Commentary, Line Cook

Line Cook // Gabrielle Calvocoressi + Cha Cha’s Dominican Chicken

by Keetje Kuipers | Senior Editor

Sometimes you need an epic. The Odyssey, the Iliad. Or maybe just a flashback binge session of Battlestar Galactica. When I need an epic podcast, I turn to Commonplace. And when I need an epic meal, I turn to Cha Cha.

Cha Cha is the mother of an old, dear friend of mine, and her nickname, by which everyone calls her, is apt. When her daughter and I were roommates in New York, Cha Cha brought energy and enthusiasm to everything I saw her do. This was when she’d fly in from Texas to spend a few days in our cramped walk-up apartment in Chelsea, cooking up Dominican feasts and dancing to salsa music the whole time.

Cha Cha’s visits were certainly epic, but our whole lives seemed epic at that point. We were, after all, in our early twenties and living in Manhattan. My friend had a real job (I was a temp/waitress, of course), and so she paid the bulk of the rent, which meant that she lived in the real bedroom with a view from her fire escape of a rich person’s patio while I lived in the glorified closet that had a door that only opened halfway before hitting the futon I slept on. We listened to an epic amount of pop country (my friend grew up in Texas, remember) and even decorating our apartment was a grand undertaking: Wanting a comprehensive theme to tie our little abode together, we decided on something Architectural Digest might call Key West Meets Moroccan Pavilion. For her bedroom, she chose a gold and terracotta mottled wall with mosquito netting draped over the bed. I went for bubblegum pink and white pinstripe walls with sheer green, palm-esque curtains (care of my mother who had hung them in the bathroom all during my childhood). We bought ailing tropical plants at the corner grocery store (fifteen years later and half as many cross-country moves, I still have two of them, alive and sickly looking as ever) and wobbly faux-Tiffany lamps. Finally, we painted a thick yellow stripe across the wall of the tiny kitchen and hung plastic Dollar Store tiles featuring peppers and lemons. We also hung a pot rack from the ceiling, and I distinctly remember filling in the holes it left with white toothpaste right before we moved out.

Of course, that apartment doesn’t exist anymore. Not the dark airshaft my room looked out onto (I lived in three different apartments during my time in New York, and every single one of them looked out onto a 3×5 airshaft), not even the front step where my roommate, often returning late from a night of drinking or dancing, used to heft whatever furniture she’d found on the curb—perfectly good furniture! left out for the trash!—onto her shoulders before carrying it up our three flights of stairs. How I loved waking up to the wonder and surprise of those unexpected additions to our apartment dĂ©cor. Now, if you look up 250 W. 15th Street on Google Maps’ street view, you can see that old, brown building where we lived. But if you Google the address, you’ll find the shiny metal and glass co-op that it’s been turned into. Even the closet would be too expensive for me now.

But let’s dwell, instead, in that scraped together past for just a moment longer, because it contains some of the best food I’ve ever eaten in my life. Cha Cha had taught her daughter how to make all of her signature dishes, and so even when she wasn’t in town for a visit, I might come home to find beans or bacalao simmering on the stove and 105.9’s Radio Latino Mix blaring from the boombox in our kitchen. I was lucky enough to be taught some of these recipes myself, and they remain my absolute comfort food, especially Cha Cha’s Dominican Chicken. But comfort food doesn’t always come together quickly, and so when you’re craving Cha Cha’s cooking, you better also have non-stop salsa music or an epic podcast at the ready.

