Alimentary, My Dear
Rice to Go
By Tamia Nelson
December 16, 2008
Rice is a familiar actor on the world’s culinary stage. Sometimes it plays a supporting role. At other times it’s the star. But it almost always gets rave reviews. Why? That’s easy. It doesn’t break the bank and it’s willing to tackle any part. Paddlers are among the many fans. Rice often features prominently in our main meals. It’s filling, a cinch to pack, and easy to embellish. It’s also a good source of carbohydrates, topping up our tanks so we can meet the physical challenges that the backcountry throws our way. Given rice’s many pluses, then, it’s no wonder that it’s a regular in paddling cooks’ meal plans. With so many varieties, and so many ways to use them, who can get bored? I’ve written about rice before, but there’s more to this multitalented grain than any single article can encompass. So here are some more ideas for…
Building Meals Around Rice
What’s that? You don’t like to cook? No problem. Just graze the aisles at the local HyperMart and fill your cart with boxed rice meals that require a minimum of prep work. Beans and rice, rice in meat (or meatless) sauces, rice and cheese, Asian rice dishes, Cajun rice dishes… The list goes on and on and on, and it’s even longer if you’re willing to spend a little more time at the stove. Minimalist cooks can assemble one-pot meals around quick-cooking or instant brown or white rice, using dried soups or sauces to provide a flavor boost. Don’t neglect the shelf-stable cups of ready-to-eat rice, either. These can be stirred into reconstituted sauces or canned (or reconstituted) soups and stews. Ambitious backcountry chefs can enhance boxed rice mixes with some dried (or fresh) fruit and vegetables, or a bit of grated Parmesan or other cheese, or they can stir in some salsa and serve the resulting mélange with tortillas or flatbread.
There are many more ways to add rice to your menu, of course, beginning with the familiar…
Commercial Rice Cakes
Store-bought rice cakes are lighter than air, and because they’re low in calories they’re popular with folks who are fighting the battle of the bulge. Others just love their crunchiness and subtle flavors—though a few old grouches feel that a styrofoam coffee cup would be more appetizing. Me? I’m in the middle. On their own, rice cakes are pretty dull fare, but they’re great vehicles for transporting sweet and savory treats to the mouth. Smear them with peanut butter, marmalade or berry preserves, cheeses or salsa and guacamole, or potted meat. Seen in this light, the rice cake is a sort of 21st-century journey cake. Read my “New Takes on Journey Cakes” for more ideas.
Does home-made sound better than store-bought? I think so. And not long ago I stumbled on a recipe for…
Making Homemade Rice Cakes
Chef Allen Lim of the Garmin-Chipotle cycling team has devised a rice cake that racers can eat on the go. This is fast food at its best, and there’s no reason why paddlers shouldn’t enjoy it, too. So I raced over to my test kitchen to whip up a batch. (If you’d like to see Chef Allen in action, and if you have a broadband connection, you can check out this video on the Team Garmin-Chipotle website.) I made a few changes, however. I left out the bacon and ham, for one thing. I also used the rice I happened to have on hand, a typical short-grained variety. This was a mistake. The resulting rice cakes tasted great, but they didn’t hold together. Basic short-grained rice just isn’t very sticky. So I used a glutinous sushi rice for my next batch. It had much better sticking power. Italian arborio—used in making risotto—should also do the trick.
Here’s the ingredient list:
- 1 cup sushi rice
- 2 cups water
- salt to taste
- 2 eggs
- olive oil for scrambling the eggs
- cooked bacon bits (optional)
- ham diced small (optional)
- balsamic vinegar or soy sauce (optional)
- ground black pepper
- grated Parmesan cheese
Preparing these rice cakes doesn’t involve much more than mixing the rice and scrambled eggs together with the other ingredients. When steaming the rice, use two cups of water to each cup of dry rice. Avoid overcooking, and add salt sparingly—the Parmesan you’ll add later is also salty (and so are most of the optional ingredients). A further reminder: use sushi rice. Not sure which rice is which? The photos below show the difference between regular short-grained rice (far left) and sushi rice (next picture over). The photo in the center displays the assembled ingredients—I left out the optional extras—and the one on the far right shows the cooked rice in an eight-inch-square baking dish.
Once the rice is ready, let it cool while you scramble two eggs in olive oil, then slide the scrambled eggs onto the rice (see the photo on the left, below). Next, grate some Parmesan cheese over the eggs and rice (use as little or as much as you wish) and add the black pepper (middle photo). At this point you can drizzle some balsamic vinegar or soy sauce over the rice and egg mix, if you want, and you can also add diced ham or bacon bits to boost the protein. Now stir all your ingredients together. Once the scrambled egg is evenly distributed, press the mixture to one side of the pan and shape it into a well-compacted block (right-hand photo).
