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.

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