Thursday, September 11, 2014

Cooking at Wilch Hall #3: Just Plain Rice

Now that you know how to cook vegetables, you need something to serve with them.  The logical, and one of the cheapest choices, is rice.

The ability to make rice is a basic survival skill.  I am sure that during your time in Wilch Hall you are all trying to make your dollars go as far as they can.  And, if you don't need this skill this year, you certainly will next year when you face either the job market or graduate school.

As essential as it is to be able to make rice,  it is paradoxically both a cinch, and something that a lot of people get wrong.  I wish I had a dollar for each time I was served a bowl of poorly cooked rice, that is either overcooked and mushy, or undercooked with a hard core, or both had and mushy at the same time.  I could never figure out how people achieve that one.  There is no need to resort to Minute Rice.  You don't need a rice cooker. And ignore the directions on the bags which generally call for too much water. (So, shockingly, did the article in the New York Times on preparing rice this past July.)  Just follow these directions, which is a much easier version of Pierre Franey's method that was published back in the 1970s.  

The basic recipe is simply 1 part rice to 1.5 parts water.  That is basically it.  But if you need a little handholding, here goes:

Just plain rice:
  • Boil water in a kettle. Tea kettles are best for this.
  • Measure the  rice and put it in a pot a pot (for 2 cups rice a 3 quart pot should be sufficient) with a tight fitting lid. Ideally, use a dry scoop measure for this.
  • When the water boils, measure it (in a liquid measure, ideally pyrex) and pour it over the rice.  If you use 2 cups rice, 3 cups of water.  Give the pot a little shake so that the rice doesn't lie in a clump. Stir a bit if you have to.
  • Heat on high until the water comes to the boil again.  
  • Cover the pot and turn heat down to very low, and cook for 17 minutes.  It won't suffer if you forget about it and it goes for longer, but don't burn it.  
  • Let it sit off the heat for 5 minutes, or longer, and serve.
  • Makes enough for 4-5.
Details, details:

The rice:  a long grain like Carolina, Jasmine, or a cheap store brand is fine.  I advise against using this method for white basmati rice, which has to be handled differently. You may find yourself buying in quantity, in which case you should store it in a container with a bay leaf or two to keep the cereal bugs away.
Salt?: No need, no matter what they tell you. Rice is the stage on which the other food performs. Simple is better, especially with Asian foods. The food that you eat with the rice will provide the seasoning. If you are really hard up and don't have any food to go on top of the rice, you can always salt it after you cook it. 

The pot:  make sure that it is large enough or it will boil over, since the rice expands when you cook it.  The important thing is that it has a lid that fits.  

Cleaning up:  The rice will stick to the pot.  The easiest way to clean it are to soak the empty pot in cold water (with no soap).  For some reason, this makes it easier to clean up after coooking starchy foods cooked without fat.  

If you have almost nothing in the house and want a quick dinner:  Melt butter on the rice and add cheese to melt, tomato sauce (or salsa) if you want.  A fried sunny-side egg is good on this.  A fried egg is also good on plain rice with some soy sauce and if you have, scallions.  Yogurt on rice is a classic, and the Ayatollah Khomeini ate it every day for lunch.  (Better than Richard Nixon's cottage cheese with ketchup. Best of all not to talk about what Hubert Humphrey would eat.)  Make sure you use plain yogurt and season with salt and pepper, and if you have garlic and/or mint.  Full-fat yogurt is best in this, but lower fat versions are ok as well.  This is especially good with goat yogurt, if you can find it.  (They carry it at Trader Joe's.)

Leftovers:  Put in a microwave safe bowl, cover with paper towel, and zap a minute or so until hot.  Or make fried rice
Not so plain rice

This is ever so slightly fancier, and is more suitable with European or American style dishes rather than soupy or stewy stuff.  
  • Make just as you would make plain rice, but before you add the rice to the pot, put in 1-2 tablespoons of the fat of your choice (vegetable oil, butter, schmaltz, rendered lamb tail fat -- whatever moves you) and heat it on low.  Put in a bay leaf or two (this is optional, but bay and rice are made for each other), and warm in the fat.  
  • Add the rice and turn the heat up to medium.  Stir for about a minute, until the rice turns an opaque white.  It shouldn't brown. 
  •  Add the boiling water (or other liquid like stock or broth if you want to be really fancy).  Add salt, between 1/2 and 1 teaspoon per cup of rice. Use more with plain water, less if you are using broth or you will be serving the rice with highly seasoned food.
  • As soon as the water comes back to the boil (it will be quicker than with plain rice since the rice is already hot) cover the pot and finish as above.

