrative,” says Ana Sofia Peláez, whose new cookbook, The Cuban Table, published by St. Martin’s Press hits bookstores on Oct. 28. Earlier this month, we spoke with Brooklyn-based Ana about her personal story, her blog, Hungry Sofia, and her upcoming book. Below, she shares one of her favorite recipes from the book, Arroz con Pollo.
How long have you lived in Brooklyn?
And where did you grow up?
My family is Cuban, mostly from Havana. I grew up in Miami, very much in a Cuban environment.
What got you interested in cooking?
From an early age I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, and they cooked a lot. That was a big part of our time together. Later in life, when I was working in film production, I’d have time between projects. That’s when I started paying more attention to what I was cooking. Eventually, I started looking forward to being between projects just so I could cook. Of course it was natural that I’d look at my heritage for inspiration. Not just Cuban, but I was exposed to various Latin American traditions, growing up in Miami.
How do you spend your time now?
I work as a freelancer, developing recipes for sites like the Cooking Channel blog and other websites. I also write my own blog, and I also have a small apron company I run with my sister. (Editor’s note: Her blog was a finalist for Saveur’s Best Food Blog award in 2012).
When did you first develop the idea for your book, The Cuban Table?
It was when I met the book’s food photographer, Ellen Silverman, back in 2011. She’d been to Cuba, and wanted to collaborate on the project. It took a couple of years to write and re-write the proposal, and by summer 2012 we were on our way.
Did you ever think you’d end up being a cookbook author?
When I was growing up, and then working in film, I never thought I’d write a cookbook, though I’ve always been attracted to stories. Even working in film, that was a form of storytelling. Then I started Hungry Sofia and became very interested in writing a cookbook. Recipes are ways to look for the underlying stories.
Where do you grocery shop in Brooklyn?
The Key Foods on 5th Avenue in Park Slope has a well-stocked international section. On Smith Street, there are a couple of bodegas I go to. I also shop a lot at Los Paisanos (an Italian butcher) and Esposito & Sons Pork Store, they have the lard I need. It used to be that you had to go to specialty markets to find Latin American ingredients. I’d shop in Sunset Park a lot. Now, you can find what you’re looking for anywhere. I love going to Sahadi’s, and I work my weekend around shopping hours at the farmer’s markets.
And where do you go out to eat in Brooklyn?
Chicken and Rice
Arroz con Pollo
In the 1950s, when poultry was more expensive than either fish or beef, Arroz con Pollo was the preferred dish for special occasions and Sunday family gatherings. It’s a one-pot meal that’s still perfect for feeding a crowd. Carmen Calzada shared her family’s recipe with me.
For the chicken
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium green bell pepper, stemmed, cored, seeded, and cut in rounds
3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs and drumsticks
For the rice
1 cup dry white wine
4 cups water
One 12-ounce bottle of pilsner-style beer, divided
½ pound asparagus, rinsed and trimmed
1 medium yellow onion, grated
1 cup jarred pimientos, drained and sliced
1 cup petit pois or English peas, fresh or frozen
¼ cup tomato paste
3 large garlic cloves, peeled and mashed to a paste
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 cube chicken bouillon
¾ teaspoon freshly ground achiote seeds or Bijol seasoning
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
3½ cups Valencia or similar short-grain rice, rinsed
Preheat the oven to 325ºF.
Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in an ovenproof, 6-quart heavy pot or Dutch oven until hot but not smoking. Add the green pepper to the oil. Working in batches, brown the chicken on both sides, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Set aside the browned chicken and repeat with remaining pieces. Remove the green pepper and discard.
To deglaze the pot, add the wine and bring to a simmer, scraping up the browned bits.
Return the browned chicken to the pot. Add the remaining ingredients except for the rice, and half the beer and part of the pimientos to add at the end. Bring to a simmer.
Stir in the rice and simmer over medium-high heat for 10 minutes. Remove the pot from direct heat, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and set in the preheated oven, and bake until the rice is tender but still moist, about 20 minutes.
Remove from the oven and immediately pour in the remaining beer. Garnish with the reserved pimientos.
From The Cuban Table by Ana Sofia Peláez. Copyright © 2014 by the author and photographs copyright © 2014 by Ellen Silverman and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.