This dish came about, in part, out of sheer desperation and from a friend living ten thousand miles away who only had soup for dinner. I was hungry with nothing interesting to eat apart from plain ‘ol chicken breasts, and she had made a pot of soup. Being ten thousand miles apart meant that she was having dinner and I was merely prepping for a late lunch, yet despite the distance we seem to be in contact on an almost daily basis and our conversation topics always involved food.
Claire doesn’t really cook. In fact, she finds the act of cooking a chore rather than a joy (even though she attended culinary school for a year). However, she has a LOT of good food ideas and this one is just one of them. If we ever opened a shop together, she’d be the ideas and I’d be the cook … we’d be AMAZING! We like to bounce off ideas between us and in discussing our lack of food options today, she happened to mention ‘paella’. From paella, ideas just went to Spanish food and rice and suddenly I wanted some Spanish rice and chicken on my plate. A mental list of all the ingredients I had on-hand was quickly tallied and I set about creating this dish before inspiration faded.
Spanish rice is a savoury side-dish made by sautéeing garlic, onions, tomatoes, peppers and rice in oil, then everything gets simmered in a saffron broth. Despite its name, perhaps predictably, this dish is almost unheard of in all of Spain. It is popular in the southern parts of America tho, and people eat this with an assortment of other accompaniments like beans or steak.
Cheesey Baked Spanish Rice.
2 cloves garlic
1 medium red onion
2 ripe tomatoes, diced
½ yellow pepper, diced
200 mls chicken broth, hot
1 tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp coriander powder
5 strands of saffrom
1 tsp dried oregano
cup long-grain rice
1 – 2 chicken breast fillets
salt & pepper
I had initially set out to simply make plain ‘ol Spanish rice with a fillet of grilled chicken breast. But as usual, while that was cooking my mind started to drift and wander. Images of savoury rice dishes started to appear in my head and suddenly I was back in Singapore … eating a bowl of cheesey baked rice at Swensen’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlour down on Orchard Road. Oh man! All you people in Singapore know what I am talking about ~~ piping hot savoury rice served with chicken or fish or mushrooms, all topped with a cheesey bechamel sauce baked to perfection (followed by an ice cream sundae for dessert after).
I think I immediately experienced tunnel vision at that point ~ I don’t really know coz it’s all a big blur to me now ~ and all I could think of was replicating this dish. A private debate soon ensued, albeit, a very brief one … and out the window went the diet. I reasoned with myself that I could always just scrape the cheese layer off and I won’t ruin the waistline too much (ahhh … delusion!). So that is how this dish came to be.
To make this recipe at home, you will need to cook in four stages: First cook the rice, then grill the chicken, make the bechamel sauce, then finally bake them all together under the broiler. I know this seems tedious but each component cooks really quickly and the end result will be worth it. So let’s get a move on.
Heat the oil in a saucepan and sautée the onions, garlic, peppers and tomatoes. Then add in the coriander and cayenne pepper … keep things moving so you do not burn the spices. Now add in the rice and coat all the grains with the oil until they get semi-translucent. Place the saffron strands in the hot chicken broth, give it a stir then pour the broth over the rice in the pot. Stir in the oregano leaves. Add salt to taste. Once the liquid comes to the boil, cover the pot and lower the heat to the lowest possible setting and leave it there until the rice soaks up everything and is cooked thoroughly. Takes about 15 minutes.
Pat chicken breast fillets dry with paper towels, then butterfly them to even out the thickness of each piece. Season with salt, pepper, onion powder and garlic powder. If you like to further add some heat to your chicken, feel free to add chilli flakes, cumin, paprika or whatever spice takes your fancy. Heat oil and butter in a pan and pan-fry the fillets. Remove from the pan and set them aside while you prepare the bechamel sauce next.
I should have stopped here and had just the chicken breast and rice. Garnish the rice with lots of fresh coriander and squeeze lime juice over the chicken and serve as is, with a side salad or some beans. For the cheesey version, please continue reading.
Bechamel sauce (white cheese sauce).
Bechamel is a standard white sauce that is made by first making a roux using butter and flour, then thinning it out with milk. Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan then add equal amounts of flour to the melted butter. Using a whisk, mix this well and cook out the flour for about 2 minutes. You may get a soft dough ball, but do not panic … this is to be expected. Pour in half a cup of cold milk and whisk constantly to break up the lumps. Keep adding more milk until the desired consistency is reached. Try to aim for a Campbell’s soup type consistency first, because after adding the cheese the mixture will thicken further. Add salt and pepper to taste then turn off the heat and add the cheese. I like to use a nice cheddar or middle aged gouda. How much cheese to add is up to you, but I tend to keep it to half a cup … nice and lite … since I will be adding more grated cheese on the top to brown.
Place rice into a heat proof baking dish. Chop chicken breast fillets and arrange them on top of the rice. Then pour the cheese sauce over everything. Sprinkle more grated cheese on top for final baking. Healthy eaters and dieters please look away now!
The Final Bake.
The final bake will take approximately 10 – 15 minutes depending on the type of oven you have. Place the baking dish onto a tray lined with baking paper in case any bubbling cheese should spill over. Place it on the middle rack and whack the broiler on 200ºC. Then just sit back and wait for this tray of deliciousness to be ready … your house should be smelling amazing right about now.
After baking allow the rice to cool for at least 15 minutes before you dig in. Molten cheese sauce on your tongue is not a good idea.
And there you have it ~ cheesey baked Spanish rice with chicken. Who knew rice and cheese sauce could be such a glorious combo? If you prefer seafood instead then replace the chicken with a mix of scallops, prawns and white fish … seafood and cheese sauce goes so well together. YUM! For the vegetarians, you know that mushrooms sautéed in garlic is the way to go.
This dish is both rich and stodgy so a little feeds a lot of people … unless of course it is bitterly cold and dreary outside (Autumn comes for us!!) and you’ve had a bad day at the office and all you want to do is load up on carbs and feel better about the world, then knock yourself out. It is the kind of meal you’d want to eat in your jammies anyway … total comfort food here. Leftovers keep really well in the fridge or in the freezer.
P/S: Thank you Claire once again for great recipe ideas!! xxx
~ Enjoy! ~