The Rice Is Right-It’s Always Right

Central Elementary School ensured that my taste for rice is kind of messed up.

Before high school graduation, I’d attended five schools.  Some had really terrific food, and some had horrendous food (I’m looking at you, Northeastern).  But Central was a horse of a different flavor.  All comfort food, all the time.

Their rice was cooked until it was really soft.  Surrounding it was a starchy, glutinous shroud that bound it together.  The cafeteria ladies used an ice cream scoop.  And it held that shape until our forks broke into it for the first bite.I loved it.  By itself, or enrobed in their thick, brown (maybe beef?) gravy.  It was a savory snuggle from puppies wearing flannel pajamas.

But, I decided cooking rice was hard.  So, for many years I made that boil-in-a-bag version.  One night I was cooking, but not thinking, and cut the top off the bag and poured it right into the water.

Spoiler alert—it’s just as bland and unappetizing as it is cooked in the bag.Costco membership broke me out of the bag.  When we joined, we’d buy everything that seemed to be an especially good deal.  And forty pounds of rice for twelve bucks is a great deal.  On a not unrelated note, if you know anybody who needs a ten-gallon vat of pickled lima beans, have them drop me a line.

Making regular rice from scratch isn’t hard, but lots of people psych themselves out.  They think it’ll burn, not cook through, or be sticky (not a bad thing for me). To make perfect rice, put uncooked rice in a fine mesh sieve.  Rinse it under cool water until the water runs clear; this gets rid of a lot of starch and helps keep the grains separate.

Put it in a sturdy saucepan with a lid and add water, using a 1-part rice to 1.5-parts water ratio.  Add a teaspoon or so of salt, a couple cracks of pepper, and if desired, a pat of butter, or drizzle of oil. Bring it to a boil, cover, lower heat to medium-low and cook for 17 minutes, then check for doneness.  When the rice is tender and all the water’s gone, turn off the heat, leave covered and let sit for 15 minutes.  This will set the starch so they’re individual grains that aren’t demolished when you take a spoon to them.

If you actually like elementary school glue-iness, don’t rinse and use a 1 part rice to 2.25 parts water. There is a delicious tradition from Spain that you may like to try.  It’s called socarrat.  It comes from the word, socarrar, which means to singe, or toast.  After the water has absorbed and the rice is cooked, turn it down to low for another 10-15 minutes.  Do Not Stir.  Then let it sit covered off heat for the fifteen.  This will give you a crispy delicious crust on the bottom that folks in the know will literally fight for.You can also spread a cup of rice into a lightly buttered skillet and press it down flat.  Cook it on very low until it’s browned and crispy on one side, then flip and do the other side.  Put it in a warm oven and make another one.  Then put something delicious between the two and cut into wedges for service.  Anything from cheesecake filling and cherries to chorizo, grilled veggies and cheese.So, don’t be afraid of cooking rice.  And good grief, even if you do mess up, it’s only rice—feed it to the dog.  The rice squad will not show up to your house and cart you off—I promise.

Thanks for your time.

Rice, Rice, Babette

This week there isn’t much snappy patter or witty bon mots. The room I would normally use has been taken up by a recipe from Julia Child.  It’s got a lot of steps but none of them are hard.

It’s perfect to use up some of that fresh zucchini, but more importantly, it’s delicious.

Bon Appétit! (To be read in your best Julia voice)Julia Child’s Tian de Courgettes Au Riz (Zucchini Tian)

j child zucchini

2 to 2 1/2 pounds zucchini

1/2 cup plain, raw, untreated white rice

1 cup minced onions

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

2 large cloves garlic, mashed or finely minced

2 tablespoons flour

About 2 1/2 cups warm liquid: zucchini juices plus milk, heated in a pan (watch this closely so that it doesn’t curdle)

About 2/3 cups grated Parmesan cheese (save 2 tablespoons for later)

Salt and pepper

A heavily buttered 6- to 8-cup, flameproof baking and serving dish about 1 1/2 inches deep

2 tablespoons olive oil

Shave the stem and the tip off each zucchini (or other summer squash), scrub the vegetable thoroughly but not harshly with a brush under cold running water to remove any clinging sand or dirt.

If vegetables are large, halve or quarter them. If seeds are large and at all tough, and surrounding flesh is coarse rather than moist and crisp, which is more often the case with yellow squashes and striped green cocozelles than with zucchini, cut out and discard the cores.Rub the squash against the coarse side of a grater, and place grated flesh in a colander set over a bowl.

