Rice is Nice

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Kristen Frederickson

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When it comes to feeding a crowd or a hungry family, and you don’t want to break the bank, it is very hard to beat carbohydrates. Proteins are of course the most expensive aspect of any meal, and even vegetables seem to be creeping up in price as we ask for more and more exotic varieties, and many of us prefer organic.

In addition to these pocketbook considerations, I have to contend with my solid Midwestern upbringing and its influence on my diet: namely a plate that contains a protein, a colorful thing, and a carb. Every single childhood meal of my life conformed to this expectation, so far as I can remember, and my husband was raised the same. So while we’ve been able to branch out as adults and embrace lots more variety in our dinner choices, the good old plate of chicken, broccoli and something white is very compelling.

The choice now is, what white thing? In my past I have made occasional stabs at going no-carb, but it never works. I find myself craving whatever it is I’ve decided not to eat. Potatoes in any form, couscous, noodles with butter: I love them all. But I would say my hands-down favorite carb is rice.

And it isn’t even always white, of course! Rice appears in all sorts of forms, from the most nutritious (wild) to the least nutritious (white) and smack in the middle, brown rice. Brown rice is just about as nutritious as a potato, a good source of protein and fiber and fairly rich in vitamins and minerals like potassium, magnesium and phosphorous. The more refined rice becomes (as its outer layers are stripped away to reveal the white insides) the less nutritious it becomes, like all other grains.

I hate to confess it, but I am not a fan of wild rice. I recently was given, by an extremely generous visitor from America, a bag of authentic wild rice from Minnesota, one of their proudest exports. And with my mother-in-law’s tried and tested recipe for mushroom casserole in hand, and a bowl of my own fresh creamy mushroom soup, I should have loved it. But there is something about the texture that scared me. I will wait to have it from the hands of a better cook, though, before I give up on wild rice entirely. It’s so good for you.

Rice is incredibly versatile, appearing in more world cuisines than you can count. Of course the popular potato crops up everywhere as well, but I would argue that rice, perhaps because it absorbs flavors rather than having flavors applied to it, is more beloved in its international appeal.

Chinese, Thai and Japanese flavors take very kindly to rice in their stir-fried dishes, but so does Cajun/Creole cooking with crayfish or shrimp, chicken, sausage and peppers in a jambalaya. The Spanish treat their rice to saffron, paprika and shellfish or chicken in a paella, the Italians slow-simmer it in broth for a risotto, while the Indians layer rice with spices, chicken and fried onions in a biryani or the luscious breakfast dish made with hard-cooked eggs and smoked fish, kedgeree. Latin American and Caribbean cultures invented the comforting chicken dish arroz con pollo, fragrant with garlic and onion. I could happily eat all these dishes, one after another, for weeks on end.

Rice is incredibly versatile, appearing in more world cuisines than you can count.

Of course the French being French, they have invented a whole new way to cook rice, in boiling water like pasta. After doing this, they often turn it into a sweet dessert by cooking it in sugared milk, as do the Americans with old-fashioned rice pudding. Not having a sweet tooth and especially not liking things I expect to be savoury turn out to be sweet, this treatment of my beloved rice does not appeal to me, but I’m sure I’m unusual in this.

In our family we use different rice for different dishes, in combinations that have stood the test of time. My husband and I absolutely adore a spicy dish my mother-in-law introduced me to over 25 years ago from a wonderful cookbook called Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cooking by Ellen Schrecker.  “Red-Cooked shrimp,” which simply means cooked with soy sauce (although there are many other ingredients including loads of ginger and spring onions) is a heavenly foray into messy, sticky, delicious shrimp-peeling at the table, and the best accompaniment for the hot sauce is nutty, chewy brown basmati rice. Its sister dish, Red-Cooked Pork Belly, is just as fabulous (but not as messy). Brown rice with its special texture stands up beautifully to the bold flavors in these dishes.

When I need to deliver a little protein and a lot of vegetables in a very popular form, I turn to a classic stirfry–whether chicken, beef, pork, shrimp or some combination–on a bed of fried rice, with plenty of golden scrambled egg. This dish is one of a very short list of recipes my teenage daughter would like to learn to make before she leaves home. It contains everything you need in an entire meal, and for this, I use fragrant jasmine rice.

There is nothing more comforting in the world than chicken soup, especially in my house where the Aga stove nearly always contains a stockpot of some sort of simmering elixir. I realize that some people–like the Campbell Soup Company–think you need noodles for chicken soup, but I do not agree. Basmati rice is best for chicken soup, I think. Be careful not to use too much (as if there are leftovers!) while the soup sits in the fridge the rice will absorb absolutely every spare bit of broth that it can, and you may wake up the next day to find you have an unexpected risotto on your hands.

My brother-in-law Joel is a whizz at making risotto. For this recipe you will need a specialist, a very short-grained rice, either Arborio or Vialone Nano, or Carnaroli. The rice must be highly absorbent, and the mixture stirred almost continuously. Nearly any combination of proteins and vegetables make lovely risotti, but to my mind, the whole purpose of risotto is to have leftovers from which you can roll into little balls called arancini. With a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese, perhaps even with a nubbin of buffalo mozzarella tucked inside, they are heaven.

An unexpected way to use rice is to roast it in the oven and sprinkle it on a salad, like this spicy beef variety from the great British chef John Torode. The resulting texture adds a delightfully chewy, crunchy bite to a soft salad.

Obviously no paean to rice would be complete without a discussion of that greatest of all Japanese exports (except for Hello Kitty): sushi.

For this, unsurprisingly, you need sushi rice. It too, like risotto rice, is short-grained. Experts recommend that you cook your sushi rice in a steamer, rather than in a saucepan on the stovetop, and these steamers are very inexpensive and reliable.

The first thing you will notice, when the rice is cooked, is how incredibly sticky it is! I have notoriously hot hands–I could never be a pastry chef!–but I think even normal people will find that the rice sticks to the hands with amazing persistence. Simply make little pillows of rice and top them with a dot of wasabi and a piece of sashimi-grade salmon or tuna, for simple nigiri sushi. Or if you want to get a bit more complicated, invest in a bamboo mat and a box of roasted seaweed (nori) sheets and roll up some maki with rice and whatever fillings you like: more fish, avocado, cucumbers, scallions, spicy mayonnaise, caviar. Use your imagination!

A warning when it comes to cooked rice: you must not let it sit overlong at room temperature, especially with a closed lid. Cooked rice can develop a particular bacteria which makes people quite ill, so avoid cooking rice ahead of the time when you want to eat it, and be sure to store any leftovers in the fridge straightaway.

Rice doesn’t just come in a grain, rest assured. People who are intolerant of gluten will feel that their lives have been saved when they discover rice crackers, made with silky glutinous rice flour. Really anything that is good on bread is even better on a crisp, savoury rice cracker, and guess what? You can make them yourself. Crunchy, delicate and tantalizingly simple, these crackers simply cry out to be topped with a good dollop of chicken liver pate, a bite of smoked salmon and a dribble of sour cream, a spoonful of tuna salad or hummous or guacamole. Rice crackers are incredibly versatile, and practically calorie-free.

So the next time your plate looks a little lonesome and in the mood for a helping of comforting starch, turn your back on that bag of potatoes and reach instead for one of the many varieties of glorious rice and bring the whole world to your dinner table.

Everybody has a favorite rice dish. Tell us about yours.

Photo Credit: Avery Curran