Here’s the thing about South Carolina: if you drive far enough inland from the ocean, you will run out of fingers on which to count highway billboards threatening you with ultimatums like “Accept Jesus Or Burn In Hell.” Not a whole lot to recommend the place once you get out of earshot of the surf.
Here is something to redeem it, though: they call it “perlo,” but what it is, in basic terms, is chicken and rice. It’s a glorious Southern-ified amalgam of paella and fried rice and arroz con pollo, and I am telling you that when the forces of global climate change conspire to spawn and direct toward South Carolina the Category 93 mega-hurricane that will scour this patch of muggy swampland from the U.S. map, perlo will be the cultural artifact most worth rescuing. Fluffy rice cooked in rich, dark braising liquid, studded with tender shreds of stewed chicken and salty chunks of smoked sausage, elevated even beyond the promise of that combination by a goddamn obscene amount of liquid fat. Hell yes, we are making some.
You will need all of the following: chicken parts, rice, sausage, stock, and aromatics.
Let’s talk chicken. Traditionally, perlo is a thing to do with a whole chicken, cut up into parts, but here’s the thing about a whole chicken: the thighs are vastly superior to the other parts of the chicken, and since we now have the option of buying just one chicken part or another, we are going to go with chicken thighs. Go for the skinless, boneless thighs—it’ll make your life a little easier, in the end. Get, say, a couple pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs. Unpack those beasts, pat ‘em dry, and sprinkle a little salt on there.
Now, in a deep, heavy pot, get a little fat going over medium heat. Clarified butter would be great, if you’ve got some, but, as with most chicken recipes, schmaltz will be best. Working in batches, put a good brown on both sides of your chicken thighs in this hot fat, and then remove them to a bowl. We’re not necessarily fully cooking the chicken, here—although it will not be a disaster if you do, in fact, fully cook it—but we do want the thighs mostly cooked and nicely browned.
So! Here you are. You’ve got a big bowl of half-cooked chicken thighs and a hot pot with a layer of hot oil and rendered chicken fat and browning bits of chicken detritus. Into this pot of fat you will now add your sausage. Let’s talk about that.
Turns out there’s no general consensus on what the appropriate perlo sausage really is—you will find recipes and preparations that use Polish or Italian sausage, for example—but here I am going to recommend andouille. Andouille, you see, is coarse, fatty, and, most importantly, smoked. This smokiness will be hugely welcome in your perlo, even while it nudges your perlo west—further inland! noooooooo!—from the marshes of South Carolina to the bayous of Creole country.
You’ll want, say, a pound of sausage. If you go with a loose sausage, fine, crumble it on in there. If you take my advice and go with andouille, cut it into roughly bite-sized chunks. You don’t want whole huge mouthfuls of sausage, here. This is a chicken and rice recipe, dammit—the sausage is a backup dancer in this arrangement. Move the sausage around in the pan until it’s fully cooked, and then yank it out of there and into a bowl of its own.
Now. Hoo boy, you have got a damn soup of rendered fat in that pot. Oil or schmaltz plus more schmaltz plus sausage grease—now you are sensing the inherent Southern-ness of this recipe, the rich, defiant, artery-clogging excess of the damn thing. So much fat! Do we discard it? Do we pull some off? Will we moderate?
As if. Instead, we’re going to drop into all this simmering fat some tasty aromatics. Traditionally your aromatics will be limited to a coarsely chopped yellow onion, but, nah, that’s weak, uninspired. I mean, yeah, we’re going to throw in a chopped yellow onion—a big, disc-shaped sweet one, like a Vidalia—but also we’re going to add two smashed garlic cloves and—hey, why not—some thinly chopped leeks. Because? Leeks are great. As with all leek recipes, use the white and light green parts, wash thoroughly, and stash the deep green leftovers in your freezer for later use in stock.
Drop all that stuff in your oil and move it around with a wooden spoon. You can go two ways, here: you can keep the heat medium and cook this stuff until the onions start to turn translucent; or, you can bump up the heat and put a little brown on there. Either way, once the aromatics are where you want them, you’re next going to turn this mixture into a delicious braising liquid. For this, you will need stock. If you’ve made your own, great! If not, some no-sodium store-bought stuff will do the job. But, really, dammit, why haven’t you made your own. Dammit.