For each 1 pound (2 cups) of grated squash, toss with 1 teaspoon of salt, mixing thoroughly. Let the squash drain 3 or 4 minutes, or until you are ready to proceed.

Just before cooking, squeeze a handful dry and taste. If by any chance the squash is too salty, rinse in a large bowl of cold water, taste again; rinse and drain again if necessary. Then squeeze gently by handfuls, letting juices run back into bowl. Dry on paper towels. Zucchini will not be fluffy; it is still dampish, but the excess liquid is out. The pale-green, slightly saline juice drained and squeezed out of the zucchini has a certain faint flavor that can find its uses in vegetable soups, canned soups, or vegetable sauces.While the shredded zucchini is draining (reserve the juices,) drop the rice into boiling salted water, bring rapidly back to the boil, and boil exactly 5 minutes; drain and set aside.

In a large (11-inch) frying pan, cook the onions slowly in the oil for 8 to 10 minutes until tender and translucent. Raise heat slightly and stir several minutes until very lightly browned.

Stir in grated and dried zucchini and garlic. Toss and turn for 5 to 6 minutes until zucchini is almost tender.

Sprinkle in the flour, stir over moderate heat for 2 minutes, and remove from heat.Gradually stir in 2 1/2 cups warm liquid (zucchini juices plus milk, heated gently in a pan — don’t let it get so hot that the milk curdles!). Make sure the flour is well blended and smooth.

Return over moderately high heat and bring to simmer, stirring. Remove from heat again, stir in blanched rice and all but 2 tablespoons of the cheese. Taste for seasoning. Turn into buttered baking dish, strew remaining cheese on top, and dribble olive oil over cheese.

Half an hour before serving, set in upper third of a preheated 425-degree F oven until tian is bubbling and top has browned nicely. The rice should absorb all the liquid.Thanks for your time.

Not a spud, or a dud

I had some rice and some mushrooms that I’d picked up at Costco.  Although “picked up” is a relative term.  Coming from Costco, I needed a forklift to lift the rice, and a weightlifter’s belt to hoist the ‘shrooms into our cart.

Just me, warming up for a Costco run…

The Kid was coming for dinner.  On the menu was pork chops with pretzel crust, and blistered green beans with garlic oil.  Since I had approximately 140 pounds of rice, it would be the starch portion of the program.  I also wanted use the mushrooms with the rice.

My first impulse was to maybe make a pilaf.  But I just couldn’t work up the slightest bit of enthusiasm for pilaf.  Maybe it would have been okay if there was some kind of sauce with the pork, but it was going to be baked.  And, they were loin chops, which is the leanest part of a pig.I kept thinking.

Some type of sauce with mushrooms over the rice might work.  My very favorite is Marsala.

Maybe somewhere in this world there’s a totally delicious, yet light and healthy Marsala sauce, but I’ve never heard of it, let alone tasted it.

It’s like Big Foot.  There are people who’ve never seen him, yet are convinced he exists.  Then there are people who swear they’ve seen him, but their credibility is, shall we say, less than stellar.  As with low-cal Marsala, definitive documented proof of the beast has never been established.My version of the sauce contains mushrooms, garlic, Marsala, and enough cream to supply Starbucks for weeks.  It’s as rich as Lady Gaga’s wig maker and as caloric as a day at the state fair.

Tasty?   Unquestionably.

Able to stop a healthy young heart by the third bite?  Yeah…probably.

So, back to thinking.In the end, I decided to try something new, and once more use my unsuspecting family as guinea pigs.  I would make twice baked stuffed potatoes, but use rice instead of potatoes.

It still isn’t spa food, but it’s not as life-threatening as Marsala sauce.

Loaded baked ricetwice baked rice1 ½ cups uncooked long-grain rice

3 ¼ cups water

8 slices bacon

1 pound mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

1 large shallot, sliced thinly

2/3 cups white wine

1 ½ cups light sour cream

1-8 ounce block of cream cheese, cut into 1-inch cubes

3 cups shredded hoop or cheddar cheese

Salt and pepper

Slice bacon into ½-inch pieces and place into a skillet.  Cook on medium-low until crispy.  Put bacon on paper towel-covered plate and set aside.  Pour bacon grease out, leaving about a tablespoon.

