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.
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 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.
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
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
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
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
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 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.