Susana Contreras is short and thin with dark eyes and long, straight, dark hair. Her husband's job transfer from LL Bean's Costa Rican office to company headquarters inspired the whole family to move for a time to Freeport. When I asked her if she would teach me her favorite dish from Costa Rica, she replied, "I would love to," wincing, "But I'm not a good cooker."
Susana emailed her friends from home. "Which dish should I teach?" One of her friends emailed her back: "You're going to teach cooking?" Another: "Good luck." And a third: "You're going to need more than luck." In Costa Rica, Susana's 12-hour days as an industrial engineer led her to hire a beloved family helper, Mari, to do the cooking. Now, with Susana's visa preventing her from working, she is relishing in her time at home, which she describes as a gift. She is spending more time with her kids and — little do her friends from home know — becoming a better cook.
"We're going to cook some arroz con pollo," she says, "which is rice with chicken, very traditional Costa Rican food. When you have parties with a lot of people, that's the main thing." Growing up, no one ever taught her to cook this dish. Susana's mother left her family when she was six. It's a long story, but the short of it is: her mother got married and had kids too young. She eventually had to leave to find herself, and true love, in America. At home, Susana's father cooked simple foods for the family like fried chicken, beans, and a lot of rice with vegetables in the rice cooker, a trick his daughter uses in making arroz con pollo today.
She sautées finely diced red bell pepper, celery, and onion right in the bottom of the rice-cooker pot in a little oil and butter. When the vegetables are soft, she adds parboiled rice, and stirs so all the grains are coated in flavored oil. "So here's the thing with the amount of water," she explains. "I have heard you should use double, and all kinds of combinations. But what my father told me, what I needed is this part of my thumb." She sticks her thumb vertically about three-quarters of an inch deep into the water covering the rice. The watermark reaches her fist knuckle.
As the rice cooks, Susana's fingers pull the meat of three boiled chicken breasts into thin strips. Then in a large pot on the stove she sautées more finely diced red pepper, celery, and onion in oil. To this she adds achiote, a ground red seed that turns the contents of the pot a tantalizing orange-red. Next, she adds a condiment called Salsa Lizano, which tastes like a cross between barbecue sauce and Spicy V8. Then she mixes all together in the large pot: the pulled chicken, the cooked rice, and two cans of corn, peas, and carrots. "Don't stir too much or it will turn like dough," she warns. The flecks of color from the different vegetables make the dish look perfect for a party. Arroz con pollo is served with fried yellow plantains, potato chips, black bean dip, and fresh green salad.