Monday, March 26, 2007

Perfect Sticky Rice

In my last post I mentioned that I make pretty killer rice. What I mean is that I've learned a way to make rice that is perfect for Asian dishes and stir-fries - anytime you need a sticky rice, really. It's dirt simple, and works every time. I combined a couple of different techniques, one from chef and restaurateur Ming Tsai, and the other from a guest chef working with Julia Child. I wish I could remember her name.

Before I used this technique, cooking rice was hit or miss. Usually, I'd check it and there would still be too much water left, so I'd let it sit longer and end up burning the rice. Now I get perfect rice every time.

Let me warn you that this recipe doesn't work well for other dishes. This is sticky rice, so it's easy to eat with chopsticks, unlike the non-sticky variety for rice pilaf or other kinds of rice dishes.

This technique works for every variety of rice I've ever tried it on, as long as you don't mix varieties. Some strains of rice absorb water at different rates and I've gotten unpleasant results when mixing two different kinds. It also requires no real measuring on your part, so leave your measuring cups in the cupboard. The one thing this does require is a bit of time, and a marginally watchful eye and nose.

First, get your favorite pot and put in as much rice as you need for the next meal. I make a lot of rice at a time. Keep in mind that rice expands to about three times its normal size, so don't fill the pot more than 1/4 of the way up. You want to leave a little room at the top.

Rinse the rice in cold water until the water runs mostly clear, at least three times. This gets rid of any dirt and excess rice gluten. That way you get rice kernels, instead of a glob of rice mush.

Next, put in enough fresh water to cover the rice and let it sit for 20 minutes. Then clean the rice as above one more time.

After you've drained the water off the rice, put the pot in the sink under the tap. Put one of your hands, palm side down, into the pot on top of the rice. Put in enough water to just cover the base of your middle knuckle. This is what Ming Tsai refers to as the "Mount Fuji method." You're bringing the water to the base of Mount Fuji. (Thanks Ming!)

Add about a 1/4 tsp of salt, depending on how much rice you're cooking. The reason to add salt now is not so much to help it boil, but so you don't have flat tasting rice.

Cover the pot and put it on the stove over high heat, just bringing it to a boil. It amazed me how many people do not cover their pots when heating. It helps keep the heat in so it will come to a boil faster.

Turn the heat down to medium low. Keep your eye (and nose) on the pot. A glass lid can really help. If it starts to boil over a bit, just pull the lid off and let some of the heat escape. Check it every so often. When you just start smelling rice, use a spoon to pull a bit of rice to the side and check the bottom. If there's no excess water (and there probably won't be), take it off the heat and let it sit, covered, for five minutes.

Now you have perfect rice for Asian dishes!

I always make more rice than I'll need. Leftover rice is always welcome in my house for quick meals. If the rice gets a little dry, just put a tablespoon of water in with the cooked rice and reheat it in the microwave. It really does bring it back to life.

Improvised Mutant Enchiladas

My mother is a good cook. My friends used come over around dinner time because her food. I think she had more influence on me becoming a foodie than she planned. She never gave me formal cooking lessons, mind you. It was just her simple dishes, and killer results, that got me interested.

My Dad's not too bad in the kitchen, either. I remember a time when I was younger and my Mom was in the hospital. Dad took over the cooking that week. I was more than a little nervous. Here was a guy that worked in construction. Sure, he knew his way around a hammer and saw like nobody's business. Pots and pans? Who was he trying to kid?

I was wrong. He had the courage to introduce a skeptical pre-teen boy to stewed tomatoes. Thank you, Dad. They were the first, and best, stewed tomatoes I've ever had.

I think my Dad's courage in the kitchen wore off a bit on me, too. He gave me the courage to improvise.

I love to try out new ideas. Cruelly, I try them out on my family and friends. Still, the age old conundrum faces me just like it faces every other cook. What to do with the leftovers?

If the dish is particularly bad, I'll throw it out. At a certain point it's just not worth trying to salvage. Leftovers are great for lunches, but after few days of eating the same thing every day, it's time for some change. Sometimes you can use leftovers to build different, and better, dishes.

Let me give you an example. Last weekend we had a potluck dinner with some friends. I made up a huge amount of vaguely Spanish / Mexican flavored rice. I cooked up a bunch of rice and stirred in some crushed tomatoes, garlic, onion, chili powder, and so on. I would have added some red pepper flakes, but some people don't handle the heat very well so I'm always careful when cooking for others.

The problem I have cooking rice is that I make great Asian sticky rice but, I can't make the non-sticky variety very well. After making the rice, and stirring in all the other bits, I put it in a low temp oven to keep it warm, adding to the sticky factor. It was thick enough that, if you didn't have worry about the flies, you could probably use it to patch holes in sheetrock. It tasted okay, but just okay. Needless to say, there were a lot of leftovers.

I didn't want to throw it out, but it was obvious it wasn't going to get eaten by itself. I had to do something.

Summoning my father-given courage, I mixed together beef stock with some vegetable juice, chili powder, garlic, parsley, and lime juice to make a thin sauce. Next, I smeared sour cream over the top of flour tortillas, dropped in some of the leftover rice fiasco and a bit of grated cheddar cheese. Then I rolled the whole thing up like a burrito. I made about six of these.

I then poured a thin layer of sauce in the bottom of a roasting pan, and stuck the rice burrito things next to each other like the mutant concoctions they were. I poured the rest of the sauce over the mess and added some more grated cheese on top for good measure. Then I popped them in a 400 degree F oven until the cheese was melted and gooey, and the sauce had thickened a bit. Periodically I'd spoon some of the sauce from the pan over the top of these weird things just to keep the tops from drying out too much, and get the juices everywhere.

They were a hit! My culinary improvisation allowed me to save the day, and use up a good deal of leftovers, making an easy Sunday meal. My kids kept asking "What do you call this, Dad?" I didn't have a clue what to call it. I think I settled on "Mexican Leftover Surprise." The surprise part is that they had nothing to do with Mexico. Not really, anyway.

I think I should have stuck with "Mutant Enchiladas."