Sticky rice, fluffy rice, gummy, gluey rice, bland, wet or crunchy rice. I have made all of these things.
I remember rice as my first culinary challenge out of college. If I can just cook rice, I thought, I can feed myself. And while the instructions on the sack always seemed so simple, so straight forward, the results were rarely good. My Chinese roommate had a little electric rice cooker that she swore by, and I loved the beautifully steamed rice that she produced, but even that little gadget alluded my attempts. For a while, I gave up and accepted half-soggy, half-crunchy bland rice.
It was very sad.
Because we Arabs love our rice! Like our friends farther east, from India all the way to Japan, we love our rice. Our rice style is more similar to Indian rice, and every time I dig into a vibrant dish of biryani, it reminds me of home. Arabs pride themselves in producing light, fluffy rice, with a nutty and rich flavor, well seasoned enough to stand on its own. We love to serve mounds of fluffy white rice, warmly spiced with the flavors of allspice, turmeric, cinnamon or nutmeg, topped with buttery pine nuts or almonds fried in ghee. For a simple childish favorite, we serve this with just a scoop of fresh plain yogurt, and we call it rooz ma' laban. Please, mama, we would beg my mother, can we skip the sauce and just have rooz ma' laban?
Can you blame me?
After watching my mother, badgering her with questions, and then (this was the hard part), actually doing what she told me to do, I learned how to make a decent pot of rice. If you want to make delicious rice that will wake up any basic fish, chicken or steak meal, look no further.
For a long time, I tried using jasmine rice, because I loved the slightly sweeter flavor. But after pot after pot of sticky rice, I learned my lesson and reserved jasmine for meals where I want a sticky rice. Now I choose a long grain basmati for my Middle Eastern meals, or for any time I want a fluffy, dry texture with a nutty flavor.
2. Soak your rice.
If you have never soaked your grains before, this might seem like an odd step. Why should you soak your rice?
Well, because it will improve the end result. How many times have you cooked rice only to find it both strangely overdone (sticky, falling apart) AND underdone (crunchy at the core)? Soaking your grains will prevent this. My Palestinian mother taught me to always soak my rice before cooking it, because it allows the grains to swell gently and the rice cooks evenly. She usually soaked her rice for a few hours, but if pressed for time, she would just let her rice soak for half an hour. It turns out that many traditional cultures do soak and rinse their rice before cooking.
3. Rinse, rinse, repeat.
Drain your rice into a sieve. Did you notice that the soaking water is white and starchy? Rinse away all of the starch by rinsing the rice under a running tap until the water runs clear. This will make your rice nice and fluffy.
Nourishing Bonus: By the way, have you read all of the reports that rice has higher levels of arsenic? Guess how you can reduce levels of arsenic in your rice? You guessed it: rinse it! Just one more reason to rinse your rice.
4. Toast the rice.
Okay, so how to achieve fluffy rice? Heat up a generous amount of fat --we use butter, ghee or olive oil --in the bottom of a heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Then pour your drained rice on top. Stir and cook your rice until the rice grains turn opaque and have a pearly look to them, and they begin to smell nutty. This only takes 2-3 minutes. Stir vigorously, or the rice will stick to the bottom of the pan.
Nourishing Bonus: Fats are an essential health-building food, so I am never afraid to be generous with my grass-fed butter, ghee, or my virgin organic olive oil.
5. Cook rice in stock.
Of course, you can always cook rice in plain water, but if you want to increase the flavor, always cook your rice in a savory broth, homemade if you have it. This will give your rice a richer, umami flavor, that savory taste that will keep you coming back for more. I keep a handy freezer stash of homemade stock at all times, which I reduce down to a rich stock and then I freeze in ice cube trays. Anytime I make rice, I just throw a couple of frozen cubes into my pot and reduce the amount of water a little.
The amount of liquid will vary depending on the variety of rice, the age of the rice, how tightly your lid fits onto your pot, and how long you soaked your rice. The typical ratio is 2:1 liquid to rice. I always go shy of this and then add more if needed. For example, for two cups of rice, I use three and a half cups of liquid.
Nourishing Bonus: While rice doesn't have a whole lot of nutritional value, the broth that I use does. Homemade stock made from the bones of organic pastured animals is rich in nutrients. Read more about the benefits of bone broth and the easiest way to make bone broth with these two posts from the blog, Nourished Kitchen.
6. Be fearless with spices.
Americans are afraid of spices, my mother said to me once, while she was seasoning a pot of rice. Let it say something. Let it be flavorful, savory, let it compliment the flavors of the dish. Don't be afraid to open up your spice cabinet and experiment. For Middle Eastern meat dishes, I like rice flavored with allspice and a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg. For chicken dishes, I like turmeric and curried rice (find my easy-peasy recipe for a curry mix here) Sometimes I toss in a bay leaf and a cardamom pod to flavor a pot of rice, other times I add cumin and coriander. Season generously with salt and pepper. The key is to be fearless, to experiment, and to give yourself permission to live a little dangerously. Use a heavy hand. And if it doesn't work out, you can always just do what my mother taught me to do: shrug and say, it was supposed to be that way.
7. Cook to perfection.
Because your rice has been soaked, rinsed and toasted, it will cook up in no time. Bring the liquid to a boil, then turn down to the lowest heat possible. Cover and don't peek for 10-12 minutes. Then check it quickly, lifting the pot. If the water has disappeared and some long holes appear between rice grains, where bubbles have dissipated, then the rice is done. Rice should be dry on top, but tender. Taste a couple of grains. Then cover the pot again and let it sit for a few minutes or up to half an hour, to finish steaming.
8. Dress it up with extras.
If you want to add a little flair to your rice, turn it into a pilaf by toasting up some broken vermicelli noodles with your fat before adding the rice to sauté. Or top it will some toasted pine nuts, almonds, or some chopped herbs.
Sahtain! And may your rice be anything but boring!