Plain brown rice

The nutritional advantages  of brown rice have been overrated.  However, you may find yourselves called upon to serve it in a college setting.  follow the plain rice version, using a brown basmati rice.  Cook for 35 minutes and let rest for at least 5.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Feisty old lady

This cocktail was devised by Maya Divack and Sarah Zarrow on the Cape in August. One of the motivations is that Sarah is allergic to juniper and cannot drink gin, often the strong spirit paired with sparkling wine in this kind of cocktail.  See for example, the Sybil, a Downton Abbey cocktail.  I associate gin and champagne-based cocktails with aristocratic young ladies with too much time on their hands.  With bourbon and a less expensive sparkler, I think it becomes a Feisty Old Lady instead.

There was some dispute about the name.  Maya wanted the Weasel, for reasons which need not be enumerated here.  The crowd consensus, however, was Feisty Old Lady.  In addition to the associations mentioned above,  Amy's cousin Cynthia recently published a mystery novel called Feisty Old Ladies.  So, this cocktail is a tribute to Cynthia as well.

Regarding the ingredients, use a bourbon that you like to drink, though it need not be a super expensive one.  St. Germain is a French elderflower liqueur. It requires a bit of an investment, but is worth it if you have any taste for aromatic cocktails.  Lavender syrup is simple to make, and lavender can be found in many spice and health food stores.  For sparkling wine, we usually use a dry cava or Prosecco;  you could use a French or Californian as well.  Unless your resources are infinite, drink Champagne straight.

I will give three variations:  one for a single drink, to be served in a Champagne flute that can easily be multiplied to serve two.  The other two will be for crowds of about 10 --  one to be served in individual flutes, the other as a pitcher drink, less elegant but far easier, and what is pictured here. 

Feisty Old Lady
For a single serving:

Stir with ice in a cocktail shaker for about 30 seconds (stirring rather than shaking has nothing to do with not bruising the spirits;  it results in less dilution, which is important when the cocktail will be cut with relatively low-alcohol sparkling wine):
  • 1.5 ounces bourbon
  • 1 ounce St Germain
  • 1.5  tablespoon  (=.75 ounce) lavender syrup
  • 2 dashes aromatic bitters (like Angostura or something better.
Strain into a champagne flute and top off with well-chilled sparkling wine, about 3-4 ounces depending on the size of your flute. A nice, but not essential touch, is to chill the flute in the freezer first.

For about 10 servings:

To serve in flutes:

Stir with ice in a large cocktail shaker or 1/2 gallon pitcher for about 1 minute:
  • 15 ounces bourbon
  • 10 ounces St Germain
  • 1 cup lavender syrup
  • 20 dashes bitters
Strain into another pitcher, and then distribute roughly equally between 10 champagne flutes.  Top off with well-chilled dry sparkling wine.  You will use about 1.5 bottles.

To serve as a pitcher drink:

In a large pitcher, about 1 gallon, stir the first 4 ingredients with plenty of ice for about 30 seconds.  Add 1.5 bottles of sparkling wine. Serve in rocks glasses over more ice.

To make lavender syrup:  Boil 1 cup of water in a small saucepan.  Add 3 tablespoons dried lavender.  Turn heat down and simmer, covered, for about 5 minutes.  Add 1 cup sugar and still until completely dissolved.  Turn off the heat and let cool.  Strain into a jar or bottle before using.  This will keep a few weeks, but will eventually get moldy.

A question of proportion:  This will make a floral, slightly sweet drink.  If it is too intense, add a little more wine.  If you want something stiffer, more bourbon.  If you want more sweetness and flowers, St Germain and/or lavender syrup.  If you are a laid back host, you will have the ingredients available and let the guests make any adjustments they want. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Cooking at Wilch Hall #2: Indian Green Beans with Harry

You can only imagine how happy I was when Harry said that he wanted some spices to bring back to school, and some quick cooking lessons so that he would know what to do when he settled in at Wilch Hall. In some families, male bonding consists in going out to the wilds together and firing guns at birds and mammals.  In others, it is going to ball games.  For us, it is eating lunch at an Indian restaurant and shopping for spices together at Foods of India and Kalustyan's my two favorite stores in Curry Hill in Manhattan.  Then, that evening, under my guidance, Harry made chicken shawarma (no recipe necessary:  just dredge chicken cutlets in shawarma spice mix and saute in a little oil until done), cabbage salad with zaatar , a simple tahini sauce, and these not so simple green beans.  The green beans were an instantiation of the general method for cooking vegetables, Indian-style, which was my first installment on cooking in Wilch Hall.  This recipe is a concrete illustration of how it can be done.  No excess verbiage here (at least not too much),  no choices and options, just the facts:

