As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to cherish all the childhood images firmly rooted in my memory, like how my mother, who is now deaf but was profoundly hard of hearing when we were young, would waltz into our bedrooms with a “Wake up, sleepyhead” before snapping open the curtains and singing “You Are My Sunshine” slightly off-key but passion nonetheless.
I remember the smell of coffee brewing and pans banging on Saturday mornings as Mom or Dad — sometimes both — made breakfast loudly to coax us girls out of bed. And how the morning sun would filter into our kitchen through the frilly lace curtains that Mom had stayed up late one evening sewing, watching as the shadows the lace created danced across the table, floor and yellow walls.
We had a cabinet to the left of the stove where 5- and 10-gallon plastic canisters lived. Mom kept each canister filled with rice, pinto beans, flour and sugar — staples that would ensure she’d always have something to put on the table.
There was the vegetable garden my parents tended in the backyard, filled with squash in winter and tomato vines, green beans and corn stalks taller than us in the summer. We also had a sugar-cane patch tucked into the garden corner — we’d sneak pieces of cane to chew on while playing 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 dad, and his wife, Jan, became one of my mother’s dearest friends. They had a son around the same age as two of my sisters, and our families became quite close. Our families forged countless memories over dinner invitations, birthday parties and picnics at the bay so the dads could fish, the moms could visit, and we kids could burn off energy.
Spanish rice, as Jan called it, was her contribution to some of these functions. It quickly became one of my favorites. None of us were familiar with her dish, which bore little resemblance to the Mexican red rice we grew up eating. A little digging told me that 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’s quick to make from fairly standard pantry items.

It’s been more than 25 years since I’ve eaten Jan’s Spanish rice. I have worked over the years to re-create it from memory, tweaking it with input from Mom’s memory. Even though I’ve added poblanos and peas and adapted the cooking method to my cooking style, I think I’ve maintained the spirit of her recipe.
Spanish rice has three main ingredients: rice, ground beef and stewed tomatoes. California long grain rice, medium grain and jasmine rice all work, with good results. I prefer extra lean organic grass-finished ground sirloin, but you can use any lean ground beef your budget allows. Canned stewed tomatoes (Mexican-style if you can find them) or diced fire-roasted tomatoes both work well here.
Besides these three main ingredients, my version includes some standard items I keep in my pantry. I’ve included substitution suggestions for a few of the ingredients with more common ones. Hopefully, I’ve got you covered:

I start by sauteing my aromatic vegetables until softened, followed by the ground beef, being careful not to break it up too much — for better texture, I prefer that the meat remain in varying sizes. The beef simmers over medium-low heat until it’s released its juices, then the heat is cranked up to medium-high so that the liquid evaporates and the meat renders its fat, which, if you’re using extra lean, shouldn’t be much at all.
From here, my version of this recipe departs from most versions found on the Internet: I remove the meat from the pan and cook the rice as if I were making Mexican red rice.
A little oil goes into the pan, and once shimmering, in goes the rice, stirring to ensure that every grain has a thin coat of oil. The rice continues to toast until it goes 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 bit of oil, which helps create fluffy rice grains less likely to clump.

Next, the spices join the party, blooming until fragrant, a mere 30 seconds, while stirring continuously.
Before the spices can burn, the meat gets returned along with the tomatoes and their juice. Everything gets topped with water before adding the garlic and cilantro sprigs.
After 25 minutes of cooking and 10 minutes of steaming, the cilantro and garlic get fished out and discarded (or smash the garlic onto a warmed corn tortilla with a spoonful or two of rice and roll it up into a little taco — you know, as a cook’s bonus for working over the hot stove). The rice then gets fluffed with a fork. Because I hate overcooked peas, they get folded in at the very end, just before serving, preserving their bright green color.

This recipe is easy to adapt to your family. The poblanos add tons of flavor with no heat, so they’re still kid-friendly. If your kids don’t like peas, leave them out. Or, if your family prefers carrots, swap in small diced carrots that get added when the water does, so the carrots have time to cook and soften as the rice cooks. Use ground turkey or chicken instead of beef, if you prefer. Want to stretch this dish even farther? Add more rice. Just make sure that 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 compensate for the added volume.

Makes 6 servings as a main 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 diced poblano, seeds and veins removed first (or canned diced green chiles, such as Ortega brand, or double the green bell pepper)
½ cup ¼-inch diced green bell pepper, seeds and veins removed first
1 pound 90 percent to 93 percent lean ground sirloin (or regular lean ground beef)
Pinch sea salt
1 cup long-grain rice
½ teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
½ teaspoon California chile powder (or regular chile powder)
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon whole Mexican oregano, crushed between palms while adding to the skillet
1 (14½-ounce) can diced fire-roasted tomatoes
2 cups water
2 tablespoons Knorr granulated beef bouillon, or your favorite bouillon base
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 fat cloves garlic, smashed, skins removed
8 to 10 sprigs of cilantro
1 cup frozen peas, rinsed under cold water and left to thaw at room temperature

Pour 1 tablespoon of 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 in the poblanos and bell peppers. Saute vegetables for 3 minutes, or until softened, stirring occasionally. Add the beef, breaking up with a spatula, leaving a few pieces bigger than others for added texture. Season the meat with a pinch of salt. Continue to cook meat over medium-low heat until all the juices are released, stirring occasionally. Once the liquid is released, turn heat up to medium and cook until the liquid evaporates and the meat begins to brown. Remove meat to a bowl; set aside.
Add 2 tablespoons of oil to the same skillet. When the oil is shimmering, add rice, toasting it until it becomes golden. Stir often to keep the rice from burning. Drop in the pepper, chile powder, cinnamon, cumin and Mexican oregano, stirring until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and return the meat to the pan, tossing to combine well. Add the water, bouillon and Worcestershire sauce, stirring until incorporated. Simmer the rice for 5 minutes, taste the broth and adjust the seasoning. Add the garlic and cilantro sprigs, cover, lower the heat to medium-low and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from heat — do not lift lid — and let rest for 15 minutes to finish steaming.
When ready to serve, fish out and discard the cilantro and garlic. Add the thawed peas, fluffing the rice with a fork to incorporate the peas; let stand for 5 minutes. Serve as desired.

Recipe is copyrighted by Anita L. Arambula and is reprinted by permission from “Confessions of a Foodie.”
Arambula is the food section art director and designer. She blogs at confessionsofafoodie.me, where the original version of this article was published. Follow her on Instagram: @afotogirl. She can be reached at anita.arambula@sduniontribune.com.
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