Life Advice

Create Your Better Omelet

A Better Omelet

THERE ARE FEW better tests of a cook’s insecurity than making an omelet. Just as Giotto is said to have impressed a pope in search of an artist by sending him a perfect circle drawn freehand instead of a finished drawing, a chef is said to be able to demonstrate his mastery to a prospective employer by making nothing more than an omelet. As a teenager, I once spent an afternoon, on Julia Child’s devil-may-care instructions, tilting a pan away from me and practicing rolling omelets, throwing out the imperfect ones. After watching clumps of cooked egg land all over the stove and two dozens eggs disappear from the refrigerator, my parents decided that I had experimented enough. I never got it quite right, but I did learn that the easiest way to make a good-looking omelet that will come out of the pan is to use a lot of butter.

Omelet

Prepared Ingredients

This might have been the beginning of my disenchantment with French food imagine an omelet with all the usual virtues and many undreamed-of ones–the filling dispersed all through instead of bunched in the middle, and more of it, too; less grease; and no technical feats to learn. This describes the Italian frittata, a flat omelet that is cooked through, with none of the runny egg liquid that makes some people ill. A frittata is often served at room temperature or in a sandwich, so it can be made ahead; a cold omelet, all congealed butter and egg goo, is hardly welcome. At its best a frittata, hot or cold, is browned and crisp outside and airy and soft inside.

Frittatas in Italy are family meals, typical last-minute or Sunday suppers that get rid of leftovers. In Italian fare ulna frittata also means “to make a mess of things,” an idiom perhaps inspired by the first attempts of some non-cook–a frittata, along with pasta with tomato sauce, is a meal that every bachelor or hopeless cook is expected to know how to make. Tracing the origins of the disk is probably foolhardy, since some form of omelet has likely been eaten since man first heated eggs.

However, Apicius, who wrote the best-known book of Roman cookery, mentions a sweet frittata; in the sixteenth century frittatas were at once sweet and savory, served with powdered sugar and cinnamon and a sauce of bitter orange, which points to Arab influence by way of Sicily. Frittatas are a favorite dish among Sephardic Jews, because they can be served with either milk or meat menus. Their appearance in both Sephardic and non-Jewish cookbooks from the regions around the Mediterranean where Sephardic Jews settled–Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and Turkey, for example–raises the question of whether Jews helped popularize them. Frittatas everywhere were served as light meals or between-meal snacks, either hot or cold; in Spain a tortilla, the Spanish frittatas, usually made with potatoes and onions, is still a typical tapa, or little dish to be served with sherry.

Remarkable Flavor Relating to Unique Skills

Lidia Bastianich, an owner of the restaurant Felidia, in New York City, remembers her grandmother taking fresh sandwiches filled with frittatas to workers in the field as a midmorning marina, or snack. She also remembers hunting for goose eggs in her native Istria, the region to the extreme northeast of Italy, which is now mostly Yugoslavia; her grandmother kept jealous count of chicken and duck eggs but encouraged the hunting of goose eggs, which were laid in random places. All went into frittatas.

Frittata Technique

Even though frittata technique requires no wrist training, it did take me quite a few eggs as to get a frittata I was happy with–four dozen, in fact. The problem was that I tried to make a frittata as fast as an omelet, which I had seen chefs do on a kitchen tour of New York Italian restaurants. My experiments using their techniques led to results that gave credence to Elizabeth David’s dismissal, in Italian Food, of frittatas:

[Italians] are particularly stubborn with regard to the cooking of omelets, insist upon frying them in oil, and use far too much of the filling . . . in proportion to the number of eggs, and in consequence produce a leathery egg pudding rather than an omelet.

Use Your Small Favorite Cooking Technique

I much prefer oil to butter, and I love a lot of filling, even if it does tilt a frittata in the direction of a kind of cake; but I don’t like rubbery eggs, and that’s what I was making. (When there is so much filling that the egg only binds it, the dish becomes a torsion, or little cake, and is usually baked.) The problem, i suspected, was the timing. Italian cookbooks are vague on how long to cook a frittata. One cooking encyclopedia points out that like all simple preparations, frittatas should be given great care. But then it pulls back, like the others, on timing; it’s one of those things you should know. Not everyone does. I have been served my share of leathery frittatas in Italy.

Omelet Recipes

But as I made frittatas, in both senses of the phrase, I remembered the one that had reformed my opinion: a zucchini frittata made by a young woman friend in Italy, in general an unenthusiastic cook, who said she was preparing something very special she had learned from her grandmother. As I watched her fuss over a plain egg dish for what seemed much too long a time, I grew increasingly impatient and skeptical. She finally presented me with something tender and delicate, something different from omelets and equally delicious. I decided to slow down and try to recapture her frittata. (Although slow cooking is today more common in Italy for a torsion than a frittata, Apicius himself called for a very low fire, and Felipe Rojax-Lombardi, who is the owner and chef of The Ballroom, the first and best tapas bar in New York City, and the authors Marcella Hazan and Barbara Kafka cook frittatas a long time.)