Turn skillet to medium-high and put in mushrooms and shallots.  Lightly season.  Cover and cook until liquid’s released from mushrooms.  Uncover and cook until veg are dry and caramelized.  Pour in wine and cook until it’s completely absorbed.

Make rice: put rice and water in saucepan with lid.  Throw in a pinch of salt and pepper.  Turn on medium-high and bring to boil.  Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 17 minutes or until all the water is gone.  Leave covered and take off heat.  Let sit 15 minutes undisturbed.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a three or four quart casserole dish.

Uncover rice.  Add mushrooms and shallots, 2 cups cheese, half the bacon, sour cream.  Stir until well combined.  Gently fold in cream cheese.  Season, and re-season if necessary.

Pour into casserole and smooth the top.  Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes or until rice begins to brown and crisp up around the edges. 

Uncover, sprinkle with cheese.  Sprinkle remaining bacon on top.  Cook under broiler until cheese is bubbly and brown.  Remove from oven and let sit for 10 minutes before service. Serves 6.

Since this is a riff on loaded, twice baked spuds put in them what you like to put in your own baked potatoes.  I would have put in at least a couple handfuls of chives or scallions, but they are food-a non grata for The Kid (and Petey could live a long, happy life without them, as well).But hey, go nuts.  You know, actually nuts would probably be pretty darn good in the rice.

Thanks for your time.

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.

Of Rice and Men

I kept seeing it everywhere.

3 mags.png

Every month, without fail, I read three magazines cover to cover: British Cosmopolitan, Mad Magazine, and Our State (you’d think I’d be embarrassed by that admission, but, no, not so much).

I occasionally pick up other titles like InStyle, Family Circle, and the odd cooking magazine.

But I draw the line at those one-off, specialty food publications.  You know the ones; church supper potluck recipes, gifts from the kitchen, 200 recipes for hamburger, that kind of thing.

While I love specially curated culinary collections, they start at about ten bucks and go up from there.  I just can’t justify laying down that amount of cheddar for a magazine that I might only read once.

But lately, every time I’ve stood in line at a grocery or bookstore, this one publication was staring me in the face.  There was a stack of gorgeous, golden fried green tomatoes on the cover, and the promise of many more delights inside.

It was Southern Cast Iron, and after I saw it for the fourteenth time, I finally broke down and bought it.

I’m really glad I did.

It was no bait and switch rag.  It had tons of delicious-sounding recipes, and the inside was as gorgeous as the cover.

There was one story that really caught my eye.  It was an interview with Nathalie Dupree and co-author Cynthia Graubart about their book, Mastering The Art of Southern Vegetables.  This was actually before I knew we’d have a food chat.  Quelle coincidence!

They talked about the history of vegetables in the south, their philosophy, and their love of cast iron cooking.  Along with the interview were some recipes.

One was for okra pilau (unbelievably it’s usually pronounced “per-lou”—don’t ask, I’ve no idea).  Pilau is a Southern take on rice pilaf.

Regardless what it’s called, every rice culture has some kind of pilaf.  It possibly originated in ancient Persia, but traveled far and wide, and showed up in various cultures with names like, pilau, polow, and even paella.

Well last week I made it, and it was a huge hit.  It was simple, but full of flavor.  The Kid thought I had added herbs and spices, but the sole ingredients were bacon, rice, okra, salt and pepper.  Since the magazine has already printed it, I’m doing a pilau which is inspired by Nathalie’s tasty, tasty dish.

Pecan Pilau

corn pilau

3 tablespoons butter

1 cup pecan pieces

1 large yellow onion, sliced into half moons

1 cup white shoe peg corn

1 cup rice

2 cups water

Salt and pepper

Heat large cast iron skillet to medium.  Melt butter and add pecans.  Season and sauté until toasted.  Remove and set aside, leaving the butter.

Add onions, and reduce heat to medium-low.  Season, and cook stirring occasionally until caramel colored.

Turn burner to medium, add corn, and cook until there’s a little color on the kernels.  Add rice, and cook until the grains start to smell nutty.  Add water and bring to boil.

When it begins to boil, cover, reduce heat, and cook for 17-20 minutes or the water’s all cooked in.  Remove from heat, leave covered, and let rest for 10-15 minutes.

When ready to serve, add back pecans, and gently toss with a large fork.  Serves 4-6 as a side.

So, there you go.  You learned a new recipe and some history about rice.  And now you probably know way more about what goes on in the dim, chaotic crawl space of my mind than you ever wanted.

Thanks for your time.