Cooking for Comfort: Rice goes center stage

Cooking for Comfort: Rice goes center stage

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Sure, white rice sitting quietly on the plate is a blank canvas; you can serve it with just about any cuisine. But, what if I told you rice leads an exciting double life: you just have to empower it to jump from side dish to center stage.

Rice is revered in many cultures, and in some form it is the staple for roughly half the world. A recent study reports rice was first domesticated in China about 10,000 years ago. Rice did not appear in Europe until the Moors invaded Spain in the eighth century A.D. From there, it spread into northern Italy and by the Middle Ages, into southern France.

Today, it is grown in more than 110 countries, according to the “The Oxford Companion of Food,” stretching from northern Japan to Australia but some 90 percent is grown in Asia.

There are many different ways to cook rice, but first you have to know what you’re dealing with. Rice is divided into long-grain rice: more than three times longer than it is wide: this includes aromatic rice such as basmati, jasmine and the American Carolina Gold, which have an almost buttery, toasted fragrance as they cook, thanks to a naturally occurring compound they share. Medium rice is from two to just slight less three times longer than wide. Short-grain rice appears almost round. Japanese rice is medium to short grain as are rices grown in Italy, such as Arborio, and in Spain, such as Bomba.

Your other decision: what color? Brown rice retains the outer coating of bran, which causes it to remain tan colored. Because of the bran, brown rice will take about twice as long to cook as white rice. White rice has had the bran and germ milled off, then polished to remove the any remaining bran. This leaves white rice with a lower nutritional value, but in many cultures, white is preferred. And, before you ask, wild rice is not rice at all but officially the long, thin, dark grain of an aquatic grass. If you’re looking for more details on classification, history and eclectic recipes from around the world, read Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s “Seductions of Rice.”

I like to rinse any rice I’m cooking with, except the grains for risotto and paella, which depend on the rice’s starch to hold the dish together. Some cooks say you wash off some of the vitamins (U.S. rice is usually fortified) but rice is usually stored in a burlap bag in a dusty, undisclosed warehouse for who knows how long, so that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Fried rice

The beauty of this recipe is you take long-grain white rice (the kind you get when you order take-out from a Chinese restaurant) and turn it into the star of a simple meal. Fried rice is made of leftovers, so the possibilities are endless and a great way to clean out the refrigerator. Here is one example:

Shrimp Fried Rice

Serves 4

1 bunch scallions

¾ pound shrimp, shelled, deveined and cut into ¼ pieces

5 cups cooked, chilled long-grain white rice

2 large eggs

2 Tbsp. chicken broth

2 Tbsp. Chines rice wine or sake or gin

1 Tbsp. soy sauce

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. sesame oil

2 Tbsp. corn or safflower oil. Don’t waste your expensive extra virgin olive oil.

½ inch ginger root, peeled and minced

1 10-ounce package of frozen peas

For stir frying, everything must be ready before you light the burner; you won’t have time to measure or cut anything because this cooks so quickly.

Finely slice scallions. Spread rice on a half-sheet pan and remove clumps with a fork. In a small bowl, beat eggs. In another small bowl, mix broth, rice wine, soy, salt, and sesame oil.

In a well-seasoned wok or 12-inch, non-stick skillet, heat corn/safflower oil over high heat until hot, but not smoking. Add the eggs and scramble them with a spatula until they are still a bit soft and loose. Chop them up a bit with the spatula and add scallions and ginger root and stir-fry one minute. Add shrimp and frozen peas and stir-fry until the shrimp turn opaque. Add rice and stir frequently, 2-3 minutes. Mix the liquids in the bowl and add to the fried rice, tossing to coat everything evenly and you’ve got dinner.

Risotto

This is a bowl of warm grains finished with cheese, so the type of rice is important. The classic rice is Arborio. If you can find it or want to order it, use Carnaroli. This medium- size grain is a bit more expensive but it has a higher amylose content, which translates into the rice remaining firm during cooking, instead of falling apart.

One note about technique: I attended a cooking class in Florence, Italy taught by Elena Mattei at her Cucina Con Vista school. As we began a risotto, I start stirring the rice back and forth in the pan but her voice immediately slapped my hand: “NO, only one direction!” For a half second, I thought she was joking, but she firmly said the results were better for any dish if you stir only in the same direction. Is that true? I couldn’t taste the difference but give it a try.

Lemon Risotto

Serves 4

5 cups Chicken stock (use home made if possible).

3 Tbsp. unsalted butter 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil 1 small white onion, minced Kosher salt 2 cups Carnaroli rice (if Arborio is on hand, use that but please don’t use long grain rice and then wonder why it didn’t work.) There is also Vialone Nano rice but by tradition, Italians use it only for seafood risotto. 1 Meyer lemon, grated, then cut in half and squeezed (I have a Meyer lemon tree, so that is what I use; Eureka lemons from the store are fine. Just make sure you clean the skin first)

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, more to finish

Heat the chicken stock in a pan next to your cooking pan so you don’t spill it over your nice clean stove when you transfer the stock.