Choose the Best Suitable Pan

Which pan to use is of course important? Italians use a light iron pan with rounded sides, of a weight that is rarely available here. Cast iron doesn’t work very well, because after an initial browning of the egg mixture the heat is supposed to be lowered for a long, slow drying; cast iron retains too much heat and cooks the frittata too quickly. I had very good results with an inexpensive light nonstick skillet. The ideal pan is stainless steel with an interior layer of copper in the bottom. A frittata should be a half inch thick, and so the pan should be small: eight inches for three eggs, ten inches for six eggs. It’s unrealistic to recommend keeping a pan solely for frittatas, and unnecessary if you use a nonstick pan. If you don’t, clean the pan by heating it and rubbing it with a generous amount of coarse salt and lots of paper towels.

Fresh herbs are a constant in fillings–for example, minced parsley leaves or chives or sage or basil. In theory, the filling is built around something delicate and rare, like elder flowers or wild mushrooms or truffles; in practices, the filling is what is left over and needs to be extended. Among the most common fillings in Italy–all sliced thin and sautéed in olive oil, with or without onion, according to taste–are zucchini, mushrooms, spinach, chard, thin wedges of trimmed artichoke (preferably young), peas, green tomato, red peppers, leeks, and potatoes. To make the frittata a one-dish meal, Italian sometimes add rice or slices of bread fried in olive oil or even leftover pasta. Meat appears seldom, usually cubes of leftover sausage or ends of salami. Cooked or raw, the filling should be at room temperature when you start cooking, and so should the eggs.

Smaller Meals Preparing for Less People

TO SERVE TWO people, heat two teaspoons of olive oil in an eight-inch pan until the oil just starts to smoke. (A nonstick pan needs no fat. Heat the pan.) If you are using an electric stove, set another burner to very low. While the oil is heating, beat three eggs with a tablespoon of grated Parmigiano Reggiano (the authentic Parmesan) cheese and a few grinds of pepper. Beat the eggs–with a fork, not a whisk–just to mix white and yolk and to break up any lumps of cheese, stirring into the mixture any cheese that sticks to the sides of the bowl. Add a half cup of filling and mix gently, so that the ingredients are well distributed but not broken up. To serve four, double the ingredients and use a ten-inch pan; to serve more, make several frittatas, not bigger ones.

egg omelette

Pour the eggs into the pan. The bottom should set immediately; cook it briefly, shaking the pan gently. Don’t stir the eggs, as you would with scrambled eggs on an omelet. One of the blessings of making a frittata is that you can leave it alone. If you are using a gas stove, turn the flame down very low; if using an electric stove, transfer the pan to the burner set on low. Cook a three-egg frittata, uncovered, for twenty-five minutes, and a six-egg frittata for thirty to thirty-five minutes. You should see little bubbles of simmering oil at the sides of the pan, but the cooking will be very slow. At the end of the cooking time the top should be all but dry–a bit of liquid is fine. Run a spatula around the sides and under the frittata to free it. Set a plate or a pot lid over the pan and with one motion unmold the frittata. Return the pan to high heat, add enough oil to make a film on the pan (unless it is nonstick), wait until it smokes, and brown the other side for a minute.

Some cooks–for example, Andrea Hellrigl, of the refined Palio, in New York City–prefer not to brown the other side. They like the contrast of crisp and soft, and want to show off the filling on the embrowned side. I prefer the appearance and taste of a second browned side and advocate turning as a way of finishing the dish (in Italian the phrase “to turn the frittata” means to correct something you said). I don’t recommend running the pan under a broiler, an escape route well traveled by those fearful that the frittata won’t unmold on one piece. By the time you are ready to turn the frittata there is almost no danger that it will come apart, and broiling toughens the eggs unnecessarily and brings all the fat to the surface.

Trying and Revising to Get the Better Results

I wasn’t pleased with any of the short-cuts I tried. Covering the pan cuts the cooking time in half but results in a soggy bottom and a steamed texture. An acceptable second best is to transfer the frittata to a 375[degrees] oven after setting the bottom. This cuts the time to between ten and fifteen minutes, after which you can unmold the frittata and brown the other side. Nothing makes a frittata as tender, though, hot or cold, as cooking it for the full time uncovered on the burner. You can clean up, slice bread, and make a salad as it cooks.

omelet2

Room-temperature wedges of frittata make an excellent hour d’oeuvre or picnic food, and as noted, slices of it are very good in a sandwich. Cooks in the Piedmont often put a few drops of balsamic vinegar on cold frittata, according to Bruna Alessandria, one of the first of a revolving cast of Italian women cooks at the new restaurant Le Madri, in New York. Perhaps my favorite way of eating frittata is a dish introduced to me by Sandro Fioriti, the big and exuberant chef of the Roman-style trattoria Sandro’s, in New York. Thin strips of frittata are heated briefly in a tomato sauce with torn leaves of basil and some grated Parmigiano Reggiano, and served as a first course. The sauce seeps into the frittata and makes it even more tender, and sets off the flavors of the filling. The dish is called frittata in trippa or trippata, because the frittata is cut in strips like tripe; it is variously attributed to Rome, Umbria, and Florence (all three places have famous tripe dishes). But whatever the source, the method for making frittata with tomato sauce remains the same, and the dish is enough to persuade anyone to forget about omelets.

