“You are what you eat.”
I guess it’s true, in a sense.
Many times, you can tell the personality of someone by his/her favorite foods.
What is your favorite food? What does it say about you?
I, for one, am a chameleon of sorts.
I am strong when I need to be; tender when the time calls for it; vibrant and colorful, yet neutral. I’m passionate and determined, but have insecurities and fears. Sometimes I feel underestimated, and others have the potential to bring out the best (and worst) in me. I dare myself to do crazy things, conquer my fears, and understand that details usually tell a larger story.
One of the first things I ever learned to cook, and still one of my favorite things to eat, says a lot about who I am. It is something small, something often considered a complement instead of the “main dish,” something widely overlook, but has the potential to standalone and be incredible all by itself - rice.
We always ate rice. In Venezuela it’s basically part of the daily diet - rice, beans and plantains.
You find that in every country in the Caribbean.
During my first year in Mexico after moving from Venezuela, I decided to make rice.
I had seen my mother and grandmother making it, so I thought it would be a fairly simple task. All I needed was rice, water and salt. I thought that would be easy enough.
So I grabbed a pot and added water and rice and brought it to a boil. Then I grabbed what I thought was salt and added that while the water was boiling.
I made several terrible errors in that first culinary attempt.
First, I didn’t measure anything … and I actually ended up making all of the rice. All of the rice!
An entire kilogram.
For reference, 1 kg of rice was about a week’s worth of rice for our family of 5.
It started cooking, and the rice almost grew out of the pot because there was so much and the pot wasn’t large enough for an entire kilogram of rice.
Grandma never measured. I had watched her. But now I know it was just practice; she had been cooking so many years, she had it down to an art. Rice was easy for her.
And I didn’t add enough water, so in the end I found some of the rice was overcooked while a lot of it was severely undercooked. The bottom was also all burned because I didn’t know how high or low the heat should be.
And the worst thing I did was that I did not use salt to season the rice. I accidentally sprinkled in Baking Soda.
It was a truly embarrassing effort on my part.
My dad and older brother - Julio - ate it out of respect (and hunger, I think), but my mom and younger brother – Jorge - wouldn’t eat it out of wisdom. Or fear. Or maybe both.
I’ll never forget their faces. Julio actually added mayonnaise to try to mask the nasty rice taste.
After that day, my mom decided to teach me how to cook rice. She started with an easy method to make it.
A 1:2 ratio of rice to water with added onion, garlic and salt.
Then, years later, when I was about 24, I moved to Asia.
One of the first times I encountered many types of rice all in one place, I was overwhelmed by the variety, styles and colors of rice down a couple of aisles in a grocery store in India.
I had never realized there were so many types of rice – hundreds of varieties.
Long-grain, medium-grain, short-grain, yellow, white, brown, Jasmine, aromatic, Chinese black, Basmati … that’s just off the top of my head.
My friend and I walked into the grocery store after having the idea to bring rice to an orphanage where we were working at the time, and asked an employee to point us toward the rice. He asked what kind of rice we desired and we answered, “just regular rice.”
“What kind of regular rice?” he asked as he pointed toward the two aisles completely filled with different types of rice.
That’s when I learned about rice. It’s many styles, flavors, and eccentricities.
Now, I’m in America. And have more than a decade of experience with cooking rice, and though I have never claimed to be the best at it, it’s something I truly enjoy.
Most people already know how to cook rice, so I won’t be sharing a recipe in this post, but I have compiled a list of tips to cooking rice, as it can take years to perfect the art.
I do not own a rice cooker – I’d rather cook my rice in a pot on the stovetop. While living in Singapore, someone gifted me with a rice cooker, but to be honest, I simply prefer the stovetop.
Here are 10 easy tips to making great rice:
Respect the rice – Let the rice take the time that it needs in order to cook. They’re not mashed potatoes. Put the rice in the pot and let it cook.
Exact double portion of water – rice should be cooked on a 1:2 ratio with water.
Cook on low heat – be patient. If you try to rush the cook of the rice you will end up burning it and undercooking it.
“No lo batas” – My mother and grandmother constantly told me this, which just means don’t stir it. You don’t want to end up making sticky, smashed rice. Once it’s in the pot, put on the lid and leave it alone until it’s ready.
Don’t open the lid – The secret for a fluffy, perfect rice, is to allow it to steam. The steam inside the closed-lidded pot, while the heat is on low, is what actually cooks the rice. It’s not about the water boiling, it’s about the rice cooking correctly.
Sauté or rinse the rice – rice has lots of starch. When you sauté with oil, it basically coats each grain, allowing the rice to be cooked and get fluffy without sticking to the other grains. It’s a beautiful chemical reaction. Make sure not to leave it in the pan too long (you don’t want to burn the rice before you start cooking it!). When you rinse the rice, the same happens because you’re cleaning the starch off, but you must rinse it several times, and very well, to assure the starch is rinsed off fully. Also, after washing, the grain is very sensitive, so you must be careful when you put it in the pot so as to not break the grains.
Use chicken stock or beef stock – To make rice more flavorful, add a stock instead of water. Flavor your rice according to your meal instead of always merely having simple white rice.
Add garlic, onion and salt – I always add these ingredients before I begin boiling the rice. I like to sauté the rice (see tip 6) with onion, garlic cloves and salt. I love the slightly more intense flavors I get from this practice.
Use a good pot – Make sure the bottom of the pot is not too thin, and use a pot that’s size is proportionate to the meal. A thin pot will cause the rice grains to burn more quickly.
Practice - “la practica hace al maestro,” or “practice makes perfect.” Keep going! And try adding your own special flavors to make the rice your own. Also, check out recipes for more advanced types of rice, like aromatic rice and risotto. In the future, I’ll post recipes of risotto, so keep an eye out for that!
Have fun and enjoy!
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