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Alimentary, My Dear

Risotto, Again? The Wonders of Rice

By Tamia Nelson

September 11, 2001

If you've got a long memory and a taste for quirky humor, perhaps you remember The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, a BBC comedy produced in the 1970s and aired on some PBS stations. The hero of the series, a mid-level executive at Sunshine Desserts ("Our pastry is FLANtastic!"), struggles to keep his sales of exotic ices from sagging. When his division's profits melt away to nothing, however, he gets the sack. Suddenly he's a house-husband. Not surprisingly, he finds housework even more oppressive than his old job. Vacuuming doesn't hold his interest for long, and he's not much of a cook, either. One evening when his wife returns home from a hard day at the office—she's been hired to take Reggie's place at Sunshine—she finds that risotto's on the menu for the third time in as many days. "What's this? she asks, with a mixture of muted annoyance and weary resignation. "Risotto, again?!"

Well, I suppose Reggie's wife can be pardoned for getting a little exasperated. After all, when she did the cooking, her repertoire was much more varied. Still, she really doesn't have too much to complain about. There are worse fates than facing risotto for supper, even night after night.

What's risotto? It's simplicity itself. Just simmer short-grained rice—Arborio, if you're a stickler for authenticity—in broth, stock or wine, until it's tender and bathed in a creamy, starchy sauce, and you've got risotto. Flavor with herbs, butter or cheese, and you've made a great main dish. Include some freshly baked breadstuffs to fill in any odd corners, and finish off with a pot of hot tea, and the result is a meal to remember. Reggie knew a thing or two.

Rice. It's arguably the single most important food crop in the world today. At least a third of the earth's population subsists on it, morning and night, every day of the year. And for good reason—it's cheap, it's versatile, it's filling, and it's nutritious. So how can you go wrong?

You can't. That's why rice is the centerpiece of the evening meal just about every other night when I draw up the menu for a paddling trip. There are so many varieties, and so many ways to prepare them, that every meal can be different. Given a little effort, you'll never need to hear, "Risotto, again?!"

And you don't need to live next to an ethnic market. Even in the Adirondacks, where bullhead feeds are annual institutions and fried bread is a gourmet treat, local stores and food co-ops have at least nine varieties of rice. In urban centers, there's no end to the choices. Still, all rice falls into one of three major groupings based on size: long-grained, short-grained, and (you guessed it!) medium-grained. Not surprisingly, each type has unique cooking properties, but—and this is a bit unexpected—each type also has a characteristic flavor. That being the case, it's important to choose a variety that suits the dish you're preparing.

Let's look at cooking properties first. The individual grains of long-grained rice are much longer than they are wide. On the other hand, short-grained varieties are stubby ovals, with a width that's not much less than their length. And medium-grained rice is—right on!—halfway in-between.

Generally speaking, short- and medium-grained rice cooks up tender and moist, but clumps together. This is the sort of rice you'll find in sushi. When long-grained rice is cooked, however, the individual grains keep their individuality, forming a fluffy, less-than-cohesive mass. That's why long-grained rice is the best choice for pilafs and cold salads.

Incidentally, "wild rice" isn't really rice at all, but it's delicious all the same. Its nutty flavor and chewy texture when cooked are quite distinctive. You can also pop it like popcorn. Spread a single layer of raw wild rice in a cast-iron skillet—there's no need to use oil—and then heat till the grains begin to pop. When it's completely popped, remove from the heat, sprinkle with salt, and eat. Popped wild rice makes a great treat, and we'd have it more often if it wasn't so pricey.

Back to "real" rice. Unadorned rice needn't be bland. Open a box of jasmine or basmati rice and sniff. Both varieties have buttery aromas, and when made up into pilaf, they give the dish a rich and delicious undernote.

Still, rice doesn't shout. It whispers. That's why it's such a versatile addition to the paddler's pantry. Rice is a great mimic. It take on the savor of the liquid it's cooked in, as well as the flavors of the other ingredients in a meal. The same rice base can therefore assume many guises. One night it complements chicken, the next night it's transformed into lemon risotto, and the third night it's a pilaf. If only Reggie had opened a cookbook from time to time! Even with rice every night, his wife would never have had cause for complaint.

However you choose to cook rice, keep in mind that you'll need two or more portions of liquid to each portion of rice. This means that if you use one cup of rice, you'll need to cook it in two cups (or more) of liquid. And how much rice is enough? Generally speaking, one cup of rice will be enough to feed two hungry people, especially when it's not the only course on the menu.