Long History of Potatoes

A hundred and twenty years ago Luther Burbank lent his name to a high-starch potato, the russet Burbank, which is widely known as the Idaho although significant crops are also grown in Washington and Maine. Ever since, Burbank’s variety–big, durable, and utilitarian-has retained a virtual monopoly in the high-starch potato kingdom. I think that Idahos taste best rubbed with olive oil and baked in a 450* oven for at least an hour and fifteen minutes, so that the skin becomes nearly as dark and brittle as the crust of hearth-baked bread, and most of the moisture escapes, leaving the flesh light and crumbly. Strongly as I advocate microwave ovens, they do not do a creditable job of baking potatoes–the flesh can be leaden, and what’s the point if you can’t get a crusty skin? They are acceptable, though, for cooking Idahos to be mashed. (Cook them on paper towels to absorb moisture, following the timings in either of Barbara Kafka’s two microwave books.) The savings in time can make the difference between having potatoes for dinner and not.

potatoes

Large Diversity of Potatoes

NO SMALL grower is trying to dethrone the mighty Burbank with some rare russet. Although a number of the revived varieties have floury flesh good for mashing, none that I found offers as thick a skin when baked. The action today is instead in low-starch potatoes, the firm, “waxy” kind that don’t fall apart when sliced. A number of revived varieties, mostly from South America, the birthplace of the potato, have real flavor. They take the duty out of the little boiled potatoes that are requisite with fish, which too often are watery albino pellets from a can.

Rare varieties of potatoes are coming into fashion partly because chefs always compete to serve the newest and most exotic food, and lately “exotic” means anything grown by a small farmer–preferably organically and preferably something associated with the food of the poor. Nutritionists and the politically correct insist that we take up rustic cuisines, which were of course determined not by connoisseurship and nutritional calculations but by geography and poverty. Michael Roberts, in his new What’s for Dinner?, a funny and inventive collection of Maine course recipes, to be published this winter, calls these dictatorial forces the “food police.” They tell us to base our meals on carbohydrates, not meat.

Also, there has been great attention this year to the foods of the New World which changed the Old. It took Europeans two centuries to overcome their suspicion that potatoes were a poison (they are related to deadly nightshade, as are tomatoes, eggplant, and tobacco), a suspicion aggravated by the absence of the potato in the Bible. Once they did, they discovered that potatoes, which contain very high-quality protein (among the best not from an animal product, better even than soybeans) and significant amounts of vitamin C and minerals as well as filling, energizing carbohydrates, were a subsistence food capable of nourishing families over the winter. Indeed, they can take the place of meat as a main course, if you include a bit of yogurt, say, and salad greens or broccoli. Potatoes grow in virtually all kinds of climates, and are much more productive per acre than grains.

Potato

Potatoes and Its Path in the World

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries potatoes allowed the European population to increase by a third. Ireland adopted potatoes earlier than the rest of Europe, because they were safe underground from the ravages of frequent invasions. Also, they were easier to grow in its soil than wheat. The Irish population almost tripled from 1754 to 1846. But dependence on potatoes could be dangerous: when a fungal blight resulted in the famine of 1845-1848, at least a million Irishmen died, and at least a million immigrated to America. Potatoes made wars easier to wage, because they can travel long distances without spoiling. (Good reading on how potatoes changed the world includes The Great Hunger, by Cecil Woodham-Smith, on the Irish famine, The History and Social Influence of the Potato, by Redcliffe Salaman, and Seeds of Change, by Henry Hobhouse.) Today the Russians and the Chinese are the world’s leading potato growers.

Potatoes are being promoted as a way to feed and help develop the Third World as they once did Europe. Researchers are working on disease-resistant varieties, because potatoes are susceptible to hundreds of viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Much of the research is the scary genetic kind that has recently alarmed chefs and other purists, in which genes from, for example, a moth that produces antibiotics that combat bacteria that threaten potatoes are introduced into potatoes.

A potato is a tuber, a swollen stem that is like a root in that it lives underground and stores food and water, but unlike roots in that new shoots grow from buds, or eyes, anywhere on it. Potatoes are usually grown not from seeds (seeds rarely produce genetic duplicates of the original potato) but from cut-up tubers that contain at least two eyes; “seed potatoes” are simply potatoes that have been specially bred and are certified disease-free. Researchers are developing accurate, disease-resistant seeds that will vastly reduce growing costs.

