As I got older I cherished all the childhood images that are firmly ingrained in my memory, such as my mother, who is now deaf but was profoundly hard of hearing when we were little, having one in our bedrooms “Wake up, sleepyhead” would roll before the curtains are thrown open and “You Are My Sunshine” is sung, a little off-key but still passionate.
I remember the smell of brewing coffee and the clatter of pans on Saturday mornings when Mom or Dad—sometimes both—made breakfast loudly to get us girls out of bed. And as the morning sun filtered through the frilly curtains into our kitchen, Mom stayed up late one night sewing them, watching the shadows the lace cast dance across the table, floor, and yellow walls.
We had a cabinet to the left of the oven that lived in 5 and 10 gallon plastic canisters. Mom kept each canister filled with rice, pinto beans, flour, and sugar — staples that would ensure she always had something on the table.
There was the vegetable garden my parents tended in the backyard, full of pumpkins in the winter and tomato vines, green beans, and corn stalks that were taller than we were in the summer. We also had a cane patch in the corner of the garden – we would sneak pieces of cane to chew on while we played outside.
There are many more memories including this dish I’m sharing today. It was introduced to us by a close family friend. Lee worked with my father and his wife Jan became one of my mother’s dearest friends. They had a son who was about the same age as two of my sisters and our families became very close. Our families have made countless memories at dinner parties, birthday parties, and picnics on the bay so dads could fish, moms came to visit, and we kids could burn off energy.
Spanish rice, as Jan called it, was her contribution to some of those functions. It quickly became one of my favorites. Neither of us knew their dish, which bore little resemblance to the Mexican red rice we grew up eating. A little searching told me the dish was popular in the ’70s, but I couldn’t find an origin. Whatever its humble beginnings, it’s a one-pan meal that can be quickly prepared from fairly standard pantry items.
It’s been more than 25 years since I ate Jan’s Spanish rice. I’ve worked on recreating it from memory over the years, tweaking it with input from Mom’s memory. Although I added poblanos and peas and adjusted the cooking method to suit my cooking style, I think I kept the spirit of their recipe.
What’s in Spanish Rice?
Spanish rice has three main ingredients: rice, ground beef, and stewed tomatoes. Long grain California rice, medium grain rice, and jasmine rice all work with good results. I prefer organic grass-fed extra lean ground beef, but you can use any lean ground beef your budget allows. Canned braised tomatoes (Mexican style if you can find them) or diced fire roasted tomatoes work well here.
Along with these three main ingredients, my version includes a few standard items that I keep in my pantry. I’ve included suggestions for substitutions for some of the ingredients with more common ones. Hope I got you covered:
- White Onion (most commonly used in Mexican cuisine, but use whatever variety you have on hand)
- Poblano pepper (substitute diced canned green chillies or double the paprika)
- Green paprika
- Mexican oregano (plain oregano is fine)
- California chili powder (or your favorite chili powder or hot sauce)
- Knorr Beef Bouillon (or your choice of beef soup base; I prefer these granules because they are my main source of salt in this recipe)
- Worcester sauce
- Frozen peas
How to cook Spanish rice
I start by sautéing my flavorful veggies until tender, followed by the ground beef, being careful not to shred it too much – I prefer the meat to stay in different sizes for better texture. The beef simmers over medium heat until it has released its juices, then the heat is turned up to medium to allow the liquid to evaporate and the meat to shed its fat, which if you’re using extra lean shouldn’t be much at all.
From here, my version of this recipe differs from most versions found online: I take the meat out of the pan and cook the rice like I would make Mexican red rice.
A little oil is added to the pan and once it simmers, the rice goes in, stirring to ensure each grain has a thin layer of oil. The rice is further roasted until it turns from translucent to opaque to a golden brown color. Taking the time to toast the rice in oil does two things: it gives the rice a nutty flavor and coats each grain in a little oil, creating fluffy rice grains that are less likely to clump together.
Next, the spices join the party, blooming until fragrant in just 30 seconds while constantly stirring.