Finally, cover the pan with plastic film to keep the rice moist and then cool the dish in the refrigerator. After the rice is thoroughly chilled, slice the block into four bars and transfer each bar—use a spatula—onto a square of aluminum foil. Now wrap each bar in foil, taking care to retain its shape. You’re done.
Not a foil fan? Then wrap your rice cakes in plastic, or make an edible wrapper with lettuce leaves:
Once that's done, pop the wrapped bars back in your fridge until you’re ready to head for the put-in. Don’t wait too long, though. They’ll keep in the refrigerator for a few days, but no more. And if your trip will last longer than a day, plan on storing your rice cakes in a soft cooler, along with a freezer block or two. Even then, a weekend is the limit. These homemade treats are perishable.
OK. That’s all in a day’s work for a cycling team’s professional chef. But does it seem like too much trouble for a weekend outing? Then take the easy road. Stir together a mélange of rice and eggs and roll the mixture in whole-wheat tortillas, along with some fresh spinach leaves. (The photo at the head of the article shows you the result.) Now wrap your egg-and-rice tortillas in foil and refrigerate till D-Day. Once you’re on the water, you’ve got a ready response whenever hunger strikes. Just peel the foil away from a rice-and-egg treat and eat your fill. Food doesn’t get any faster.
Variations on the theme? Sure! Rice to go doesn’t have to be savory. Sweet is good, too. When I was wondering what to do with a surplus of dry-as-dust commercial rice cakes, I came up with a candy bar based on a favorite combination: peanut butter and chocolate. I call them…
Rice ’n’ Chocolatey Peanut Butter Bars
Though I suppose I could also call them Styrofoam Redeemed. In any case, it’s early days yet in the test kitchen. These are still a work in progress. But the preliminary results are encouraging. Here’s the recipe:
- 16 ounces smooth peanut butter
- 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3 commercial rice cakes (lightly salted)
- 1 12-ounce package chocolate morsels
Crumble the rice cakes into a large mixing bowl, breaking them into pieces not much bigger than the individual grains of puffed rice. Then ladle a pound of peanut butter into the bowl and stir. A warning: This isn’t a job for the timid! Don’t hold back. Once the rice and peanut butter “batter” is reasonably well mixed, add a cup of confectioners’ sugar. (It gives the peanut butter a smoother consistency and adds a touch of sweetness.) Stir until all the ingredients are thoroughly blended. Next, add the vanilla extract and—you guessed it—stir again. Now line your faithful eight-inch-square baking dish with foil. (This makes it easier to extract the filling from the dish later.) The photos below show you the steps so far:
The peanut butter filling is easier to spread if you use a sturdy spoon or baker’s spatula, dipping it in water from time to time as you work. Press the filling into the foil-lined dish, then pop the dish into the refrigerator to cool. Once the mix has firmed up—figure on at least two hours—remove the dish from the fridge and lift out the foil and its contents. Now cut the chilled filling into small bars about the size of commercial chocolate miniatures, using a water-dipped knife blade (see left-hand photo below). Next, melt the chocolate chips in a double boiler (middle picture), while stirring continuously. (Adding a tablespoon of vanilla extract or liqueur would yield a smoother, tastier result. I’ll do that next time!) When the chocolate is fluid, shut off the heat.
Here comes the tricky bit. Speed is of the essence, so work quickly. The chocolate must be warm and liquid, the peanut butter mix, chilled and firm. Use fork and fingers to roll the peanut butter bars in the melted chocolate. I was too slow, and the results were uneven. You can do better. Once each bar is thoroughly coated, place it on a plastic-lined cookie sheet, leaving space between adjacent bars (see right-hand photo above). Keep going without pause till the end, and then allow the chocolate-covered bars to cool thoroughly before storing them in a covered cookie jar or rigid plastic box. My trial batch kept fine for two weeks, and the last bar tasted as good as the first. They made welcome snacks on several backcountry jaunts. Now I’m looking forward to having another go. Rice never tasted so good!
Who says rice can’t be eaten out of hand? Or that you can’t make a tasty take-along treat by starting with rice as the base? Not me. I’ve been putting this staple cereal through its paces for years, and I haven’t come close to exhausting its many possibilities. So if you want rice to go, take heart. You’ll have plenty of delicious dishes to choose from. Now that’s alimentary!
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