ATLANTA — Of the many ways I can be humbled in the kitchen, rice is at the top of the list. I’m not a bad cook but, oh, the pots of rice I have driven to a gummy, scorched grave.
I blame heritage and inattention. An Italian mother raised me largely in the Midwest. Pasta I can nail in my sleep. The potato is my wingman. But rice? It’s my kryptonite.
Centuries of family history do not inform every handful of rice I rinse. I hold no natural rice culinary agility. Rice just wasn’t very rewarding for me to cook, so I hadn’t invested much time trying to learn. Cooking is like that sometimes.
This didn’t cause me much concern until I moved to the South, where rice was king before cotton. The entire culinary canons of South Louisiana and the Lowcountry of the Carolinas and the Georgia coast rest on a bed of tender rice, each individual grain happy to be part of a gentle, supportive backdrop to whatever it touches.
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My rice failings only became more apparent, so I embarked on a simple culinary quest: learn to cook a good pot of long-grain rice.
My first call was to Pableaux Johnson, 48, a food writer who often refers to himself as “your Cajun grandma with a beard.” I came at it from the flank, acting as if I were just calling for a casual rice chat. I even threw in some random facts to cover my ineptitude. “You know, half the rice in America is grown in Arkansas,” I said.
And, by the way, did he have a good, basic method for cooking it?
“Sweetie, buy a rice cooker,” he said. “That’s how little old Cajun ladies roll and little old Japanese ladies roll.”
Cultures that live and die by rice have embraced the electric rice cooker ever since it debuted in Japan in the 1950s. There is no shame, Johnson said, in using a machine whose premeasured precision guarantees perfect rice with the push of a button and frees up a burner on the stove.
But for me, that would be to admit defeat. And I didn’t want another one-function gadget in my kitchen.
So I turned my attention to the Middle East, and spun through my contacts. I called Samin Nosrat, 34. She’s a cook in the Bay Area who spent part of her adolescence cleaning rice with her grandmother near the shore of the Caspian Sea in northern Iran.
Nosrat, who is working on a cookbook called “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat,” made me feel better but not less confused.
Cal Peternell, the longtime chef at Chez Panisse, shares my problem, Nosrat said. When she goes to his house to cook, she always has to make the rice.
“I don’t think you’re alone,” she said. “I think rice phobia is a thing.”
Her own tips for a good pot of basic rice were elusive. She spoke of various stocks and hard boils and steaming and adding a handful of this or that. Timing was fluid.
Undeterred, I sought advice from an Egyptian contact. Sylvia Totah Calabrese, 63, lives in Manhattan and has taken up food blogging as a hobby.
“My family was in the rice business in the Ottoman Empire since the 15th century, so it is mother’s milk to me,” Calabrese said. She, too, threw out rice-cooking tips as if she were shelling pistachios. Salt it extremely well. Rinse it until you see the water run clear because less starch means each grain will be separate from the next. Use very good rice.
“It baffles me that people can’t cook rice, but I am somebody who doesn’t know what to do with a potato or a pork chop,” she said. “I fully understand there are major cultural difference that come into it. There is a reason Uncle Ben’s was invented.”
Family and friends were less sympathetic. I was schooled by my oldest brother, Keith, and by Julia Moskin, a fellow food writer at The New York Times. They promised redemption using that method where you put your finger in the pot and measure rice to the first knuckle and water to the second. Or is it water to the first knuckle with your finger resting on top of the rice?
A Facebook plea landed me dozens of wonderful rice memories and tips for making sticky rice and wild rice and rice with coconut milk or peeled chestnuts or various Yankee combinations of milk and sugar. It was all beautiful, but at the end of the day I couldn’t cook a potful.
So I ventured back South, calling the people who grow an heirloom variety called Carolina Gold that is becoming popular in a lot of cooking circles. Carolina Gold is a nutty, sweet and slightly persnickety long-grain rice that can cook up either fluffy and independent or sticky enough to hold together in Southern dishes like Hoppin’ John, a derivative of African one-pot rice dishes.
The farmers bringing it back pay homage to the African slaves who were expert rice growers and developed the Gullah/Geechee Lowcountry cuisine.
Matthew Raiford, a chef, and his sister, Althea, are testing a strain of Carolina Gold on their family’s 25-acre farm in Brunswick, Ga., on the state’s Southern coast. They are the sixth generation to work the farm, and they grew up eating rice dishes that evolved from African slave kitchens.
“Down here rice has always been one of those things that’s about how do we survive,” he said.
So, I asked, how do I cook it?
“You got to love on it a little bit,” he said.
Could he get more specific?
