Arroz con Concolón
The first thing the sous chefs asked me to cook at Spago during my externship (see my About page for more on that experience) was rice. Luckily, this was the first thing my mom taught me cook, as well. I made a huge pot of soft, fluffy rice as part of family meal for the whole crew. I overheard them commenting that it was pretty good, but a little overcooked. I had left to to sit a bit too long before fluffing it up, but I passed the test. When I cooked this style of rice for my lady, she politely ate it, but I could tell it wasn’t what she was used to. Spending time down in Panama with her parents, I learned that unless the rice has concolón or concho, you are not really eating rice. When I started at them, not finding the translation, they told me, “crunchy.” Panamanian’s like their rice cooked dry, with a crust that forms on the bottom of the pan, browning (but not burning) the layer that is touching the pot. Concho most directly translates as “dregs” or “lees”, but also describes this layer of light, golden-brown rice on the bottom of the pot. I also learned that the type of pot (paila) that you use is important. It should be not much bigger than the amount of rice you are going to cook, and made from cast aluminum (these are called calderos in much of Latin America), which helps build the “crunch” because it is heavy and a slow conductor of heat. I picked mine up at a local supermarket.
Concolón’s etymology is much more interesting that concho’s. The story goes that on the Colombus’ journeys to and from the New World, he, as all captains are supposed to, only ate after his whole crew got there share. Only a select few would be invited to dine with Columbus, whose rice was from the bottom of the pot, and therefore had the entire layer of crunch. Columbus is translated as “Colón” in Spanish, so those who ate crunchy rice ate con Colón, which was turned into its own word over the years in Panama. The key to getting the rice dry and crunchy on the bottom is to boil most of the water out of the pot, and then slowly steam off the rest, while building a browned layer of rice on the bottom. This recipes uses regular long grain rice.
Measure out your water and rice in a 2:1 ratio. In Panama, they usually just make sure that the water covers the rice in the paila by one finger, laid parallel to the bottom of the pot. Put water and rice in a pot with a fair amount of vegetable oil (this will help with the concolón) and a little salt.
Boil until the water is pretty much evaporate. Give it a little stir to make sure there is not a large pool of water in the bottom of the pan.
Cover and set the heat to low.
Check it after about 20 minutes, and give a stir, being sure to not disturb the rice on the bottom of the pan. Check every five minutes, and cook until the concolón has formed. You should check more often as you get closer, to make sure you don’t burn the rice on the bottom. This might take awhile. You can certainly eat it once the rice is dry, but to get the real deal, you need to wait patiently while the rice slowly toasts to a light, golden brown.