Long-term Names of Potato

THE GENERIC name for the tastiest, in my opinion, of the revived varieties is “fingerling,” borrowed from a term for young or small fish. In fact, the potatoes are roughly the shape of fingers, long and tapered, picked mature at anywhere from two to eight inches in length and half an inch to two inches in diameter. Fingerlings are low- to medium-starch potatoes. Most have a smooth texture akin to that of “waxy” boiling potatoes and even more closely akin to that of sweet potatoes. Good fingerlings are voluptuous on the tongue, almost like well-marbled beef filet. Many have yellow or orange-yellow flesh, which leads people to describe them as buttery even though only a very few actually taste anything like butter.

White Washed Potato

A widely available yellow-fleshed potato, although it is not technically a fingerling, is the yellow Finn, which a number of supermarkets carry. It combines some of the earthy, sweet, and creamy flavors that mark the best fingerlings, and is good steamed or, because it is higher in starch than most fingerlings, roasted in chunks. Steaming over simmering salted water is by far the best way to cook fingerlings and similar low-starch potatoes, because the flavor and texture show to their best advantage, and it’s brief–a matter of twenty minutes for most fingerlings, or until the flesh yields to a sharp knife.

I prefer steamed fingerlings peeled, since the peel adds little to their flavor and do not have a pleasing texture. This might not be the nutritional heresy it seems. Meredith Sayles Hughes, who operates a potato and food museum in New Mexico with her husband, E. Thomas Hughes, quotes Nell Mondy, a biochemist at Cornell University, as warning that toxic compounds build up in potato skin, which guards against pathogens. The skin does contain fiber, but many of the vaunted nutrients are in the layer just below it, which is why it’s better to peel potatoes after they have been cooked: only the papery outer peel comes off. Scabs on potato skin, by the way, are harmless, but any green portion and all shoots should be trimmed.

Popular types of Potatoes

The Yukon Gold, another yellow fleshed potato, has also been widely distributed. I don’t like it as much as the yellow Finn; it’s an unremarkable boiling potato with none of the buttery taste claimed for it, and I would rather have a superior white boiling potato, such as the Rose Fir, from California. But Lydie Marshall, the French-born New York cooking teacher and author of the invaluable new A Passion for Potatoes, finds Yukon Golds more flavorful than white potatoes, and says that they have become her all-purpose potato.

Seed merchants have gone overboard in cultivating old varieties of colored potatoes, perhaps on the theory that if blue cornmeal sells as blue tortilla chips, purple potatoes can make arresting potato chips. They do. Potato chips rely on visual appeal, since the flavor comes from fat and salt. But I think that most purple potatoes cooked normally are terrible, with a negligible, watery flavor and an unpleasantly mealy consistency. Red and even remand-white-striped potatoes are also pretty silly, with one exception, which bears the precious name of Cherries Jubilee. These potatoes have the shape of big cherry tomatoes and flesh that is vermilion streaked with white; they have a sweet, full flavor and a more floury texture than fingerlings.

Potato2

Purple and blue potatoes are not worth going out of your way for, but some potatoes are worth ordering by mail, because if stored in a dark, cool place (ideally 40-50[deg]) they will keep for months. The best source I’ve found is Mountain Sweet Berry Farms, in Cooks Falls, New York (telephone 607-498-4666), where Richard Bishop and Franca Tantillo grow many kinds of heirloom potatoes. They sell them at the Union Square farmer’s market, in New York City, and report that just before Thanksgiving last year they sold two thousand pounds of potatoes in one day. Bishop and Tantillo give their soil heavy doses of minerals and use no pesticides; for whatever reason, their potatoes have superior flavor.

Another farmer who will ship you potatoes is Chris Holmes, of New Penny Farm, Presque Isle, Maine (207768-7551). Besides a few fingerlings he grows old New England varieties like Katahdin, Green Mountain, and Irish Cobbler, a high-starch potato. Like those from Mountain Sweet Berry Farms, his potatoes have not been sprayed, and they have a purer and stronger flavor.

One potato I counsel avoiding is Cowhorn (not a fingerling), named for its shape. It tastes like plain dirt rather than simply having the earthy overtone that is welcome. Peanut, a fingerling also named for its shape, seemed dull to me, and I detected none of the nuttiness that others apparently taste, probably swayed by the name.

My favorite fingerling is Ozette-long and thin, with an irregular tan skin. It tastes hearty and earthy; the way a potato should, and has a firm but melting texture. Almost as good is the red-skinned Ruby Crescent, Bishop and Tantillo’s best-selling fingerling, which has caught on among New York’s most fashionable chefs. Some gourmets go so far as to compare it to the Ratte, the most esteemed French variety. (As is so often the case with foods we envy the French–apples, bread flour, and coffee comes to mind–we have more and better potatoes than they do and we shouldn’t go mooning after theirs.) The flavor is sweet but sharp, like that of a wild leek, and you could legitimately call the yellow flesh buttery. I am also very much liked Banana (named for its shape and yellow flesh, not for its taste) a fingerling whose texture is a cross between floury and firm.