Lay your chicken thighs on top of your cooking aromatics and cover them with just enough stock so that they’re fully submerged. Toss in there, with the chicken, a sprig of rosemary and a bay leaf. Turn the heat to medium-low, and partially cover the pot. What we’re doing, now, is stewing the chicken, infusing the meat with all the deliciousness of the rendered fat and the aromatics and the stock. Leave it alone for, oh, 45 minutes. It’s softening in there! If you should happen to forget about it for, say, 90 minutes, that will be OK. Beyond a certain point, though, it will turn into cat food, so don’t wander too far. Here and there you will need to make sure the thighs are still submerged, and if you should happen to top off the braising liquid with a room-temperature beer in the service of this aim, shit, man, right on.
OK, so, a few minutes ago your nose and tongue rappelled down your face and neck and sprinted off in the direction of the kitchen. Follow them, damn you. In there, where they are gleefully bathing in the braising liquid, you will find some fully cooked and tantalizingly tender chicken thighs, quickly disintegrating into pulled, BBQ like threads. Get the chicken out of there! Use a slotted spoon and lift the chicken out of the liquid and back into the chicken bowl or the sausage bowl. A bowl. Some bowl.
Here’s where shit’s gonna get crazy. We’re going to use the braising liquid left in the pot to make rice, but in order to do this, we’re going to need to be fairly precise about amounts—as easy as it is to cook rice, it’s also frustratingly simple to fuck it up. So! Pour two cups of dry rice into the braising liquid and stir it around until the rice is flat. Is it covered by braising liquid? Yes? No? You want about an inch of liquid above the top of your rice—if you’ve got less than that, feel free to pad with more stock, or beer, or even water. If you’ve got more than that, use a ladle to pull some off. Put the excess into a saucepan and keep it close by—you might need it in a few minutes. That’s sort of the cool thing about rice making: via risotto we’ve learned you can always just stir some more damn liquid in there, but it’s hard to recover from having too much.
Armed with this knowledge, you may even choose to finish your perlo rice as you would a risotto, by starting in an oiled vessel and stirring in liquid one ladleful at a time, if you happen to be an insane person with mechanized elbows of steel. Either way, while your rice is cooking, go ahead and shred your cooked chicken. This doesn’t need to be very thorough—we’re not going for BBQ, here, just moderately shredded bit-sized chunks of delicious dark-meat chicken.
Once your rice is cooked—cooked, not al dente, but cooked—fold in the shredded chicken and the sausage, go ahead and pour whatever accumulated juices are in those two bowls of meat, grind some pepper over your perlo, and season to taste with salt.
Oh, right, you’ve now finished making perlo.
There’s no sense mincing words, here: this is, like, the richest, most dense, most filling thing you have ever eaten. It has a lot of the same soul-satisfying characteristics of, say, chicken fried rice—the illicit serotonin high of a dense mouthful of fat-soaked carbohydrates; the sly, self-contained scavenger hunt for bites of salty, chewy protein; the unmistakable, ostentatious umami-ness of the whole thing. It has the unique characteristic, though—and this is either a wonderful plus or a nightmarish, life-threatening minus—of being so calorically dense that even a sumo wrestler would break out in a flop sweat after the first bite. Whoa, that’s a little rich, you will think, as your pants violently split both seems and fleshy thighs come tumbling forth into the sunlight, still shiny and pale in their brand-newness.
And, lo, we have cooked damn near five pounds of the stuff! I am not kidding: by whatever strange alchemy is unique to food from the American South, if you eat five pounds of perlo, you will gain 28 pounds of body fat, grow a mullet, and wake up tomorrow with an absolute need to hear The Star-Spangled Banner at least once per hour on every radio station.
But! You will be unable to stop yourself from eating five pounds of perlo, because perlo, damn it to hell for eternity, is just unimaginably good to eat. It’s just so damn unreasonably delicious, and, in a strange way, it retains some unmistakable muggy, sunny, crape-myrtle-scented southernness that somehow makes it irresistible even in the sweltering heat of summer. So! The thing to do here is share it with friends. Cold beer, good friends, five pounds of perlo, and a television show where rednecks drive colorful cars at breakneck speeds in a big fucking oval. Tomorrow you can all do pilates or whatever. Today, and today only, the South shall rise again.
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