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Archive for March, 2012

Disclaimer: What I am about to show you flies in the face of thousands of years of rice-cooking tradition, as well as everything I learned in culinary school. It’s all Amy Karol‘s fault. Blame her. And read her blog. She is awesome.

I don’t know what it is about a bowl of fresh, hot, perfectly cooked rice that is so comforting, so soothing, such a panacea for frazzled nerves & empty stomachs. But I also know that cooking rice gives folks the absolute fits, myself included for many years. The precise ratio of water to rice, the iron clad rule of never ever lifting the lid under penalty of death, the inevitable mis-timing that leads to sad little piles of crunchy/soggy/scorched rice when the rest of dinner is ready to go.

A good rice cooker is a beautiful thing, but also a potentially expensive & bulky piece of equipment to have cluttering up your kitchen. And for my money, baked rice is only good if you’re firing up the oven anyway. You really don’t want to know what I think of boil-in-bag/instant/pre-cooked rice. Really.

Lucky for me, I read a variety of food & craft blogs, & one of my favorite writers started me on the road to a ridiculously simple but nearly foolproof method of cooking rice that yields perfect. fluffy, non-gummy grains every time. You can cook just about any kind of rice or whole grain this way – even the dreaded brown rice, which we really need to eat more of. There’s no delicate timing, no special equipment, and the finished rice will rest happily until the rest of the meal is ready. It’s an all around win.

The secret is two-fold – rinsing & pre-soaking the rice, then free-boiling it in a large amount of water, just like you would pasta. Rinsing & soaking the rice keeps the grains fluffy & separate instead of a gummy mess, & free-boiling allows you perfect control over when to pull your rice from the heat, without the risk of scorching or under cooking. It’s a really simple process, so let’s get cooking.

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Perfectly Cooked Rice:

Raw rice (appx 1/2 c per serving)

Bowl

1 t salt

Optional aromatics (a few black peppercorns, cardamom pods, or a bay leaf)

2-4 qt saucepan or pot, depending on how much rice you’re cooking, with a tight-fitting lid

Sieve

Clean dish towel/cloth napkin

Trivet/hot pad

About 30-45 minutes before you want your rice to be ready, measure your raw rice into a medium-sized bowl & cover it with 1-2 inches of water. Swish the water & rice around with your hands a few times, then carefully drain out the water (use your sieve if you like, or just pour out as much water as you can). Repeat, drain, then cover the rinsed rice with 1-2 inches of room temperature water & set the bowl aside to soak. Allow your rice to soak for about 10 minutes (20 if you’re using brown rice).

Fill your saucepan or pot with fresh water & set it over high heat, adding the salt & optional aromatics. (I especially use cardamom for Indian dishes.) Cover the pot & bring your water to a rapid boil.

Drain off the soaking water & add your rice to the boiling water, stirring constantly for the first few minutes until the water comes back to a rolling boil. Lower the heat so you have a nice lively simmer & let your rice cook away. Resist the urge to cover the pot at this stage, as it’ll boil over & make a stupid mess. Not that I’d know from experience.

After 6 minutes or so, start checking your rice, using a fork to pull out a few grains for tasting. As a rule, white/basmati/jasmine rice should take less than 10 minutes to cook, so keep an eye on it. When your rice is tiny bit chewier than you’d like, turn off the heat.

Pour the rice out through the sieve, shaking out as much water as you can before returning the rice to the still-warm pot. Put the pot on a trivet or hot pad (not back on the burner). Cover the pot with a clean tea towel or cloth napkin, then fit the lid on tightly. The cloth will help seal the lid, & captures excess steam before it condenses & drips back into your rice.

Let your rice rest in the pot for about 5 minutes, the uncover, fluff with a fork & marvel at your rice-cooking prowess.

Note: If you want a stickier rice, better suited for eating with chopsticks, try using short-grain rice & cooking it for just a bit longer. Authentic technique? No. Easy & tasty & better for you than Chinese take-out? You betcha.

