Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Fragrant Rice

Do you have days when you know exactly what you want to eat but almost scoff at the craving because it is ludicrously simple to access? No? Just me, then. Well, I am going to talk your ears off anyway.

All I have wanted for the past week is spinach quickly sautéed in olive oil with garlic and a rice pilaf cooked in chicken broth. I meant to ask mum to get the ingredients when she did the shopping on Friday (how sad am I to have relegated food shopping to someone else when I am the foodie in this household?!), so there was neither spinach nor organic whole chicken to be found. I didn't have time to go out; lunchtime is a scheduled break from writing my thesis. Rice. I had it. I made do. What you see in the above photo is not just any old bowl of white rice. Noooooo. Innocuous it may seem, but on a typical Spring day in Auckland (read: the lightest of blue skies one minute, adverse conditions the next) this filled a void and brought great comfort.

Rice was not a staple in my household when I grew up, so having it as a component of any dish was always rather exotic. I always knew that it was going to accompany a dish redolent of spice and heat. Appealing to my inner Aladdin or Jules Verne, those nights were always my favourite. Of course, then, I didn't know the creations were Westernised or "quick" versions of murgh makhani, caponata or beef rendang. In any case, rice was never really treated as something to have on its own, but as a neutral carbohydrate background to the spice or heat of the protein.

Living with Eric taught me that rice could be incorporated into a main dish, not just to act as a neutral base. I was introduced to aromatic rices like basmati and jasmine. It was with him, too, that we would get a craving for rice only, which we would cook, lazily, with only chicken stock. Today I was not feeling so lazy, but I couldn't go the whole hog.

Nevertheless, I found inspiration in one of my favourite preparations of rice, which comes in the form of a pilau or pilaf. With its roots in Persian cuisine, a pilau is sometimes cooked with a reduced broth after poaching chicken, and it is often studded with nuts, fruit and/or spices and herbs that have been added to an aromatic, like onions, cooked in a fat, typically oil. Variations of pilau using white rice, aromatic rices and bulgar are found throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey. They are innumerable, but all of the ones I have tried have been delicious and restorative.

A word of note: the amount of liquid to rice often varies. I often find that most plain white rices need 1 1/2 times the amount of liquid per cup of rice. For bulgur, you may need 1 3/4 cup liquid per cup of bulgur wheat. Keep an eye on how the liquid is being absorbed. If the liquid is absorbed before the rice is tender, you will need to add more liquid.

Fragrant Rice
(Inspired by my angelheart Eric and by Nigel Slater's Appetite)

1 scant tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, peeled and cut into thin half-moon slices
1 clove garlic, bashed to release oil and to remove papery casing
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
4 cardamom pods, either whole or lightly smashed to release aroma
2 cloves, whole
3/4 cup white rice, or an aromatic rice (basmati or jasmine), if you prefer
2 1/4 cups chicken stock, or other light broth or water

1) Heat olive oil in a wide saucepan.
2) Add onion and cook until soft but not colored.
3) Add garlic, bay leaves and spices. Stir into the onion and oil.
4) Once aromatic, stir the rice into the spiced onion.
5) Add the chicken stock. Bring it to a boil, then simmer, covered, for ten minutes. Halfway through, check for seasoning.
6) Off the heat and keep covered for around eight minutes.
7) Fluff the rice with a fork, then remove the bay leaves and spices, or leave them in if it does not bother you to check for little seeds and what not before each mouthful.
8) Serve with an extra crank of freshly ground black pepper.

Yes, this is enough for a satisfying though not over-whelming lunch for one. If you are using a store-bought stock, check for saltiness and potency. If it is quite strong, you may not want to add the cardomom, which is better suited to and more noticable when cooking the rice in a light broth or water.

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I often crave rice as well, and like you didn't grow up on it - well with the enception of rice pudding, but that's a different kind of rice.

I've made Nigel's rice like this, and the thing I thought was amazing was the difference the bay leaves made to the overall taste.
Might have to have rice at suppertime now =)
Shaun, I swing both ways regarding rice. I am crazy for it in savory dishes, like your fluffy, well-defined grains of pilaf or a firm, moist risotto, but I am generally repelled by a sweet, sticky, soggy mess of rice pudding, heavy and mushy (save a finely-textured Indian basmati, infused with cardamom).

