I love rice. Fried rice, Spanish rice, Cook-up rice, Vegetable rice, Steamed rice, Rice medley, Saffron rice, Rice pilaf, Rice and peas, Rice Salad, Boiled rice, Pelau – you name it, I love it. Rice is one of the most versatile cooking ingredients that offer a great platform on which many flavours can be added to create a unique dish.
Here in the Caribbean we get a variety of rice: long grain white price, brown rice, parboiled rice, jasmine rice and Basmati rice. Each comes with its own cooking ratio of rice to water, natural flavour, texture and look. Some are best suited for certain dishes while others are not.
Take for example, Basmati rice. Smooth, polished, slender, almost translucent in its appearance is highly fragrant and aromatic. Using this rice to make fried rice would not be the best choice simply because the robust flavour of the Basmati would clash with the major flavours that go with fried rice — five spice powder and soy sauce.
I’m not saying that you can’t make fried rice with Basmati rice (I have in the past), I’m just saying that it is not the best choice.
Cooking rice well is one of the more challenging tasks for many home cooks. The big questions always are: “How do I know when it’s done? and, “How much water to add.”
The first time I cooked rice I used the “counting method”. I know you have never heard of this method before, but let me tell you, it worked for me back when I was a little girl.
Picture this, three little children huddled together in a kitchen. I was standing in front of the stove, my sister Pat was standing on a chair on one side of me and my brother Eon was standing on the cupboard on the other side. All of us were craning our necks to see what was happening inside the pot.
Being the eldest, and since it was my idea to cook in the first place, I added the washed rice to the pot. I quickly realized that we needed to work out how long we should cook the rice for. I came up an ingenious plan. Each of us would count from 1 to 300. We took it in turns, the sum of which would then be 900.
At the 900th count, I checked the rice, giving each one of them a few grains to chew on. If it was not what we thought it should be or like the way mommy cooked it, we counted again. I can’t remember the exact figure but I think that at 1,500 the rice was done and ready to be strained.
Nowadays my general rule when cooking rice is to be guided by the instructions on the package, not in terms of adding salt etc, but the ratio of rice to water. Rice is generally cooked in one of three ways, by boiling, boiling and simmering or by steaming, sometimes referred to as absorption. Each method offers a different result and each rice is best cooked by certain methods just as they are best suited to making certain dishes.
Take for example, fried rice — steamed rice is always better to make this dish. Steaming results in the rice kernels not swelling too much and yet they are still fully cooked. Steamed rice is easy to separate or loosen for the quick stir-frying it will receive. Cook-up rice and pelau are usually boiled and then simmered. Basmati and Jasmine rice are often steamed because boiling takes away a lot of the flavour and without careful monitoring can cause the kernels to burst (think in terms of a popped corn).
Boiled rice is cooked on high heat in a large pot with lots of water. Some people make the mistake of not putting enough water to boil the rice and then have to add water when the liquid has dried down and the rice is not finished cooking.
The water they generally add is cold water or tap water which then slows down the cooking process and sometimes results in the rice being over cooked and soggy. My advice is to always put enough water from the onset, however, if you must add water, use boiling water.
Boiling and simmering. The package instructions are best used here. Let the rice come to a boil and as soon you begin to see the surface of the rice, turn the heat to simmer for 15 to 20 minutes or until all the liquid has evaporated.
Steamed rice (absorption) requires less water than the package suggests. Add the washed rice to pot and bring the water up to the level no higher than the first joint of your index finger. Turn on medium-high heat and as soon as the first bubble comes up, reduce the heat to low and let the rice cook slowly. The timing will vary depending on the kind of rice you are steaming.
One of the other reasons I love rice is its wholesomeness. What I mean is that you can prepare a rice dish that is void of fish, meat or poultry and enjoy it as a complete meal. There are so many ways to flavour and season rice. It is truly an ingredient that invites creativity; it offers itself to be simple or complex.
Rice people, or people who love rice, take the absence of rice at meal time to be an affront. They even go so far as to say: “That is not food.” I remember telling my mom once when she presented a meal void of rice that she did not cook. There is no rice, where is the food?
Over the last Christmas holidays, my cousin Antonio complained to me that his mom made side dishes and snacks for their Christmas meal — in other words, she made a lot of things but not one of them was a rice dish. I understood his pain.
There are certain things that I must eat with rice – stew, curry (that’s a no-brainer), pumpkin, calalloo, who am I kidding, everything. A day without rice is really like a day without food for me. And so many others too!
* Cynthia Nelson is a journalist, tutor, food photographer and author of the award-winning book: Tastes Like Home – My Caribbean Cookbook (IRP 2010). She writes regularly about food in various Caribbean Publications.
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