Rice, Rice Baby

Open any home magazine and you’ll find numerous bakes in which meat is nestled on top of raw rice mixed with canned soup, water, and maybe a few veggies.  After 45 minutes or so in the oven and you’ve got dinner.There’s just one problem.  Inside that can of soup is five thousand ingredients, each of which has at least twelve unpronounceable syllables.  And oy, the sodium–it’s really problematic for people who have heath issues like high blood pressure.  But even if you’re otherwise fit, with enough sodium you could wake up so bloated you’re mistaken for a parade float.

Just take two of the most popularly used flavors.  One serving of cream of tomato has 20% of your recommended daily sodium, and cream of mushroom contains 36%.  And that’s based on a 2000 calorie diet.  The only days I consume 2000 calories is when there is potato salad or birthday cake in the house.

But I really like the idea of the bake.

The other day I was making smothered pork country ribs and was looking in the cabinet trying to decide what starch to make with it.  And way in the back I found a bag of black rice.  It wasn’t black because I’d forgotten about it since the Carter administration; it came that way.

Black rice, or forbidden rice, comes in almost as many varieties as white.  It’s crazy healthy with more antioxidants than blueberries, and tons of fiber, iron, and vitamin E.  The Chinese believe it’s very good for the kidneys, stomach, and liver.  Like brown rice, it’s nutty and a little chewy.  Unlike brown rice, Petey happily eats it.

I was planning on searing the ribs on the stove and then braising them in some gravy from another pork dinner a couple months ago when I’d made way too much and froze the leftovers.  I wasn’t sure there would be enough gravy for the meat and to pour over the cooked rice.  I could add more stock and roux (cooked flour and butter used as a sauce thickener), but I decided to go a different route.

I would cook the pork in a slow oven (300 degrees) until it was almost done, then take it out of the oven, remove the pork, stir in the black rice, replace the meat, and put it back in to cook.

But there would be some straight up estimating going on.  I wasn’t sure how much liquid would be in the pot when I added the rice, and I would be winging it on the timing, as well.

steampunk scienceThe first thing I did was to tell Petey that tonight’s dinner would be a total experiment, and if things went south we might be dining on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

The next thing I did was some research, because the rice was in a Ziploc bag and had no instructions.  I needed to know the rice/liquid ratio, and the cooking time.  This is what I discovered for a few of the more commonly used types.  These numbers are for baking covered in the oven at 350 degrees.  Stovetop cooking will be different.

Rice Variety Baking Chart

rice types

Type                          Rice/Liquid Rato                    Cook Time

Long grain white  1 cup rice/2 cups liquid            20-24 

Brown                       1 cup rice/2 ¼ cups liquid     Approx 55

Black                         1 cup rice/2 ½ cups liquid      55-75 

Wild rice                   1 cup rice/3 ½ cups liquid      Approx 90 

Short grain              1 cup rice/2 ½ cups liquid      25-30 

I was estimating the amount of liquid in my pot.  After 55 minutes I checked and found the rice wasn’t quite cooked through, and there was too much liquid left.  I took off the lid and turned on the low broiler so the heat would come directly onto the food’s surface.  After twenty more minutes it was just right.  I took it out of the oven, recovered it, and let it sit for 15 minutes.

That night we dined well on pork, and perfectly cooked rice.  But now that I think about it all again, I kinda want that peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Thanks for your time.

Notes on a spinach salad

When I was first given the opportunity to write this weekly love letter to food and the Bull City, I was completely at sea.  I had all kinds of questions.

What can I write about?

What can’t I write about?

What if nobody likes my recipes?

What if I stink at this?

To my surprise, I really only had two commandments.  The column should have something to do with food.  And, it should be warts-and-all-honest.  That’s why you have access to multiple humiliating facts about me, and all of the friends and loved ones about whom I write enjoy aliases.

So sit back and relax.  I’m about to share two strange personal mental facts, one mildly embarrassing, and one just plain bizarre.

First, the red-faced factoid: unlike the vast majority of preschool-aged children, I don’t know my right from left.  I’m not completely ignorant, if I really think about it, I can usually get it right two times out of three.  But it’s not instinctual the way it is for everyone else.  For the love of all that’s holy, do not ask me for directions.

The other odd fact is I hear numbers in a rhythm in my brain, and so remember them forever.  I know phone numbers from junior high, zip codes from places I haven’t written to in decades.  Driver’s license number?  Petey’s social?  Expired credit card numbers?  Yep, yep, yep.

And this, unfortunately, is pretty much it for my arithmetical prowess.  I’m straight-up bad at math.

But there’s one algebraic formula that I know inside and out.

Spinach salad computation.

Along with ranch dressing, this is another food I ate for the first time at Mama Cat’s table.

Her components remain the classic elements of anything calling itself a spinach salad.

Spinach: Years ago, when purchasing spinach at the grocery store, it was usually mature, and curly-leafed.  The pre-washed baby variety is currently everywhere.  Curly-leafed is now so rare, it is literally almost extinct.  I like a 5-6 leaf to bite ratio.

Mushroom: About ¾ cup of thickly sliced mushrooms should be in a main-course sized serving.  Use button, cremini, or portobello.  The ‘shrooms are important, but should be of a milder type, so as not to hijack the rest of the elements.

Red onion: Slice them paper-thin into half-moons.  Use about ¼ cup (although true raw onion-haters, like Petey, can be forgiven for omitting).

Bacon:  Was there ever a lovelier word?  The only constraint here is your own concern for cholesterol levels.  I use 3-4 slices, cooked until very crispy, and broken into the bowl at the very last minute, so as to retain that crispiness.

Eggs:  Two per, hard-cooked.  But hard-cooked skillfully.  No green yolks or funky odors.  To achieve this, place eggs in a pot of cold water and add a handful of salt and 2 tablespoons vinegar.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.  At that point, remove from heat, cover and let sit for 13 minutes.  Then drain and peel right away under cold water.

Cheese: Not in that first salad, but optional and acceptable.  Diner’s choice as to type.

Dressing:  Ranch, of course.  But the original, made from a packet with mayo, and real buttermilk (use fat-free buttermilk, you’ll never notice the difference).

Just like all of cooking, balance is key.  Balance between flavors and balance of textures.  You need sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.  You need silky, crispy, juicy, and soft.

All you need is a fork and a bowl...

All you need is a fork and a bowl…

The one item which would have perfected the balance of that first salad was something sweet and juicy.  Tomatoes or berries are traditionally used for this.  But last week I used fresh clementine segments, and it was really good.

You can also add nuts, or replace your bacon with them (1/4 to 1/3 cup).  It will bring the same crispy, salty crunch.  They’re also much more nutritious.

And because it’s a salad, each forkful will have a varied combination of ingredients and amounts.  So each component should be tasty on its own, and play well with everything else.

With a little practice and experimentation, you can produce your own stellar salad equation.  But if you stumble, just add more bacon or ranch, and it’ll be tasty enough.

Thanks for your time.