Steamed Cooking Method

STEAMED fingerlings are wonderful in salads. I was delighted with a simple one I tried, starting with two pounds of steamed, peeled, and sliced potatoes, moistening the warm slices with three tablespoons of vinegar, and then tossing them with a cup of diced celery and two tablespoons of chopped scallions. For the dressing I whirled in a food processor a quarter cup of buttermilk and one cup of from age blanch (a tangy, fat-free cheese that comes in containers like yogurt; if you can’t find it, use a cup of plain yogurt and no buttermilk), two tablespoons of Dijon mustard, and a third of a cup of chopped green herbs–I included marjoram, thyme, and a few celery leaves.

Steamed Potatoes

Lydie Marshall gives a recipe for a salad with three pounds of potatoes, a quarter cup of minced chives, a cup of mayonnaise, salt, pepper, two cups of thinly sliced peeled cucumber, and a cup of thinly sliced red onion: she tosses the warm potato slices with two thirds of the cup of mayonnaise, the chives, salt, and pepper, and the cucumber slices with a quarter cup of mayonnaise, salt, and pepper. Then she layers the potatoes, the cucumbers, and the onions, tossed with the bit of mayonnaise remaining, in a glass bowl.

Both these salads improve after a day or two, and if they become too thick as the potatoes absorb moisture, you can thin them with buttermilk or mayonnaise. Walnut oil also goes very well with potatoes.

Barbara Kafka serves new potatoes braised in just butter (up to a half stick of butter or a quarter cup of olive oil to two pounds of potatoes), the pot kept tightly covered over medium heat and briskly shaken every few minutes to turn the potatoes. The potatoes will release enough liquid to make steam. This method, which the French call A l`etvee, from a word for “sweatbox,” will produce incomparable results with truly new potatoes, which are not a variety but any kind of immature potato, with skins so tender you can rub them off and a high sugar content–as in freshly picked peas and sweet corn, not all the sugar has turned to starch. New potatoes are usually available only in late summer. But any potatoes the size of big pebbles cooked this way will be succulent and richly moist, like round home fries; Kafka gives directions in The Opinionated Palate, her recent book of entertaining and provocative essays. The method lends credence to Lydie Marshall’s cry that potatoes are a vegetable, not a starch.

Long and fluffy of Rice

I have spent much of my life avoiding rice. I always assumed this to be a holdover from my childhood, when I was served rice seemingly every night by a mother whose culinary education was indelibly influenced by a Japanese woman who lived with us. My mother adopted the habit of offering as a condiment dried bonito flakes – bark-colored, almost transparent shavings of salted, dried tuna with a smell (a strong smell) of fermented fish. She kept these flakes in a handsome peanut-brittle tin. My brother, sister, or I, hoping to find cookies on pantry forays, would open the tin, always forgetting what was in it. I lost any appetite for rice.

rice

I rediscovered rice as an adult on visits to Italy, the only major rice producer in Europe. Arborio rice, the kind that grows in the Po Valley and gave rise to the wonderful dish risotto, has a tiny opaque white pearl on the inside that remains al dente, and starch on the outside that the grains release during cooking, making a creamy sauce.

I did not venture beyond risotto until recently, when I read two books: Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking, by John Martin Taylor, a South Carolinian by birth and a historian who adapts old dishes to modern cooks, and The Carolina Rice Kitchen, a new history of rice in South Carolina, by the ever disputatious and influential historian Karen Hess. Much of Hess’s book chronicles how South Carolina’s once-mighty rice industry, centered in the wetlands of the coastal “low country,” made Carolina Gold the most prestigious variety the world over. The book shows that slaves taught their masters how to cook “beautifully boiled rice,” since the English and for that matter the French were ever “dismal rice cooks.”

Popular Grand of Rice Producing

The low-country rice dish par excellence is “pilau,” as the dish more commonly known as pilaf is called in Persian. The technique, like the dish, originated in Persia, according to Hess; conquering Arabs adopted it and brought it to Africa. Its chief requirement is that every grain of rice remain separate. The rice is simmered until the liquid is fully absorbed; usually there are bits of meat or fish and vegetables as well.

Pilau Grand

Pilau is a grand treat, as Hess would say in an indulgent moment, and it is worth knowing. It won’t in my estimation displace risotto, whose uniquely creamy texture and crunch I love, but pilau is an easier dish (no constant stirring for twenty-five minutes) and in many ways a more useful one. It can wait for guests, as risotto can’t, and can be served at room temperature or reheated, as risotto also can’t. And it keeps getting better, because the rice continues to absorb liquid and flavor as it cools.

pilau

The success of a pilau relies more on the kind of rice that goes into it than on the care the cook takes to keep it fluffy. Any good long-grain rice reliably stays separate after being cooked, and when it is as good as many of the aromatic strains now cultivated in America, pilau is well worth making. I recently gathered a number of aromatic rice grown here and in India, the most famous of which is Basmati, and tested them against the plain rice I had grown up leaving on the plate. I discovered that the problem wasn’t the bonito flakes. It was the rice.

