Flash in the Pan: Rice age


I have nothing but tough-love for those who claim they can’t cook a pot of rice. Quit acting so helpless. Cook the rice. If you screw it up, consider what went wrong and adjust. Like you do when making a sandwich. Which is much easier to screw up than a pot of rice.

Not mushy, sticky or starchy, neither crunchy nor burnt, my rice is perfect. Sure, once in a while you faceplant. Heck, I can screw up a box of macaroni and cheese. But it’s easier than baking bread, or making your own noodles from scratch. The variables in rice-making are manageable: heat, time and moisture. To these laws of the physical universe, the rice abides.

Nobody wants too many learning experiences along the way, but rice is a journey, not a single meal commitment. It’s about learning where you want to go with your rice, and figuring out how to get there. Do you like it al dente? A little soggy? Take note of what you did each time and make adjustments. You’ll quickly run out of variables to tweak, and learn what not to do, like stir the rice, which would be like stirring a cake while it’s baking. It would kill the living, breathing structural integrity of a pot of rice. As you understand the finite universe of factors and tricks, your confidence will rise.

Too many cooks have never felt confidence in their rice. So they buy rice cookers, even though they only make rice once every six months, which is part of the problem. If you cook it every day, sure, buy a rice cooker. It will make perfect rice every time. But if you know your rice, you don’t need to measure, or watch the clock. Just watch the rice, preferably in a heavy-bottomed pot. Eventually your observations will become understanding.

I prefer white rice, which is often starchy, like jasmine or sushi rice. If it makes the water milky I’ll rinse it several times, dumping and replacing the cloudy water and stirring in between loads, and sometimes letting it soak for a minute, which reduces the cooking time, not that I keep track. I learned about rinsing, among other things, in sushi class, 35 years ago, and still do it.

I think it’s this rinsing practice that got me away from measuring and timing, as the rice absorbs water during rinsing, which makes it impossible to keep track. So I simply wash the rice until it rinses clean, then cover it with about an inch of water, and cook it until it’s perfect. That’s not what we did in sushi class but whatevs.

With a tight-fitting lid, place the pot on high. Don’t stir it. When it boils, turn it down to low. Don’t stir it. After about 15 minutes you can turn it off and forget about it. And don’t forget to not stir it.

If the rice burns, perhaps because you forget to turn it off, then you must act quickly, as with any burn. If it’s merely a pleasing shade of brown, turn off the heat, give it a splash of water, replace the lid and forget about it for a while. When you remember, it will be perfect. It’s magic.

But if you smell actual blackened burned, dump and remove the rice as quickly as possible, transferring it into a different pot or a bowl. Don’t scrape the bottom or move any burnt material to the new vessel. As long as the burned aroma has not impregnated the clean grains you’ll be fine. If the rice is a bit crunchy add what looks like the right amount of water, the exact feel of which you can only learn from experience, by feeling the rice and adding what you think it needs. Just be nice to those grains of rice, and they’ll be nice to you.

Most of the time, everything goes smoothly and I end up with perfect, no stress rice. Some will judge me, but my loosey goosey process includes a peak along the way. I’ll even insert a knife if I suspect low water, and scrape the bottom, and perhaps taste a grain of rice from the top. If it’s chewy that means you’re close and can turn it off and let it sit until mealtime, slowly puffing up. If the rice on top is too crunchy and seems in danger of drying out, add a tablespoon or two of water and replace the lid.

I know that getting thrown off the deep end isn’t always the best teaching method for everyone, so I want to offer the stubbornly helpless this painfully specific recipe for baked rice. It comes from my mother-in-law. It’s not only fool-proof, it’s smart-aleck-proof, is most customizable, and most impressively breaks not one but two of my cardinal rules. She not only gets away with both infractions, but they probably even help make it the dish that it is.

She rinses not a single grain of rice, which is admittedly something of a rice-snob’s practice. And she stirs it just before serving — which technically isn’t an infraction, as stirring is only prohibited during the cooking process, but still. At the very least this recipe bends my rules, which you can do if you know them by heart.

Perfect Baked Rice

I once had a basketball coach who liked to remind us that, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.” In that spirit, this recipe will get you accustomed to making good rice. And will make you totally intolerant of a single mushy grain of rice.

Each gloriously flavored and supple batch of this rice is so decadent you could binge on it plain like a tub of vanilla ice cream. I like to throw a handful of fast-cooking veggies and maybe some prepared proteins on top. It’s very customizable. But try to keep it simple.

1 cup long grain white rice, such as jasmine
1 ¾ cups boiling water or chicken stock or veggie stock
¼ pound onion, finely minced
2 tablespoons butter or oil

Preheat the oven to 350. Gently saute the onions and butter in a bakeable vessel with a tight-fitting lid. Stir in the rice. Add the boiling water or stock. Bake for 20 minutes with the lid on. Remove from the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes. Fluff before serving, if you wish.

Or perhaps, turn off the oven and let it rest there, where it can slowly develop a delicious golden bottom. Don’t burn it, but let it get close. Why stop at breaking just two rules at once?

Flash in the Pan is food writer Ari LeVaux’s weekly recipe column. It runs in about 100 newspapers nationwide, nourishing food sections large and small with complete protein for the belly brain. 


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