(photo: Village Voice)
There used to be an incredible Dominican restaurant in New York on 14th Street just west of Seventh Ave, called Sucelt Coffee Shop. It was a family-run hole in the wall serving up some of the most delicious food in the city. It closed about five years ago.
Sucelt had an incredible cubano sandwich, great beef empanadas, orange juice freshly squeezed to order in a squeezing machine in front of you and insanely cheap, all kinds of stews and beans, luscious sweet fried maduros (plantains), and a deeply complex and spicy homemade agrio de naranja (bitter orange salsa) sitting in plastic dispensers on the counter.
But my favorite was the chicken stew with rice and black beans, pictured above. I’ve been trying to reverse-engineer it at home. The new and much lauded Latin, Caribbean and Central American cookbook, Gran Cocina Latina, unfortunately does not contain a recipe. Instead I’ve had to troll blogs and online recipes for pollo guisado, with mixed results.
This chicken stew recipe, from Dominican Flavor, contains some of the odd instructions you get from non-professional recipe writers, such as “bring the oil to a boil.” What I got from following the instructions more or less to a T was the following:
It looked good and tasted good, but the meat was too dry, and it certainly wasn’t the same as the Sucelt recipe. Not enough tomato, no potato. The beans here were Rancho Gordo’s new negro de arbol variety, prepared the simple RG way, and certainly had the right blackness and depth of flavor.
Next up was another non-professional recipe, this time from the Burden Clothing website. The photo certainly looked right, but once again, the recipe suffered from various confusing inconsistencies: potatoes are pictured but not listed in the ingredients; the ingredient list is not in the order called for in the instructions; and there is much vagueness on levels of heat, cooking times, etc. Sometimes vagueness can be a virtue, because it encourages you to experiment more, and in fact this version of the dish came much closer to the ideal.
There were also distinct similarities to the first recipe, such as caramelizing white sugar in the oil before you brown the chicken, which made me think I was getting closer to the real thing. At the same time, it called for adding water to the oil, which maybe is what the first recipe assumed you were doing when it told you to “boil the oil.” Adding water and cooking with the lid closed of course results in steaming the meat, and the result was – no surprise – less dry.
The chicken was moist and falling off the bone, there was the distinct green bell pepper aroma in the stew, and the potatoes were perfect. The only problem was that it could have braised/steamed a bit longer, needed a bit more salt, and perhaps a bit more depth of flavor. It could possibly use chicken stock instead of water, or even a dash of Worcestershire sauce (which is apparently genuinely used in Dominican cuisine). I’ll be trying that next time.
The beans this time were Rancho Gordo’s midnight black beans. The bean recipe this time was Cuban, from Three Guys In Miami. (Black beans are more Cuban; Dominicans normally use red beans, but Sucelt gave you a choice of either one.) I can recommend this recipe unreservedly, though I think I want to use a blacker, denser bean than RG’s midnights next time. I subbed red pepper for green pepper.