Perfect rice is usually defined in this country as fluffy rice. Whether rice is fluffy or sticky depends on the proportion of amylose, one of the two kinds of starch granules in rice, to amylopectin, which more readily forms a gel with water. Short-grain rice, whose grains are between one and two times as long as they are wide, is grown not only in Italy but also in Asia, especially Japan. It is the highest in amylopectin and the stickiest – think of the adhesive rice in sushi rolls. Medium-grain rice, whose grains are between two and three times as long as they are wide, is slightly higher in amylose and thus is a bit less sticky. In Spain and Portugal medium-grain Valencia rice is traditional for the fish stew paella, which is named for the wide flat pan in which it is cooked. The abundance of free starch also makes short-grain and medium-grain rice ideal for rice pudding, to my mind the finest rice dish after risotto. The United States grows both short- and medium-grain rice, but most of it is used in breakfast cereals and the like.

Long-grain rice, whose grains are four to five times as long as they are wide, is the highest in amylose and thus the fluffiest. Its low amount of free starch is the reason long-grain rice does not make a good risotto, whatever some convenience-minded cooks may tell you, and isn’t great for pudding, either.

Uncle Ben’s, one of very few national brands of rice, has undergone parboiling, a process in which the whole grain of rice is steamed under pressure before it is hulled. (“Converted” is a trade-marked name of Uncle Ben’s for parboiled rice.) You can always tell uncooked parboiled rice by its translucent kernels; rice that has not been parboiled has opaque grains. Despite the usual meaning of “parboil,” the rice is not precooked. In fact, it takes a bit longer to cook. Nonetheless, the process offers advantages. The grains become harder, meaning there will be less broken rice, which brings the miller a lower price.

The stabilization of the exterior starch which occurs during parboiling is a boon to timid cooks, who needn’t worry about finding the secret of fluffy rice. As long as the rice is not overcooked, the grains will stay separate – separate and dull. They have virtually no flavor of their own, an indeterminate texture that is neither mushy nor firm, and a sweetish overtone reminiscent of grade-school paste.

Country Popcorn Rice

Popcorn Rice

America does produce delicious rice today. The world-renowned strains of Carolina Gold long-grain rice fell out of use long ago, as the U.S. industry moved to states where the terrain favored mechanical planting and harvesting (the leading rice-growing states are Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and California). But now we have the Della strain, a cross between Basmati, a word that in India means “queen of fragrance,” and American long-grain rice. Varieties of the Della strain are sold under various names, such as Texmati, Delta Rose, Konriko Wild Pecan Rice, and Cajun Country Popcorn Rice.

“Popcorn” describes the smell of 2-acetyl 1-pyrroline, which is found in popcorn, various nuts, and all rices; the compound appears in especially strong concentrations in Basmati rice and related strains. Good aromatic rice is so nutty that when it is boiled alone it seems roasted and salted – as if it came from a package of pre-seasoned rice.

Even if the strains are very similar or identical, rice varies greatly by year and region. Indians say that to be good, Basmati should age at least two years to develop its flavor. According to Bill Webb, a research chemist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beaumont, Texas, aging will cure a rice and slow down enzymatic activity so that it will be especially fluffy when cooked, and might enhance the flavor of aromatic rice if it is stored in dry, cool conditions.

Indian Basmati is long and tubular, and prized for its length. Look for Dehraduni, the finest strain of Basmati, to see how elegant and bright white rice can look. The shape of cooked Della rice is oddly blocked like, and although the grains do elongate as they cook, they swell at the same time, and the ends seem to split. Pure Indian Basmati strains, with their svelte grains and tapered ends, have not been adapted to the U.S. terrain and climate, although research botanists say that one will be grown here within a few years. No matter. American aromatic rice can equal Basmati in flavor. During my recent sampling I especially liked Delta Rose and Konriko Wild Pecan; Texmati and its relatives can be fine too. Aromatic rice is the only long-grain rice I recommend keeping in your kitchen.

Long-grain Rice Cooking

Rice Recipes

It cooks faster than you think: faster than the box says and faster than many recipes – which assume the rice is parboiled – say. Also, there is more than one cooking method. The box will give the total-absorption method. This calls for the rice to be simmered with just enough water to soften it – usually two parts water to one part dry rice – and then left to rest over a very low flame or simply in a warm place for a final steaming. Hess calls this the Chinese method, and says that it evolved as a way to conserve fuel, by heating only as much liquid as was essential and letting time and a tight lid do the rest.

