Friday, October 17, 2008

Nothing So Nice as a Bowl of Rice

My post on Monday about making Arroz con Pollo sent me into our pantry here at the restaurant and got me thinking about rice. I love carbs and call me weird for an American, but of all the carbs including bread, I crave rice the most.

When I was growing up, my rice universe was confined to the only kind that I had ever seen or eaten, long-grained white rice. Now my pantry is not complete without at least a dozen rices—none of which is the long-grained white rice that I grew up eating—each with different uses and cooking methods.

Rices are generally divided into three categories by length: long grain, medium grain, and short grain. Long-grained rices tend to stay separate with little stickiness. Medium-grained rices are stickier. Short-grained rices are very sticky and tend to release a lot of starch. Here is a sketch of some of the rices that we use.

Basmati Rice. Our workhorse long-grained rice at the restaurant, Basmati is grown in the foothills of the Himalayas and is no doubt the rice that you have encountered at Indian restaurants. It has a wonderful fragrance unlike any other rice, and the flavor and fragrance improve with the age of the rice, to a point. When cooked, the grains are extremely long, distinct, and fluffy. This rice is a true joy in the kitchen.

Jasmine Rice. We use this long-grained rice from Thailand quite a bit. Also fragrant, but not as fragrant or as long-grained as Basmati, Jasmine rice is a great all purpose rice. The fragrance is more floral where I would say that Basmati smells nutty. Jasmine is also a bit stickier and that is an advantage in many cases. When we want to put a mold of rice in the middle of a bowl, we will use Jasmine because the grains stick together more than Basmati.

Carolina Gold. This is an heirloom American rice that is in short but increasing supply, available from Anson Mills. With a long grain and a nutty and buttery flavor, this is an excellent rice whose character depends on the cooking method. When parboiled, the grains will stay separate; otherwise it takes on a risotto-like consistency. I am very pleased to see this rice, the foundation of the “Carolina Rice Cuisine,” making a comeback thanks to dedicated growers. I urge you to try it.

Risotto Rices. There are several kinds of this medium-grained rice on the market; the most well known is Arborio. Other fairly widely available varieties are Carnaroli and Vialone Nano. Varieties not often found outside of Italy include Baldo, Padano, and Roma. These stubby medium-grained rices never get quite soft and they give off a lot of starch, exactly what is needed for a perfect risotto. They are almost always cooked in an open pan by the slow addition of liquid, with frequent stirring to yield a creamy product.

Paella Rices. Paella rice is a medium-grained rice that separates well when cooked and does not release as much starch as risotto rice. From Calasparra in the Murcia region of Spain, these rices were at one point almost extinct. Bomba is the premium variety. Anything labelled simply Calasparra is likely to be the Sollana variety. All the paella rices produce a very dry grain at harvest, allowing them to absorb a lot more liquid than most rice. These wonderful products are available at La Tienda.

Sushi Rices. Sushi rices are medium- to short-grained rices that are fairly sticky, necessary so that the rice holds together as a base for the fish. Many of the best sushi rices come from California and are imported into Japan. American sushi chefs squabble over the two major brands: Kokuho Rose and Nishiki. Although my favorite sushi chef swears by Nishiki, I prefer a really high grade rice that is not available in grocery stores. But honestly, the skill of the sushi-master at making rice trumps the brand of rice every time, all other things being equal. That is, you would be better served practicing how to make perfect sushi rice rather than worrying about brand of rice.

Sticky or Glutinous Rice. A short-grain rice also known as sweet rice, this rice is the sticky rice of dim sum fame. Mostly, it is used for desserts, often mixed with coconut milk. Soaked overnight and then steamed, this rice requires a very different cooking technique than you may be used to. I love green papaya salad with sticky rice, Som Tom, a Thai classic.

Black Rice. There are two kinds of black rice, a short-grained sticky rice from Thailand, often called Thai purple rice, an excellent dessert rice. I love to make rice pudding from this rice with coconut milk, coconut, candied pineapple, candied papaya, and a little brown or palm sugar. Macadamia nuts finish off this very decadent dish. The other kind is a medium-grained rice from China called Forbidden Rice. I like it in more savory applications because it has a flavor and texture somewhat reminiscent of wild rice. Both rices start black and finish a deep purple. The color bleeds so anything that you cook with black rice will end up deep purple.

Wild Rice. Not a rice at all, but rather the very long seed of an unrelated grass (Zizania aquatica), this grain is treated as a rice because it is cooked and served just like rice. I really like its nutty and chewy character, especially with duck and game.

There are thousands and thousands of kinds of rice in the world and of those, we also use small amounts of several, including Bhutanese Red Rice, a rice with a rusty brown bran, not all of which is polished away. And we use Bamboo Rice, a sushi rice that has been infused with the juice of bamboo, giving it a green tea fragrance.

There are also rices that we don't use at the restaurant. Remember the long-grained white rice of my youth? We prefer either of the aromatic rices: Basmati or Jasmine. Converted rice, otherwise known as Uncle Ben’s, has no place in our kitchen. It takes a mere 15-20 minutes to cook rice from scratch so we have no need for the quicker cooking converted rice. And we've tried Texmati, a hybrid Basmati grown in the US, and found it wanting. It has none of the flavor and character of true Basmati so we see no need to pay a premium for it. And then there's brown rice, white rice without the bran layer removed. Widely available and widely touted for its health benefits, it takes a long time to cook and I have to say that I really just don't care for it.

Finally, I must admit in public that I don't know how to use a rice cooker. Call me a dinosaur, but I have always cooked rice in a pot and I will always cook rice in a pot. I bought a rice cooker once when I had to cater a gig with rice for 60 people. The rice cooker and I were a miserable failure. I ended up cooking many batches in my favorite rice pan. I can cook perfect rice every time in a pan, but I'll be damned if I can figure out a rice cooker. Anyone want to buy a slightly used rice cooker?

No comments:

Post a Comment