Back when was living in Miami, I made it my job to find the best places to eat on a budget. When I first moved and I didn't know anyone, I would take advantage of every Friday evening to go drive around a new area in search of restaurants to put on my list to try. I loved food that was comforting, hearty, and had that homemade flavor that reminded me of my own home here in Virginia.
In my search, I found that my absolute favorite Latin cuisine was Nicaraguan. There was just something about the heartiness of its root vegetables and soups, homemade juices, wonderfully marinated meats with rice and beans, and amazing homemade tropical juices that really made me feel at home. It was like trying new food at a friend's house. One of my favorite places to have Nicaraguan food was at one of the local fritangas, or Nicaraguan homestyle cafeterias. At any given time, fritangas are serving up 5 different dishes, plus the standard carne asada and grilled chicken with rice and beans. They also offer at least five, and as many as 10, freshly made tropical style juices. My favorite fritanga in Miami is Tortilleria Carne Asada in Sweetwater, known locally as the unofficial Little Managua.
*photo from Cesar L. on Yelp.com
*photo from Cesar L. on Yelp.com
One night after tons of studying way fewer breaks than I should've had, I headed 20 minutes out to Carne Asada, where I discovered arroz aguado. Arroz aguado translates literally to "watery rice" or "mushy rice." It is a delicious soup with chicken, rice, chayote squash, potato, tomato and lots and lots of mint, along with onion, garlic, and green pepper. I know that mint sounds a bit odd in savory food, but it completely transforms when mixed with the Nicaraguan trio, green pepper, onion, and garlic. Even if you aren't a big fan of mint, which I thought I wasn't, you will love this!
If you're wondering what arroz aguado tastes like, it has a mild tang from the citrus fruits, it has the comforting taste of a chicken soup with a tinge of tomato, and the rice creates almost a slight creaminess, then top it all off with a mild, soothing herb-y flavor that doesn't quite taste like any one particular herb. When I was in Miami, I was also battling some serious insomnia, and I can't tell you what it was, but a good bowl of arroz aguado always had me sleeping like a baby. I don't know any food like it when it comes to kicking some real insomnia butt!
1 whole bone-in chicken, in pieces (as in legs, drumsticks, etc), or equivalent in legs, leave some or all skin
2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped into chunks
1 large carrot, sliced into diagonal round
2 chayote squash (in Latin markets), cubed
1 potato, cubed
1 bunch of mint (not a stem, yes, the whole bunch, stems and all)
1onion, roughly chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, roughly chopped
4 cloves of garlic, minced
bitter orange juice to taste, about 2 or 3 TB
juice of 1 lime
annatto powder, diluted in water, about 1 TB of liquid
2 cups of long grain rice, washed and rinsed
6-1/2 cups of water
salt to taste
1. In a large pot, place the water. In the cool water, immediately add in the chicken, bell pepper, onions, and garlic. This allows the meat to release more flavor.
2. Turn heat to medium high, cover, and bring to a boil.
3. In a separate dry pan over medium low heat, toast rinsed and drained rice until fragrant and rice has taken on a slightly different hue. It will not brown. Set aside.
4. Once the meat is cooked, add in the rice, potato, carrots, mint, the lime juice and bitter orange juice. and dissolved annatto. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.
5. Adjust salt and bitter orange as needed. Bring to a boil, add in chayote squash and cook for another 10 minutes, or until the rice plumps and the potato is cooked.
6. Traditionally, this dish is served with fresh, thick Central American style tortillas, but it is great just as it is.
7. Enjoy! Bye bye insomnia!