I find that I prefer the total-absorption method, because it best preserves whatever flavor the rice has, and it also retains all water-soluble nutrients. It takes some cooking by instinct, though. You have to guess exactly how much liquid the rice will absorb, which is more of an art than package instructions imply. Too much, and you’ll overcook the rice while waiting for it to absorb all the liquid. Too little, and the rice will be hard and stick to the bottom of the pan. (Chello, a Persian way of cooking rice echoed in other cuisines, involves the creation of a crust of browned rice, usually butter-soaked, called a tag-dig, the rice within is moist and separate. Discerning eaters insist on a piece of the crust, although the understandable desire to eat only the crust is frowned on.) Older rice and parboiled rice require a bit more than twice as much water as rice, whereas other rice usually requires a bit less. Also, you have to adjust for the shape of the pot, even though it is covered. More water will evaporate during cooking in a wide shallow pot than in a narrow one.

Fabulous Fluffy Rice

All this guessing makes for a certain amount of insecurity in trying to cook perfect fluffy rice. But at the end you can make up for any initial miscalculations. For one cup of non-parboiled rice – which will yield three cups of cooked rice, or four to six servings – bring one and three quarters cups of water to a boil; add a teaspoon of salt to the water. (Sensitive as I am to over salting, salt in the water makes an important and, I think, good difference to the taste of the rice, as it does to the taste of pasta.) Because almost all American long-grain rice has been given a final bath of dissolved iron, thiamine (vitamin [B.sup.1]), and niacin, cooks are instructed never to wash it before cooking or rinse it afterward, so as not to lose the added nutrients. Imported rice, however, has generally not been enriched, and should be rinsed several times before cooking, to eliminate any debris.

  • Normal Rice Cooking Methods

rice cooking

Pour in the rice and stir to distribute it evenly. Bring back to a boil, reduce the heat to a low simmer, and cover the pan tightly. The common injunctions not to peek or stir the rice again are meant to maintain a steady simmer and to avoid disturbing the even absorption of water, but they are not ironclad. Set a timer for twelve minutes.

When the timer goes off, turn off the heat and either leave the pot to sit for at least five minutes or set the pot in a warm oven. During this final steaming the water diffuses more evenly throughout the kernel, and so the finished rice will be more stable if you want to toss it with other ingredients or reheat it. Nineteenth-century cookbooks call for rice to be “soaked” – left to sit in a warm place or over a low flame after boiling – for an hour, after which it will be perfectly fluffy, but in fact five or ten minutes suffices.

This is where you can remedy any imperfections. Look at the rice before you set it to rest. If it seems dry, sprinkle a tablespoon or two of water over it; if it seems liquidly, let it rest for five or ten minutes and then taste it, and if it is done, pour out the rest of the liquid so that the rice will not become too soft. All rice will continue to absorb any liquid available; short-grain rice has a larger and longer-term capacity to absorb liquid than long-grain rice does. Cooked rice can sit for thirty to sixty minutes without drying out. Toss it with a cooking fork before serving; this will separate any grains that have consolidated, distribute any remaining liquid, and make the rice look fluffy.

  • Total-absorption Method

Total-absorption rice

Other cooking methods are less tricky than the total-absorption method, though the results are not as tasty. The excess-water, or “Indian,” method, still in use in the kitchens of many professional chefs, is to boil rice in large quantities of water, like pasta, and then to drain most of the water and let the rice sit, covered, while the rest of dinner cooks. This was the standard method in South Carolina, as it had been in Africa.

I tried a straight boil and was surprised at how fast and reliable a method it is, especially for Basmati. I followed Julie Sahni’s directions in Classic Indian Cooking for plain boiled Basmati, pre-soaking the rice for a half hour and then boiling it in abundant water for just two minutes after the water came back to the boil, draining and quickly rinsing it, and returning the rice to the pot and setting it, tightly covered, to rest over the lowest possible heat for ten minutes. The rice was perfectly separate, each grain tumbling off the serving spoon, and it stayed that way both after it cooled and with several reheating. Soaking and boiling American aromatic rice was not an improvement over the total-absorption method, though; both kinds I tried required seven to ten minutes of boiling before they were cooked through, and the grains were not as dramatically separate as those of Basmati. The flavor of all the boiled rice’s seemed blander.

  • Brown Rice

Brown rice shows the method to its greatest advantage, although the discarded cooking water might contain some nutrients. I confess that I don’t like brown rice. I usually like nutty, chewy grains, but brown rice lacks the delicacy and pleasing texture – just slightly hard – of correctly cooked white aromatic rice. Nonetheless, a straight boil lowers the cooking time from the recommended forty or forty-five minutes to fifteen plus a five-minute rest after the rice is drained. Aromatic rice comes in brown versions, too: Fantastic Foods sells imported Indian Basmati rice, brown as well as white; Lundberg Family Farms, in California, markets many varieties of brown rice; and Texmati packages both a brown version of its Della rice and a “Lite Bran” rice, from which part of the bran has been removed.

Save Cooked Rice

Cooked Rice

Cooked rice lasts for several days in the refrigerator. A certain amount of the starch hardens during refrigeration. This is called retro gradation, and can be mostly overcome by adding two tablespoons of liquid to each cup of cold rice before reheating over a low flame or for two minutes in a microwave oven. Although reheated rice will never have what Hess calls the “charm” of freshly cooked rice, it is surprisingly successful. You can also freeze cooked rice as soon as it cools, in plastic bags containing as much as you need for one meal.

