Best simple Mexican rice side dish Marcela Valladolid

Arroz rojo is a Mexican rice side dish you’ll want to add to your weeknight dinner rotation. (Photo: Marcela Valladolid)

Though she was born and raised in San Diego, Calif., chef Marcela Valladolid’s Mexican heritage was never far away — in fact, it was just across the border in Tijuana.

“Every Wednesday, I take my daughter to flamenco classes in Tijuana, and people are always surprised we drive to Mexico just for that,” says Valladolid, a former Food Network host and author of five cookbooks, including , a bilingual cookbook for families. “But Tijuana is just a few miles from San Diego, and it’s important to me that my daughter is as close to her Latin American heritage as I was growing up.”

Growing up, her mother had a medical condition that left her mostly bedridden and, according to Valladolid, her father wasn’t much of a chef. “My father never stepped foot in the kitchen,” she tells Yahoo Life. “He didn’t know how to make toast.”

Valladolid’s father hired one of the local restaurant cooks, named Pedro, to come and cook for the family. Originally from Merida, a city in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Pedro made incredible meals for the family, including Marcela’s favorite, cochinita pibil, a slow-cooked roasted pork dish.

It’s recipes like these that Valladolid included in her new cookbook, published by bilingual publisher Lil’ Libros. Her recipe for Spaghetti with Cauliflower Béchamel comes from the time when her kids would only eat white foods, but she still wanted to get vegetables into their diet.

The secret to getting kids to eat healthy foods — chill out

“I’m pretty chill with my kids about what they eat,” Valladolid says. “We have a huge garden in the back of our house, so we work a lot of fresh produce into our meals and the kids love eating what we grow.”

She cites her constant recipe-testing as a way her children are exposed to different foods, but admits a lot of nights it’s a quesadilla, with carrot sticks and an apple, that her kids want for dinner. “There’s carbs, dairy, vegetable and fruit,” she says. “I’m fine with that.”

While her book is geared toward families cooking together in the kitchen — especially multigenerational families — Valladolid keeps it real when it comes to cooking with her own children. “I’m super impatient, I admit,” she says. “I have to work really hard at it when they want to cook with me.”

Marcela Valladolid says she picks her battles when it comes to feeding her kids, often offering them a quesadilla, fruit and vegetables.  (Photo: Marcela Valladolid)

Marcela Valladolid says she picks her battles when it comes to feeding her kids, often offering them a quesadilla, fruit and vegetables. (Photo: Marcela Valladolid)

In terms of her philosophy on food, though, she advocates for getting kids and spouses in the kitchen for family time as much as possible. “[My husband] Philip and I both cook everything from scratch like the way we were brought up,” she says. “The kids are used to us stopping at the grocery store to pick up what’s for dinner. They’re very aware of ingredients and why they’re healthy and how they grow or are farmed. But they also know when they’re out in the wild, they’re allowed to eat whatever they want.”

Planning dinner for the family? Arroz rojo makes everyone happy

One of the signature dishes in Valladolid’s new book is for Arroz Rojo, a traditional Mexican dish that she says “exists in almost every household across Mexico.” Since Mexican cuisine varies widely throughout the country, that’s no small feat for a side dish.

“It’s a simple rice pilaf cooked in a tomato broth, sometimes with hints of chipotle,” she says. “It’s also become traditional to add bouillon cubes, but I prefer not to add those. Every home cook has their own version.”

While it’s a ubiquitous dish around the country, arroz rojo sometimes garners location-specific additions. In the Yucatan, Valladolid says, sometimes they add achiote — a paste made from annatto seeds that gives the dish a slightly sweeter, pepperier flavor. “It’s always a side dish,” she says. “But my sister and I used to eat it with banana slices as a snack, or even with a fried egg on top.”

Cocinando on Cook Street: A Collection of Mi Familia's Recipes is Marcela Valladolid's latest cookbook.  (Photo: Marcela Valladolid)

Cocinando on Cook Street: A Collection of Mi Familia’s Recipes is Marcela Valladolid’s latest cookbook. (Photo: Marcela Valladolid)

Valladolid says it can be an intimidating dish, especially for people with Mexican heritage who grew up eating their mother or grandmother’s version and never learning to make it themselves. “My version takes even the most inexperienced cook to a successful outcome,” she says. “That’s why it’s one of my most popular recipes ever.”

Every day of Valladolid’s life, she grew up with arroz rojo in the house. “I would open the refrigerator and find two things: arroz rojo and hibiscus agua fresca,” she says. “My entire upbringing in Tijuana is tied to this dish. It was made on a daily basis in our home.”

A meal her whole family loves that goes well with arroz rojo? Roast chicken. “Very easy, super healthy,” she says. “I butterfly a chicken, put it on a sheet pan with potatoes and whatever leftover vegetables I have in the fridge and a lot of butter.” She’ll serve the chicken on its own, or with tortillas and salsa so everyone can make their own tacos.

Valladolid says the biggest factor of success at dinner time, whether you’re just cooking for your family or entertaining a group of friends, is your attitude. A stressed out cook and host makes for stressed out family members and guests.

“You set the tone,” she says. “People will remember how they felt at your table more than they will remember what they ate. I know I’m doing it right when people just don’t want to get up and leave. The most important thing about cooking and dining isn’ t what you make. It’s all about making people feel good.”

Valladolid shares her arroz rojo recipe with Yahoo Life.

Arroz Rojo

Courtesy of Marcela Valladolid

Arroz rojo is a Mexican rice side dish you'll want to add to your weeknight dinner rotation.  (Photo: Marcela Valladolid)

Arroz rojo is a Mexican rice side dish you’ll want to add to your weeknight dinner rotation. (Photo: Marcela Valladolid)

serving 6


  • 3 cups chicken broth

  • 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons salt, divided

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 2 cups uncooked white basmati rice

  • 1 cup minced white onion

  • 2 large cloves of garlic, minced

  • 1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

  • 1/2 jalapeño, seeded

  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

  • 1 cup thawed frozen peas and carrots


  1. Place chicken broth and 1 tablespoon salt in a small saucepan and bring to simmer. You don’t want to reduce it. You just want it to be hot for when you add to your rice.

  2. Heat oil in heavy medium-size saucepan with lid over high heat. When very hot, add rice and sauté, stirring frequently, about 3 minutes. Add onion and garlic and stir 1 to 2 minutes until rice starts to turn golden and fragrant. Add tomato sauce and stir to absorb and release extra moisture, 1 to 2 minutes.

  3. Add hot broth and salt to mixture and bring to boil. Stir rice and add jalapeño and garlic powder. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 12 minutes. Quickly uncover and add peas and carrots to rice (they will sit in the center and you will mix in later).

  4. Cover and cook 3 more minutes. Uncover and gently mix rice to incorporate tomato sauce (it floats to the top) and vegetables. Cover and cook 2 more minutes. Turn off heat. And, this is very important: let rice stand, covered, at least 20 minutes before serving.

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