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We eat a good bit of tofu in our house, at least one meal a week, & I’m always looking for new ways to serve it that don’t go too far into the make-it-taste-like-meat realm. If we wanted to eat meat… we’d eat it, you know? This is one of my favorite dinners for late winter, when the nights can still be raw & local spring veggies aren’t yet in the market. It’s quick to make, nice & filling, & a satisfying burst of color & flavor on a grey day. It’s adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, my be-all-end-all cookbook for many, many years.

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Tofu & Butternut Squash Curry, Thai-Style

Serves 4-6

2 decent-sized leeks, about an inch in diameter

2 T oil (veg or olive)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 T minced fresh ginger OR 1 t ground ginger

1 T Oriental-style or sweet curry powder

1 t brown or turbinado sugar

3 T soy sauce

1 can coconut milk (we use light/lite style)

1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded & cut into 1/2 inch cubes (see this post on how to manage it without taking off a thumb)

1 block firm/extra firm tofu, silken or traditional, drained & cut into 1/2 inch cubes

1 c fresh green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces, OR 1 c frozen peas, OR 1 c thinly sliced red/green bell peppers

Sriracha, lime juice, salt & chopped fresh cilantro to taste

1 c cooked basmati/jasmine rice per person

Start by prepping your vegetables & tofu… I handle leeks a bit differently than I was taught in culinary school, where we used only the white parts to add flavor & a delicate texture to a dish. Leeks can get spendy, & there’s no way I’m tossing what amounts to half the weight & most of the nutrients for the sake of a bit of snobbery. Look for leeks that are firm & reasonably clean – they’re grown in mounds of earth to get those long, pale legs, so expect at least a little dirt. Chop off the root end & the straggly ends of the leaves, then slice them in quarters lengthwise. Chop into small strips about 1/4 inch wide, toss them into a sieve & rinse really well under cold running water. This step washes out the inevitable sand pockets & dirt that lurk between the leek’s translucent layers. You can rinse the quarters whole before chopping, but I find I inevitably lose half of it into the sink when I do it that way.

Drain your tofu & slice it into 1/2 inch slabs. Press the slabs between several layers of paper towel with a cutting board on top while you get the curry started. This step helps force out some of the water, allowing the tofu to absorb more of the flavorful sauce once it gets added to the pot.

Dismember your butternut squash, as detailed here.

Get your rice fired up, if you don’t have any pre-cooked. I soak & free-boil my rice, a process I detail in this post.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, add your oil & the leeks, stirring often until they collapse & start to go slightly translucent. You can add a pinch of salt to the pot to help this stage go a bit faster, if you like. Add your garlic, ginger & curry powder, & stir for a minute or two til fragrant.

(On the topic of curry powder, look for a light, sweet curry for this recipe. If you have access to an Asian grocer, S&B is my favorite brand. If not, use a plain, sweet yellow curry powder, preferably not too heavy on the cumin if you can manage it.)

Add your prepared squash to the pot, & stir for a few minutes to coat it evenly with the spice & leek mixture. Add your coconut milk, sugar & soy sauce, plus enough water to just cover the squash (3-4 cups is usually about right). Stir well & bump the heat up a bit to bring the whole pot just to the boil. Back the heat off til you have a nice, gentle simmer, & let things bubble away for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the squash is quite tender, turn off the heat & give the pot a few pulses with your immersion blender – this helps emulsify the mixture into a rich, silky sauce. If you don’t have an immersion blender or like a more rustic texture, you can totally skip this step.

Turn the heat back to medium/low, & add your tofu, green beans/peas/peppers. Simmer away for a few minutes til the veggies are just done but still crisp, & taste for seasoning – you’ll probably want to add about 1/2 t salt at this stage. Stir in the optional lime juice & cilantro, & dinner’s ready.

Serve over hot rice with a few shakes of sriracha, & have a happy belly.

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It seems like we’re holding our breath right now, waiting for spring to properly arrive. The nights are still pretty cold, & it’s too soon for anything local in the way of delicate spring vegetables, so much of what we’re eating are the traditional winter holdovers: potatoes in every shape & form, dark leafy greens, mushrooms, broccoli, & of course, winter squash.