What about brown rice? Good question. Brown rice is more nutritious than white rice because it retains the bran coat and germ. Like wild rice, it, too, has a nutty flavor and crunchy texture that makes for a satisfying main-course. But you'll pay a price for all this goodness. It takes twice as long to cook. Still, it's a great meal for a rainy day in camp.

It's time for a few recipes. Let's begin with a simple rice pilaf. This will feed Farwell and me to repletion, even after a strenuous day on the water, and it will probably do the same for you.

Basic Paddler's Pilaf
(serves two)

1 tablespoon corn oil (or margarine)
1 small, fresh onion, diced (or 1 tablespoon dehydrated onion)
1 cup long-grained rice
2 cups water
1 tablespoon powdered chicken broth

Heat the oil (or margarine) in a two-quart or larger pot over a high flame or hot fire. If using diced fresh onion, sauté the onion in the hot oil till it's soft. This will take approximately three (3) minutes. (NB If using dehydrated onion, skip this step. You'll add the onion later.) Then add the rice to the onion in the pot, stirring them together until each grain of rice is coated with oil and slightly toasted. Next, pour the water over the rice, mixing in the powdered chicken broth. If you're using dehydrated onion, this is when you add it. Now bring the rice to a boil, reducing the flame as low as you can immediately afterward. Cover the pot. If the water still boils over, tilt the cover slightly to release the steam. Simmer on a low flame till the rice has absorbed nearly all the liquid—say 15-20 minutes. It's best to check the rice after about 15 minutes. If it's still hard, drizzle a bit more water over it. Once cooked, allow the rice to sit about five (5) minutes in a covered pot, fluff with a fork, and serve.

That's just the beginning, of course. Rice pilaf can be flavored with a lot more things than powdered chicken broth. Try mixing in a package of instant soup mix, instead. Or drop in a vegetable bouillon cube. Experiment with different soup-mix bases to see which you like best, but be careful not to use too much powder. I've found that half or even one-quarter of a pouch of Knorr or Lipton's soup mix is enough to flavor a pilaf. Knorr "Cream of Spinach" soup mix is a personal favorite. Add it to the boiling water, just before reducing the flame.

When you're ready to eat, garnish your pilaf with nuts or seeds. Sliced almonds, cashews, toasted pepitas (squash seeds), sunflower seeds, peanuts or pistachios are all great. Or mix in some dried fruit. Raisins, chopped dried apricots, candied pineapple, even banana chips or flaked coconut—all hit the spot. If you want a meat course, just stir in a small can of chicken while the rice is still cooking. Fish? Try bonito flakes or other dried fish. If, on the other hand, you're eating vegetarian, but you miss the texture of meat, try stirring a half-cup of "steak cut" TVP (texturized vegetable protein) into the water with the rice, right at the start of the cooking process. And don't forget herbs and spices: dried thyme and parsley, a rosemary sprig, curry powder, a pinch of cinnamon, bay leaves…these are only some of the possibilities. Let your imagination run riot. (But try everything out at home first!)

So much for pilaf. If you'd like to emulate Reggie instead, here's a simple risotto. It's just right for a riverside camp.

Reggie's Lemon Risotto
(makes two generous servings)

1 tablespoon corn oil (or margarine)
1 small fresh onion, diced (or 1 tablespoon dehydrated onion)
1 cup short-grained rice (or Arborio, if you've just gotten a bonus)
1 tablespoon powdered chicken broth
3 cups water
3 tablespoons lemon juice, fresh-squeezed or from a plastic dispenser
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon dehydrated parsley

Heat the oil in a large pot over a high flame. Add the onion—if using a fresh onion, that is—and sauté till soft. Time? About three (3) minutes. Then stir in the rice, coating each grain with oil or melted margarine. Add water, powdered broth, and lemon juice (and dehydrated onion, if that's what you're using). Mix well and bring to a boil. Next, reduce the flame and cover the pot. Now simmer. Continue to stir occasionally and cook till the rice is both creamy and firm. (Test this by biting into a grain fished out of the pot. Don't burn your tongue!) If the rice is still hard after cooking for 15 minutes or so, add a little more water. In 20 minutes, more or less, it should be done. Remove the pot from the flame and stir in the cheese and parsley. Cover the pot again, and allow your risotto to sit for a few minutes. Serve.

NB If you have a few extra mouths to feed, or if you want a heartier dish, stir in a can of chicken and a can of sliced mushrooms a minute or two before the rice finishes cooking.

That's it. Rice. Simple and good. A complete meal in a pot. And don't stop with risotto. You can do better than Reggie. Scan cooking magazines and cookbooks for recipes which can be adapted for paddling. Experiment at home. Two billion people can't be wrong, can they? Bon appétit!

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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