Melt the butter and then add oil in a heavy, wide pan (so you can easily stir) at medium high heat. Add onion, lemon zest and a pinch of salt. Cook until the onion is soft but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add rice and stir to coat every grain with the oil. Toast until the grains just start to crackle, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Turned heat to medium and add ½ cup of warm stock, stirring until stock is absorbed. Continue this, ½ cup at a time, stirring until absorbed. When all of the stock is absorbed (around 15-20 minutes) add lemon juice and stir.

Stir in parmesan and the remaining 2 teaspoons of butter. This will combine with the released starch and thickened the rice. Taste for salt. Serve in warm bowls and no one will complain if you dust each dish with more parmesan.

Note: Don’t like lemon? Risotto is flexible: add asparagus in the spring; Tuscany has a risotto with lettuce for summer and replace with porcini mushrooms in the fall.

If for some odd reason you have leftover risotto, Italian grandmothers use it to make aranchini (little oranges), which are tasty balls of risotto stuffed with cheese, vegetables or meat and then fried. A quick search on internet will give you lots of recipes.

Paella

I had made paella many times by the time I signed up for a day class on seafood paella in Barcelona. The young chef arrived with bags filled from the nearby La Boqueria market and I’m thinking: “We’ll never get done in time for us to eat.” Nothing had been prepared. But, he quickly threw together a fresh fish broth while we students started cutting onions and cleaning prawns and mussels. I’m watching the clock as much as I’m watching him but the broth was ready by the time he poured in the rice. As the stock bubbled away, he spoke about growing up with paella most Sundays. In Spain, Sunday is traditionally the one time that the man of the house cooks. He lights a fire in his outdoor grill, brings out the thin-metal round paella pan (the dish is named after the pan) dumps the prepared bowls of ingredients on the pan, one at a time, and triumphantly brings the pan to the outdoor table so the extended family can enjoy it eating out of the pan, each starting from the perimeter and working towards the center, with wooden spoons.

Born in Valencia, paella traditionally included what grew locally near the rice fields: chicken, rabbit and snails, besides paella rice. In Spain, if you have seafood paella, you shouldn’t include any meat or chicken. However, my feeling is here in America, anything worth doing is worth over doing.

Paella Máxima

Serves 6-8

Big pinch of saffron threads

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut into bite-size bits. Season with salt

½ pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined

Kosher salt

4 ounces Spanish chorizo, cut into ¼ inch slices (this is the dry cured sausage; not the fresh Mexican chorizo)

1 Tbsp. smoked paprika

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 14 ounce can of diced tomatoes

1 small yellow onion, minced

7 cups of chicken broth, heated

2 ½ cups Valencia rice (I use Bomba, which is a type of rice that has relatively large grains and absorbs lots of moisture. Oh, and it is probably twice the price of Valencia. If you have Italian rice left over from what you bought to make the Lemon risotto, use that and just don’t tell anyone.)

8 ounces fresh or frozen green beans

3 Piquillo peppers from Spain in a jar. Slice into ½ strips

12 mussels, clean and debeared.

Equipment: Use the widest pan you have. You can also split this in two pans. But, you really need a 16- to 18-inch paella pan, made of carbon steel. (Let your spouse know a paella pan makes the perfect birthday gift).

Crumble saffron into heated chicken stock. Heat oil in your new paella pan over medium heat (traditionally this is cooked over an open fire. I cook mine on my Weber grill and that really adds a wonderful smoky element, but you can place you pan between two burners on the stove and keep rotating so you don’t get a hot spot. I’ve also finished it in the oven and that works well, too).

Add chorizo and wait for it to release some of its fat and spice, then add the chicken and shrimp. Once shrimp starts sizzling and tightening, remove it to a plate. Add onion to the pan, stir occasionally, and once it begins to release its moisture, add paprika, garlic and tomatoes, stirring often, until the onions are dry.

Now, spread out the rice evenly in the pan, then add hot broth and salt. Don’t stir the rice. When the broth is bubbling, sprinkle frozen peas. The paella will cook in about 20 minutes. As the stock starts to be absorb, drape the sliced Piquillo peppers and poke the mussels into the rice and return the shrimp to the pan to warm. When the stock is almost completely absorbed, check the rice to see if it is still firm but tastes done. If the rice is drying out, drape some aluminum foil or parchment paper over the pan to retain moisture. When rice tastes almost done, remove the paella from the heat and cover with a clean towel for 5 to 10 minutes for the stock to completely be absorbed. Get out the wooden spoons and tell everyone to dig in. Don’t forget to pour the Rioja wine and it’s just like a trip to Spain, without being patted down at the TSA checkpoint at an airport.

Satisfy your cravings

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