Before the spices can burn, the meat comes back with the tomatoes and their juice. Water is poured over everything before the garlic and coriander sprigs are added.
After 25 minutes of cooking and 10 minutes of steaming, the cilantro and garlic are fished out and discarded (or smack the garlic onto a heated corn tortilla with a spoonful or two of rice and roll up into a little taco — you know, like a cooking bonus for working on the hot stove). The rice is then fluffed up with a fork. Because I hate overcooked peas, they are folded in at the very end, just before serving, to keep their light green colour.
How to serve Spanish rice
- Serve as a main course with a simple side salad of crisp iceberg lettuce, juicy grape tomatoes, crunchy sliced cucumber and tangy strips of radish, all in a creamy cilantro-lime dressing.
- Serve as an accompaniment to grilled or roasted meat.
- Fill a burrito-sized flour tortilla with this, along with pickled red onions for contrast.
- Use as taco filling (especially for crispy, hard-shelled tacos).
- Place in a casserole dish and sprinkle with shredded Monterey Jack cheese. Bake until cheese is bubbling and just golden.
This recipe is easy to adapt to your family. The poblanos add tons of flavor without the heat, so they’re still kid-friendly. If your kids don’t like peas, leave them out. Or, if your family prefers carrots, swap out small diced carrots to add with the water to give the carrots time to cook and soften while the rice cooks. Substitute ground turkey or chicken instead of beef if you prefer. Want to take this dish even further? Add more rice. Just make sure the water to rice ratio is always 2:1 and taste the broth a few minutes after adding the bouillon to adjust the seasoning if needed to balance the added volume.
Spanish rice with minced meat and peas
Makes 6 servings as a main course and 10 as a side
Neutral cooking oil such as safflower or avocado oil
½ cup ¼-inch diced white onion (or yellow)
½ cup ¼-inch poblano, diced, seeds and veins removed first (or canned diced green chiles, such as Ortega brand, or double the green peppers)
½ cup ¼-inch diced green peppers, seeds and veins removed first
1 pound 90% to 93% lean ground beef (or regular lean ground beef)
pinch of sea salt
1 cup long grain rice
½ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
½ teaspoon California chili powder (or regular chili powder)
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon whole Mexican oregano, crushed between palms while adding to pan
1 (14½ ounce) can diced fire roasted tomatoes
2 cups of water
2 tablespoons Knorr Granulated Beef Bouillon or your favorite bouillon base
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 cloves of garlic, crushed, skin removed
8 to 10 sprigs of cilantro
1 cup frozen peas, rinsed under cold water and thawed at room temperature
Pour 1 tablespoon cooking oil into a heated 12-inch skillet set over medium-low heat. Once the oil is shimmering, add onions. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Toss the poblanos and peppers in it. Saute vegetables for 3 minutes, or until tender, stirring occasionally. Add the beef, breaking it up with a spatula, leaving some pieces larger than others for extra texture. Season the meat with a pinch of salt. Continue cooking the meat over medium-high heat until all the juices are released, stirring occasionally. Once the liquid is released, turn the heat to medium and cook until the liquid has evaporated and the meat is beginning to brown. put meat in a bowl; put aside.
Add 2 tablespoons of oil to the same pan. When the oil is shimmering, add rice and toast until golden. Stir frequently so the rice doesn’t burn. Add the pepper, chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, and Mexican oregano and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and return the meat to the pan to mix well. Add the water, stock and Worcestershire sauce and stir until incorporated. Let the rice simmer for 5 minutes, taste the broth and season. Add the garlic and coriander sprigs, cover, reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat – do not lift the lid – and leave for 15 minutes to finish the steaming process.
To serve, fish out and discard the cilantro and garlic. Add the thawed peas and fluff the rice with a fork to incorporate the peas; Leave for 5 minutes. Serve as you like.
Recipe is copyright of Anita L. Arambula and is reprinted with permission from Confessions of a Foodie.
Arambula is the art director and designer of the food department. She blogs at confessionsofafoodie.me, where the original version of this article was published. Follow her on Instagram: @afotogirl. She can be reached at email@example.com.