I think winter squashes as a whole get a really bad rap – everyone loves a pumpkin, but mention acorn, buttercup, kabocha & folks tend to recoil. I blame the health food movement of the 1970s, which made steamed & stuffed acorn squashes the ubiquitous (& often flavorless) vegetarian offering at many a Thanksgiving feast. Handled incorrectly, winter squash devolves easily into watery yellow mush which no amount of salt, soy sauce or nutritional yeast can salvage.

Roasted, baked, or simmered carefully, however, & winter squash condenses into a rich, blaze orange wallop of flavor & nutrients that marries beautifully with sweet & savory ingredients. It stores well, & is an inexpensive but deliciously healthy hybrid of vegetable & starch to get you through the long grey winter.

Handling & preparing winter squash can seem a challenge to the uninitiated; they are heavy. And hard. Flippant recipes that direct one to “simply peel & dice” a winter squash can reduce even the most enthusiastic cook to tears. My advice: start small, & carry a big knife.

As a rule, winter squash varieties can be easily substituted for one another, so if it’s your first time, look for a nice compact butternut squash, with a wide, straight neck & a smaller bulb at the base. The neck is solid flesh, with no seed cavity to mess with, & is very easy to peel & cut if you have the right blade.

(If you don’t have a nice, big, heavy chefs knife in your arsenal, do yourself a favor & pick one up. It doesn’t have to cost you a fortune – one of my favorite knives was an $8 utility number from the local restaurant supply store. Just look for a solid tang, where you can see the metal of the blade running through the handle itself, & a handle made of wood or hard composite. It should feel heavy & solid in your hand, & be long enough that you can use your non-working hand to apply pressure down on the tip when needed – 10-12 inches is ideal (Go on. I can hear you sniggering.) A plain, tapered blade is the most versatile, especially if you’re not investing in multiple knives; save the cleavers & serrateds for when you’re ready to branch out.)

Every cook has their own way of handling their ingredients; I’ll describe how I treat winter squash, but it’s by no means the only way to handle them. I know folks who swear by vegetable peelers & hammers, & more power to them if that’s what works.

To dice winter squash, first cut off the stem & blossom ends of the squash, just a 1/2 inch slice or so to get rid of the tough parts. Then, cut the whole squash in half; if it’s a round squash (acorn, buttercup, pumpkin, etc.), just hack it straight down the middle; if it’s a butternut, cut right where the straight neck starts to flare out into the bottom bulb, & then cut the bulb itself in half. Take your time, use steady, slow pressure, & use the heel of your other hand to help push down on the far tip of the knife. Needless to say, keep your fingers up & out of the way. If the knife sticks in the squash, gently pick the whole thing up by the knife handle & tap gently on your work surface to break the surface tension between the blade & the flesh. Once you have manageable halves, use a sharp-edged spoon or ice cream scoop to scrape out the seeds & fibrous netting.

Now the peeling bit. Set a chunk of squash flat-side down on your work surface & cut just under the skin, from top to bottom. Use a gentle sawing motion, & if your knife is reasonably sharp, it should cut through fairly easily. Repeat around the circumference of the squash til the whole thing is peeled. When in doubt, cut a little deeper – the pale layer of flesh just under the skin can be unpleasantly tough, so don’t be shy. Once peeled, you can whack the flesh into 1/2-1 inch chunks as your recipe dictates.

If your recipe calls for pureed squash, you’re in luck. Roasting winter squash is an easy way to get velvety smooth, dense puree. First, preheat the oven to 350F, &  find a baking sheet or shallow casserole big enough to fit your squash times two. Hack your squash in half & scrape out the seeds & fibers. Pour about half an inch of water into your baking dish, & set the cut sides of the squash down into it. Bake for 30-60 minutes, or as long as it takes for you to be able to easily insert a paring knife through the skin – the time will vary depending on how big/thick your squash is. Let the halves cool enough to handle, then use a large spoon (or that ice cream scoop again) to scrape out the cooked flesh. Give it a quick whirl in a food processor or run it through a ricer/smash it with a potato masher & voila! Tasty, fully cooked, non-watery squash.

Next, I’ll give you a few ideas as to what to do with your freshly diced/pureed squash…

 

 

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