Lately, I’ve been on a tear of short and sweet episodes from the New York Time’s Modern Love column, read aloud by such famous voices as Rosie Perez and Jake Gyllenhaal. But you can’t cook an epic feast while listening to that snack-sized podcast. So when I recently set out to make some of Cha Cha’s cherished dishes, I was delighted to find that back in December poet and host Rachel Zucker had logged a two and a half hour marathon session with poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi for her Commonplace podcast. Talk about epic! Calvocoressi has been on my list of top five contemporary poets for more than ten years now, and her most recent book, Rocket Fantastic, is, well, damn fantastic. As Brian Spears over at The Rumpus notes, it’s a book that “asks the reader to live in a world where gender and language are both fluid and linked together in a dance which swings, sways, and surprises at every turn.” Publisher’s Weekly says, “These poems balance wildness and control in a fearless treatment of eros, identity, trauma, and all that resists easy categorization.” And Sam Ross over at the Kenyon Review describes Calvocoressi’s use of a segno to stand in for her character of The Bandleader—“a central figure whose confluence of genders is represented with a symbolic pronoun… pronounced with an audible intake of breath”—and the way that this genderless pronoun and Calvocoressi’s subsequent use of the homonym whose “suggests… a full but shifting interconnection that desires, invents, plays, and studs itself with joy. A queerness, in other words.” In other words, indeed: the book is nearly indescribable in its beauty and daring, as is the conversation between Zucker and Calvocoressi. The description of their chat on the Commonplace website notes that they cover topics ranging from butch lesbianism (one of my favorite moments in the episode) to ambition and jealousy (brilliantly and brutally honest). You might just wonder if it’s the onions or the podcast that are bringing tears to your eyes.

And speaking of onions, below you’ll find my version of Cha Cha’s Moro de Guandules (rice with pigeon peas) and her Dominican Chicken (I’ve taken some liberties with the original recipe—forgive me, Cha Cha!—by adding a creamy hit of coconut milk). The meal is best rounded out with tostones (fried plantains) and a big salad courtesy of the Food Network’s Daisy Martinez (her book Daisy Cooks! is a solid entrance point for learning to make some essential Latin staples).

One last note: If you’ve already listened to the Calvocoressi episode and are looking for another podcast to get you through the preparation of this feast, Zucker recorded a more recent two-hour episode called “Inside Commonplace.” I haven’t listened in on that one yet, but it promises conversations between Zucker, her family, and her podcast mentee Yanyi that span “teaching, gender, listening, marriage, mental health, privilege, and much more.” I’ll definitely be saving that one for the next time I cook up one of Cha Cha’s dishes.

Cha Cha’s Dominican Chicken

Cut a whole chicken into sections and brown it in a deep pot or Dutch oven in 2 tablespoons of very hot olive oil. You can also use a mixture of pre-cut skin-on, bone-in thighs or breasts here. Note: In this step, you’re browning the chicken, not cooking it all the way through, so the oil should be good and hot and it shouldn’t take long. Once browned, remove the chicken pieces from the pot and set them aside. Turn the heat down to low and add one small chopped onion to the pot along with 4 diced cloves of garlic. SautĂ© until softened. Add ½ teaspoon oregano, salt and pepper to taste, and 1 teaspoon tomato paste.  Mix, cover and cook on low heat for about 5 minutes. Add ½ of a chopped green pepper, a handful of chopped cilantro, 2 small diced tomatoes, 1 tablespoon of capers, hot sauce to taste (Cha Cha recommends Cholula’s), lemon juice to taste, and a generous half cup of sliced green olives. After giving this mixture (a kind of sofrito, and the base for many Latin dishes) a few good stirs, add the chicken back to the pan, nestling the pieces in among the sauce. Cook for half an hour to 45 minutes on low heat until the meat falls off the bone.

Cha Cha’s Moro de Guandules

Sauté the following in olive oil over medium heat: one small chopped onion, 3 large cloves of smashed garlic, ½ of a chopped green pepper (nicely left over from the chicken recipe!), 4 stems of chopped cilantro, a pinch of oregano, 1 tablespoon tomato paste, a dash of Cholula’s, and however many capers and sliced green olives as you’d like (here we go with that sofrito again). Cook the mixture for a few minutes and then add a good splash of white vinegar. Stir in 1 can of guandules (these are pigeon peas, and the Goya brand can be found at most grocery stores in the “International” aisle), 1 can of low-fat coconut milk, and 2 cups of chicken stock. Bring to a boil, check salt, and add 2 ½  cups of white rice. Cook for 20 minutes or until you can’t stand the delicious smell any longer and just have to stuff your face full of it.

Can’t get enough Gabrielle Calvocoressi? Read this interview at LARB while you’re eating.