Sunday, March 9, 2008

Day 4: Rice Pilaf

Ok, so it's just baby steps. We're starting from zero, after all. Rice Pilaf: The French Vanilla of rice. I think I nailed this one, I really do. Did I mention that this chapter of Dummies is all about how to boil water and what to do with it once you've managed that? Not thrilling, but something every dummy should know. Lots of pictures this time (still bad cell phone shots because our old and crappy point and shoot doesn't like anything but bright lighting and because our less crappy but even older SLR only uses this stuff called "film"). Hopefully they're instructive anyway. Also, I've given up on avoiding lawsuits, so here is the recipe for Rice Pilaf:

Basic Rice Pilaf:

1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 medium onion, minced
1/2 red bell pepper, minced
1 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup white rice
2 1/4 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup chopped almonds (optional)
1/4 cup raisins or currants (optional)
Black pepper

In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, pepper, cumin powder and salt. Sauté until the onion starts to soften, about 5 minutes

Add rice and cook, stirring, until the rice is coated, about 3 minutes. Pour in chicken broth and bring to a boil. Stir and cover.

Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes

Remove from heat and let stand, covered, about 5 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed. Stir in almonds and/or raisins, if desired. Black pepper to taste. Eat.

There are no almonds in my picture. Our kids are deathly allergic, so we try to avoid bringing them in the house. I know I should sacrifice for my art, but it seemed a little drastic to my wife.

First things first: Chopping onions and red peppers. I've known how to do onions for a while now, so here is my illustrated guide to onion dicing:

Cut the onion in half, from pole to pole (not through the fat middle).

In the picture you can see what I mean.

Take one of the halves and cut off one of the tips. I do this to make peeling a little easier (if you look closely, you'll see the skin is still on my onions). I usually cut off the the 'hairy' end, just because it's a little messier and I like to get it out of the way.

Once that's done and the onion is peeled, take the half you're working with and put it flat-side down on the cutting board. Cut the onion parallel to the cutting board 3 or 4 times, depending on how thick it is. But don't cut all the way through. You want to keep the onion in one piece but have these cuts running through it. That's why I only cut off one of the ends. I leave the other one there to help keep the thing together..

Next, cut in the opposite direction 5 or 6 times. Start about 1/4 inch from the end you didn't chop off, and cut through to the flat end.

Now, cut across the onion, all the way through, starting from the flat end (the point you cut off) and work your way back up to the other end. If you've done it right, each time you make a cut, you'll get a little pile of diced onions.

Now, chop up the red pepper. First, cut a hole in the top around the stem and pull it out.

Then, cut it in half, from top to bottom. You'll see the seeds and the white stuff the seeds are attached to. Rinse out the seeds and as much of the white stuff as comes off. Cut the rest of the white stuff out and toss it.

Put the pepper flat-side down on the cutting board, and slice lengthwise 10 times or so, and then crosswise 7 or 8 times to make little cubes.

Seriously, the chopping is the most time-consuming part of this. Chopping the pepper is pretty obvious, but someone showed me the onion trick, and I never would have thought of it myself. It really makes it much faster. It also works on tomatoes, but it's a little more messy.

So, chop it up, throw it in the sauce pan. I measured the tablespoon of olive oil, because that's just how I roll, but I don't think it's necessary. For sautéing like this, I think the rule of thumb is to use just enough to coat the bottom of the pan.

Also, I don't think it's important to use olive oil. By the time you get done cooking it and mixing it in with everything else, I think you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between it and whatever vegetable oil you have around, or even butter for that matter.

(Update: Some kind soul emailed me to let me know that the issue with butter is that it burns at a lower temperature than oil, and gets scorched. I've done that before, and it's not a disaster, but it definitely doesn't taste great. It probably wouldn't be an issue here, the temperature for cooking the onions along with the fact that you should be stirring them quite a bit as they cook means that butter would probably be fine. Not true for things that require higher temps. Lesson learned. Thanks to the self-described anal retentive reader, too shy or embarrassed to admit it comments. My first email about the blog.
Nice to know someone's reading- maybe I should print it out and frame it like stores do with their first dollar bill.)

One thing I've noticed before and saw here, is that when you start cooking the onions, they seem to soak up whatever liquid is in the pan. If you pay attention, you can see them swell up a little. If you keep cooking them, they release the liquid back into the pan and start to shrink. I don't know what good this knowledge is, but there you go. For this recipe, add the rice before the onions start giving the liquid back. When I added it, there was basically none in the pan.

After that, it's pretty straightforward. Like a dork, I measured out a half teaspoon of salt, but before I put it in, I put it in my hand and took a picture. Now I know what half a teaspoon of kosher salt looks like, and so do you. Next time I might wing it. Who am I kidding?

Also, not like I know what I'm talking about, but I think golden raisins would have gone better than the black ones I used. I think they're a little less sweet.

This recipe is definitely a keeper. Not enough to make a meal of it's own, but very simple, hard to screw up too badly, and it will impress your date much more than Uncle Ben's (and that's what this is all about, isn't it?)

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Day 3: Rice

I almost skipped this one too. Plain rice. How hard can it be?

We actually own a rice cooker, which I actually know how to operate. So I can cook rice. My wife laughed at me again on this one. We eat tons of rice, but I stuck to my guns, and made the rice.

Nothing particularly spectacular in the book about how to cook rice. Basically, one cup of rice, two cups of water. Boil water, add rice, and let it simmer for about 30 minutes.

Depending on what kind of rice you use, you need to add a little more or a little less water. We tend to use jasmine rice a lot, and 2:1 works pretty well. It could go as low as 1 3/4 cups water per cup of rice even. For something like basmati, it's even lower. The problem is that it actually depends not only on the variety of rice, but also the brand. Some brands of jasmine we've bought need as little as 1 1/2 cups of water per cup of rice, but that's rare.

If I were you, I'd start with 2:1 and see how you like it.

Dummies also suggests using something other than water, or along with water, like chicken, beef, or vegetable broth. It says to replace some or all of the water with the broth. I went with chicken broth and picked up a can at the store. The label said 14oz, which is just a little less than 2 cups, so I went with the whole can and no water.

No pictures this time, my camera wouldn't cooperate, but the rice came out slightly brown or beige because of the broth. I found this a little ironic, because if you see any Indian advertising for rice, one of the big selling points is how eye-piercing white their particular brand is.

Anyway, it wouldn't do for high class Indian dignitaries, but it tasted pretty good. Not fancy by any stretch, and you obviously want to serve it with something, but I won't be buying the Uncle Ben's wild rice mix anymore, I think.

Quick, simple, and easy. Works for me.

Basic Rice:

1 cup rice

1 can (14 oz) Chicken, Beef, or Vegetable broth, or
2 cups water,
or cups of any combination of water and broth

Bring water/broth to a boil in a medium saucepan (ours is 3 liters, as printed on the bottom).
Pour in rice, and mix.
Bring it back to a boil.
Reduce heat to low/medium-low (just enough to keep it simmering).
Simmer for 30 minutes, or until all the water is gone.

I've always been told not to stir rice when it's cooking, though I've never been told why, so don't.

Fluff it with a fork and serve.

Serves 4 or so as a side dish.