Fearless in the kitchen, my father-in-law Tomás knows a thing or two about good food; however, he – and many other Argentines – favors a freewheeling approach to cooking. Like garlic to a vampire, anything that can be even remotely construed as a recipe repels Tomás. So, I knew that if I wanted the secret behind his flavorful version of pollo al disco, the only way to extract the details was to be his shadow as he prepared the dish for our Sunday family lunch.
What Does “Al Disco” Mean?
Food prepared “al disco” or “al disco de arado” doesn’t refer so much to a particular recipe but rather a cooking method using a huge iron disc heated outdoors over a wood fire. Recipes with chicken tend to be the most popular choice for the disco, although other meats or fish occasionally make an appearance. Since discos provide a large surface area for cooking while remaining eminently portable, they are particularly useful for preparing meals when camping or spending the day outside with a group of friends.
The Origin of the Disco
Given Argentina’s long agricultural tradition, there’s no shortage of farming equipment in these parts. Farmers typically use a piece of machinery known as a disc plough to till the earth and prepare the land for planting. Never short on ingenuity, those same farmers discovered that once the plough’s iron discs (discos de arado) had outlived their usefulness as a farming tool, they could be transformed into a cooking implement. Most plough discs that have been modified into cooking discs come with two handles, foldable or removable legs, and, sometimes, a lid.
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The following recipe for pollo al disco offers a starting point; feel free to omit or add ingredients as you see fit or according to what you’ve got in the pantry. Trust your instincts and your taste buds – that’s what most Argentine cooks do!
Note: If you don’t own a disco, you can still prepare this dish in a large, deep skillet or dutch oven on the stovetop.
Pollo al Disco
Serves 5-6 people
Cooking time: 40-45 minutes
1 (5 lb.) whole chicken, cut up or equivalent in bone-in, skin-on chicken parts
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 lbs. potatoes, peeled and sliced in thick rounds
4 stalks scallion, chopped
3 medium red bell peppers, julienned
2 medium onions, julienned
1-2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar [substitute with up to 1 c. wine or beer, if desired – dish will be saucier]
2 vegetable bouillon cubes
3 tsp. capers
2 cup sliced mushrooms
freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ tsp. ají molido [substitute crushed red pepper]
1 cup cream
½ cup fresh parsley, roughly chopped
Prepare the fire and preheat the disc over a moderately high flame. Heat the vegetable oil in the disc. Wash and pat the chicken parts dry. Add the chicken to the disc, skin side down – the pieces should not touch. Cook the chicken, turning as necessary, until brown on all sides.
Meanwhile, bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the potatoes and boil until just cooked through. Reserve a cup of the cooking water from the potatoes. Drain the potatoes and set aside.
Reduce the flame under the disc. Move the chicken to the outer edge of the disc, creating a space in the center for the vegetables. Add the scallions, bell peppers and onions followed by the vinegar and bouillon cubes. Stirring occasionally, cook until the vegetables soften and the onion turns translucent.
Add the mushrooms and capers. Stir to distribute all of the vegetables among the chicken. After about 5 minutes, add the black pepper, ají molido and cream.
Add the boiled potatoes. Feel free to add some of the reserved cooking liquid from the potatoes if the dish looks dry. Sprinkle the chicken and vegetables with parsley. Stir gently and allow the potatoes to absorb the flavors, approximately 5 to 10 minutes.
Serve with crusty bread and a green salad.