BTW, I know how hard you are on your food photos, but your opening shot is quite good.
My fiance is an Argentinean man who grew up in Brazil, so food means meat + rice to him. His usual rice dish is slow cooked rice with lots of garlic and onion, but I am definitely going try this with the addition of the spices. I often add similar spices to couscous, but forget to spice my rice as well.

Nice post!
I am a rice whore. HAHA. there! I said it. Must be something to do with being Chinese I think. I LOVE RICE! and now I wanna eat my computer screen. That looks yummy. Nothing's quite as good as a big bowl of yummy rice. =)
I have to thank Christina for saying it first. :D I too am a rice whore! (lol). Shaun, in addition to what you already have in this pelau, add some cumin seeds and a stick of cinnamon. I'm making a similiar pelau for next week's column.
I wish I had a kitchen to try this.
Rice, sooooo versitle! I will be making, let's say fish or a pork loin, it does not matter what...rice will always be a great accompaniment. And what I like about it is you and "dress it up" or just eat as is with a big plop of butter on it!
Great photos!
I thought you might like this recipe from Lidia's Italian Table- it's the rice Lidia ate when she was sick as a child. I can attest to it's healing and comforting powers.

The water to rice ratio is higher than usual, as it is meant to have a bit of liquid left to make it more porridge-like.

2 1/2 cups water
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 cup Arborio rice
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano, optional (depending on how sick you are or how much comforting you need)

Heat the water in a large saucepan, add half the oil, salt to taste, and the rice; and bring back to the boil. Lower to a simmer and cook covered for 12 to 14 minutes. Stir in the remaining oil and the cheese and serve.
Kelly-Jane - Dried bay leaves have nothing on fresh ones. I love the incredibly savoury hit fresh bay leaves add to anything. They are a great base note to add to any cooking that requires slow cooking, too, for they can withstand the time unlike some herbs that lose their zing before long (like coriander).

Susan, lovie - You're very kind to single out the photograph. Thank you. It's often best if one doesn't think long and hard about these things. I just point and shoot now, and if one or two photos turn out, then they're the ones that get thrown into the post.

I'm with you re: savoury vs. sweet rice preparations. I loathed rice pudding as a youngster and haven't tried it since...I've been too scared to. I worry about wasting good rice on things I might not enjoy. I should venture out to see if my palate has changed in that respect. Maybe I can start with that Basmati rice pudding infused with cardamom?

Christina - I would happily sit at a table with you fiance. A meal of onions, garlic, meat and rice sounds like heaven to me. I can't say I am familiar with either Brazilian or Argentinian cuisine, save for chimichurri. Like you, I love to spice couscous; it absorbs flavours so well.

Victoria - Some days there really is nothing better. And the day I wrote this post, rice was all I could think about eating. I'm glad I made it and that people have responded to it. I was actually having second-thoughts about it before hitting the "publish" button, in case some people thought it too simplistic. But, as Christina says above, I know people who don't even consider or forget to spice and season their rice. It can be a great, comforting meal on its own.

Cynthia - I actually did think of adding cumin seeds, but I decided to see how much impact the cardamom would have on its own. I will definitely take you up on your suggestions next time, which I'm sure won't be too long from now.

Ostwestwind - I'm sorry you are presently without kitchen, but should you be within the vicinity of a functioning one again, I wholeheartedly recommend this simple preparation of rice with any spices you have on hand. Simple and comforting.

Winedeb - There you go again, planning full courses :-) But, yes, rice is a perfect foil to balance out flavours on a plate and has so been used for centuries. Thank you for the kind comment on the photographs.

Catboy - Yes, I have this great book by Lidia. The recipe is like a no-fuss risotto. I did buy some carnoroli rice this weekend, so I will think about what to do with it this week...I might even follow this recipe - thank you for reminding me it is in the book. I like your comment about the cheese - let's see what sort of day I'm having to determine how much cheese I'll need!
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