I did not have consistent luck cooking rice in the microwave oven. The USA Rice Council’s basic instructions work: at high power, cook one cup of non-parboiled long-grain white rice in two cups water in a deep two- or three-quart dish, tightly covered; finish cooking at medium power fifteen more minutes (ten will do). Once you change quantities of rice or the dish size, though, getting the amount of water right is tricky, and the method doesn’t save time anyway.

For a simple variation on boiled rice, try chello. After boiling one cup of rice for ten minutes, drain and rinse it and return it to a pan in which you have warmed three or four tablespoons of butter or oil; the more abundant the fat, the crisper and thicker the tah-dig. The rice should be at least an inch deep for the proper contrast between crust and fluffy rice – “golden brown on the outside but with the rice inside so perfect that it drops to pieces in snow-white grains the moment the golden skin is broken,” in the words of Tom Stobart’s Cook’s Encyclopedia. Cook, tightly covered, for at least a half hour over a medium flame. To unmold the rice in one piece, immerse the pan in cold water for two or three minutes.

Indian Unique Versions

Carolina pilau (pronounced “purlo” or “pi-lo”) differs little from some Indian or Persian pilafs except that the rice is not initially browned in fat – a step originally taken to slow the absorption of water into lesser grades of long-grain rice and thus keep them from sticking, and one that is unnecessary with American aromatic rice or imported Basmati. Karen Hess explains in The Carolina Rice Kitchen that after the Arab invasion of Persia in the seventh century, pilau followed Islam with Arab settlers and traders: to India with the Moghuls, where it became “pullao”; to Turkey, where it became “pilaf”; and to Africa, where it generally kept its name and where rice was already grown, although it was not of a quality comparable to the high-yielding Persian varieties that the Arabs introduced. In South Carolina the preferred slaves were from Gambia, which, like many countries near the Gold Coast of West Africa, grew rice in quantity.

New Modern Recipes

John Martin Taylor calls shrimp pilau a low-country classic even today, and gives a fine recipe for it in Hoppin’ Johnk Lowcountry Cooking. You need first to make shrimp stock, because the flavor of the dish depends on a good stock. This entails the chore of peeling one and a half to two pounds of small or medium shrimp. Using large shrimp as a shortcut won’t help – they have much less flavor, and will be less evenly distributed through the pilau. If you can find head-on shrimp, buy them. Peel the shrimp and reserve the meat in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator. Simmer the shells in three quarts of water with a large unpeeled onion cut in quarters, one large or two small carrots and two celery ribs cut in chunks, and a handful of fresh herbs such as parsley, basil, thyme, or oregano. After forty-five minutes or so strain the stock, pressing on the solids to extract all the liquid, and reserve it. If you can’t face peeling shrimp or waiting the forty-five minutes (you can prepare the stock the day before, of course), buy peeled shrimp – they are always expensive, but the smallest, which are the best, will be the cheapest – and resort to low-sodium canned chicken stock or dry cubes of fish bouillon.

Essential Points While Cooking

In a heavy-bottomed pan that has a tight-fitting cover, saute four slices of bacon until they are crisp. Set the bacon on paper towels to drain and pour out all but a tablespoon of fat. In it saute one and a half cups of chopped onion for five to ten minutes, until transparent. Add a cup of peeled, seeded, and chopped tomatoes (about one and a half pounds), either fresh, canned, or – best if you don’t have ripe fresh tomatoes – from an aseptic box (Pomi is a widely distributed brand); a quarter teaspoon of hot red pepper flakes; and three tablespoons of chopped parsley leaves. Simmer another five minutes, scraping up the browned bits from the bacon. Add three cups of shrimp stock and a teaspoon of salt if the stock is not salty, and bring to a boil. Stir in two cups of uncooked aromatic rice, cover, and reduce the heat to a low simmer for twelve minutes. While the rice cooks, crumble the bacon. After twelve minutes add the shrimp while fluffing the rice with a large fork. Cover the pan and let it stand on the lowest heat for five minutes or off the heat for five to ten minutes; this brief time will cook the shrimp. Toss with the crumbled bacon and serve.

I tried this recipe with fresh, highly flavored olive oil as a vegetarian alternative to bacon fat, and regret to report that much as I rely on olive oil, the dish was considerably duller. Still, a fragrant rice will make up for a great deal, as will a powerful stock. And remember that pilau is, as Hess puts it, a “culinary conceit”: it can be infinitely varied by liquid and garnish. Good places to start for ideas are Taylor’s book, any of Julie Sahni’s Indian cookbooks, and – for the historically adventurous – Hess’s book, which in any case makes good reading. Among the many pleasures of pilau is that, as with so many dishes, real creativity can start with the leftovers.