“I didn’t learn how to cook rice when I went to culinary school,” he said. “I just watched my mom and my aunt make it in the rice pot. We had rice and lima beans. Rice and peas. Rice and everything. I just grew up with that thing around rice.”
I thanked him. At this point, I knew I was going to have just go it alone — with a little help from a sympathetic cook with my same affliction.
Virginia Willis, a Southern chef, couldn’t make decent rice until she went to culinary school. She finally mastered a pilaf with chicken stock that bakes in the oven. In her book “Bon Appétit, Y’all,” she calls it her $20,000 Rice Pilaf because that’s how much a year of culinary education cost her.
I like how Willis cooks, so I decided to try baking my rice the way she did. I stripped down her recipe and tinkered with it, using water instead of chicken stock, and playing with ratios. I also decided I liked a little butter and salt in my rice, despite dire warnings from some rice purists.
And then I made rice. Pots of rice. I made it in the morning and at night, when I was tired and when I was hangry (that’s a mix of hungry and angry) and when I was happy and the house was filled with people.
And now, I know rice. At least, a little bit.
Makes 2 cups
1 cup long-grain white rice
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Rinse rice well under cold water.
2. In a large ovenproof saucepan, heat butter over medium heat until foaming. Add rice and stir to combine. Cook until rice is coated with butter and starts to smell nutty. Add 2 cups of water and the salt.
3. Bring to a boil, cover with a tightfitting lid and place in oven. Bake for 17 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand 10 minutes without removing the lid.
Makes 4 cups
1 large clove garlic, roughly chopped
2 cups canned tomatoes (fresh tomatoes can be used)
½ cup green bell pepper, roughly chopped
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
½ medium jalapeño, seeds and veins removed
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup chicken stock or water
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 heaping cup long-grain white rice, rinsed
1. Blend vegetables, salt and stock or water together into a mostly smooth purée (a few small pieces of onion and pepper are fine).
2. In a large skillet with a tightfitting lid, heat oil. Add rice and toast until it absorbs most of the oil and begins to smell nutty.
3. Add blended ingredients, stir gently with a wooden spoon to prevent breaking up the rice too much and bring to a light boil. Cover, reduce heat to the lowest setting and cook undisturbed for 17 minutes. Let sit for another 10 minutes.
— Adapted from Keith Severson
RED BEANS AND RICE
Makes about 12 cups
1½ pound dried red beans (preferably New Orleans Camelia brand)
1 pound andouille sausage, sliced ½-inch thick and cut into quarters (smoked sausage can also be used)
4 tablespoons olive oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 medium onions, finely diced
1 large rib celery, finely diced
1 medium green bell pepper, chopped
1½ teaspoons black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons salt
3 bay leaves
2 teaspoons dried basil
¾ teaspoon rubbed sage
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 bunch fresh scallions, chopped
Cooked white long-grain rice, for serving
1. In a large bowl, cover beans in water and soak for at least four hours or overnight. (Water should cover beans by at least an inch.)
2. In a large, heavy pot, brown sausage in 1 tablespoon of oil until slightly crisp. Add remaining oil, then the garlic and onions. Sauté over medium heat until onions become transparent and limp. Add celery and bell pepper and sauté for five minutes.
3. Pour soaked beans and soaking water into the pot and bring to a simmer. Add black pepper, cayenne, salt and all herbs except parsley.
4. Cook until beans are softened, about 1½ to 2 hours. Taste and adjust seasonings.
5. Fifteen minutes before serving, remove 1 cup of beans to a bowl and, using a fork, mash them and stir back into the pot to enhance the creamy texture of the dish. Add parsley and scallions. Simmer about 15 minutes, taste and adjust seasoning, and add up to 1 cup more water if beans seem too thick. Then serve over white long-grain rice.
— Adapted from Pableaux Johnson
Makes 4 to 6 rice cakes
2 cups leftover white rice, preferably long-grain or Carolina Gold
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup finely chopped zucchini
3 tablespoons chopped mint
1/3 cup green onion, chopped
1 cup sharp white cheddar, grated on the large hole of a box grater
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
1. In a large bowl, gently mix everything except the butter. Over medium-high heat, heat the butter in a large frying pan until it is foaming. (A nonstick pan is good for this purpose but cast iron can work well, too.)
2. Working in batches if necessary, and adding more butter as needed, use a large spoon or measuring cup to place a scoop of the rice mixture in the pan. Press down with the back of a spatula to form a patty. Cook three to four minutes, or until golden and crisp on the bottom. Gently flip patty and cook another three minutes or until golden. Keep warm on a paper-towel-covered plate or pan in a warm oven.