Harry's Indian Green Beans


  • 1.5 pounds fresh green beans, washed
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • salt
  • 1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • dash of cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 cup water
  • juice 1/2 lemon
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh coriander (wash it well please, it can be sandy)
  • sprinkling (about 1/4 teaspoon) of garam masala, if available;  if not use a little black pepper
  1. Trim the green beans: you can either snap off the stem ends individually, which involves less waste, or stack them in piles of 10 or so beans and cut off each end of the stack.  This goes more quickly, but involves more waste.  Cut the beans in half.
  2. Heat the oil on high in a large skillet for about 30 seconds, and add the whole cumin seeds.  
  3. Cook the cumin seeds on high  until they start to change color, but be careful not to  burn.  Add the turmeric and stir in.
  4. Immediately add the onions, salt lightly, and cook for about 5 minutes on high until soft. Add the garlic and ginger and cook another few minutes until the aroma changes.
  5. Turn the heat down to medium low and add the ground coriander and cumin.  Cook for about 3 minutes stirring occasionally until the spices lose their raw aroma.  
  6. Add the green beans, turn heat back up to high, sprinkle with a little more salt, and stir and fry for 3-5 minutes until the beans look glossy.
  7. Cover the skillet and cook for 5-10 more minutes until done to taste.  (Indian spiced veggies are often overcooked by contemporary American Northeastern and California standards.  They are practically raw by Southern standards.)
  8. Uncover, boil off most of the remaining liquid, and then add the final seasonings:  lemon, coriander and garam masala.
  9. Enjoy!  Serves about 5 with other dishes, and is good hot, cold or room temperature.

Silk Road Smash

A smash is a julep-like drink, and this is very much like a mint julep, only tastier.  There is no better libation to use to console yourself at the end of summer than a Silk Road Smash.

I got this recipe from Robin Gross, a San-Francisco based intellectual property lawyer and ED of IP Justice, an NGO which works for a more balanced international IP regime.  We met at the Internet Governance Forum in Rio in 2008, and are Facebook friends.  It is funny how many of my contacts come from a brief period of work on IP reform a number of years ago.

Robin posted a picture of this cocktail with ingredients, and when I saw it I had to make it. I was glad that I did.   It is tart, juicy refreshing, beautiful to look at, and quite potent.  Below is Robin's recipe for a single serving, which I have adapted, and following that a pitcher drink version that I served on the Cape to 10 people.

Silk Road Smash

For a few drinks (this quantity serves one;  you can multiply to serve up to four(:
  • 8-12 blackberries
  • 12 leaves mint, torn with a few more for garnish
  • 2-3  teaspoons cardamom syrup (see below)
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 2 ounces bourbon
  • 2 dashes aromatic bitters, like Angostura (or cardamom bitters if you have)
  • ice
  • soda water (optional)


  • Muddle the blackberries and mint in a cocktail shaker. Add lemon juice and syrup and muddle a bit more.
  • Add bourbon and bitters and stir. 
  • Fill the shaker with ice, and shake for about 30 second.
  • Fill an old-fashioned glass with more ice, and strain the smash into the glass.  garnish each with two blackberries and a few mint leaves. 
  • Serve and enjoy.  If anyone finds the drink too strong you can serve it in a high ball glass and top it off with some soda.

Pitcher drink version for a crowd:

  • 1  pint blackberries
  • 1 bunch mint, most of the leaves torn and about 20 reserved for garnish 
  • 1/2 cup cardamom syrup (see below)
  • 3 tablespoons  lemon juice
  • 20 ounces bourbon
  • 20 dashes aromatic bitters, like Angostura (or cardamom bitters if you have)
  • ice
  • soda water (optional)


  1. In a two quart pitcher, mash blackberries and mint together.  
  2. Add syrup and lemon juice and mash a bit more.
  3. Add bourbon and bitters, stir, and leave aside for about 1/2 hour.  (It is more difficult to muddle a large quantity of berries and this will allow the flavors to permeate the whiskey.)
  4. Prepare the glasses:  fill 10 old-fashioned (8 ounce short) glasses, ideally pre-chilled in the freezer, with ice.  Garnish each with 2-3 blackberries and a few mint leaves. 
  5. Add ice to the pitcher with the smash ingredients and stir for 30 seconds.
  6. Strain the smash into another large pitcher filled with ice.
  7. To serve, pour the smash into the cocktail glasses, trying not to disturb the garnish.  Don't worry too much because after a sip no one will care. Serve with soda water for those who find it too stiff.

Cardamom syrup:  In a small pot, boil 1 cup of water and add 25 cardamom pods, smashed. Simmer for about 15 minutes on low heat, covered to prevent evaporation.  Add 1 cup sugar, raise heat to medium and cook until the sugar is dissolved.  Let stand until cool, and then strain into a clean jar and store in the refrigerator. If you don't have time to make it in advance, you can chill it by setting the pot in a pan of ice and stirring until the syrup is cold.  This syrup can be used in lots of cocktails and is worth having on hand.  It is even good over vanilla ice cream or drizzles on a dish of orange segments or sliced peaches or nectarines.