I Burned the Rice

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I often burn the rice.

Burned rice

It’s an unfortunate habit I have. Here’s how it usually goes down:

I’m making sushi rice. My sushi rice preparation technique, adapted from a recipe by Nobu Matsuhisa, involves bringing the rice to a boil, cooking it for five minutes at a regular temperature, then blasting it even more briefly with high heat, and then turning it off and letting it steam for 15 minutes. Where I go astray is usually in the last step, where I turn the heat on high, and instead of waiting the minute it’s supposed to take, wander off to do something else. (For example, the idea for this post came as I was working on another post when I suddenly smelled the rice burning.)

The good news is, I do usually smell it burning before the whole thing is a write-off.

One of my best food memories as a child was ordering three-flavor sizzling rice soup at the nearby Twin Dragon Chinese restaurant. The waiter would come to the table with the steaming pot of soup, the scent of shrimp and abalone almost intoxicating, and drop in the hot, puffed fried rice, which would sizzle like live electricity, before scooping it into individual bowls.

I used to purchase squares of dried rice at the Chinese market to make my own sizzling rice soup at home. And then one day, I burned the rice and had an “aha” moment.

Facing my pot of burned rice, if I have not let it go too long, I am usually able to scoop out the unburned rice from the center and sides — which, other than a distinct smokiness which is not altogether unpleasant, is perfectly cooked — and am left with a crisped, browned crust along the sides and bottom that typically lifts out neatly in a few large pieces. And then it is just me, the blackened pan and the steel wool.

Oven-dried rice crust chunks

While I am building arm muscle mass trying to salvage my burned pan, I place the crusted rice pieces in the oven at a low temperature — say 160-180 degrees — and let them dry out completely. They can then be kept in a plastic bag in the cupboard for months, ready to be dropped into hot oil and puffed at a whim! (And who hasn’t experienced that kind of a whim from time to time?)

So what do I do with my puffed rice nuggets besides sizzling rice soup?

If I’m feeling in an Italian mood, I’ll make my crispy shrimp risotto fake-out, a kind of reverse risotto using puffed crisp rice with sauced, sautéed shrimp. I’ve done a nice ahi ceviche with caramelized onion salsa, served on puffed rice. One of my favorite go-tos for a party appetizer is puffed rice with spicy tuna and micro greens. And just recently, I caramelized the rice in the style of Thai mee krob noodles, and served it with a poached shrimp and scallion salad (recipe below).

Thai shrimp with crispy mee krob rice

If you use a rice cooker or prefer to not burn your rice (a good habit), you can always purchase the rice squares at the Chinese market. Or here’s how to make the squares at home with regular cooked (unburned) rice.

Enjoy!

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Thai shrimp with crispy mee krob rice
serves 4

8 large shrimp, cleaned, de-shelled and butterflied
4 green onions, thinly sliced lengthwise
2 tbsp. chopped peanuts
1/4 cup finely julienned carrots
1 tbsp. chiffonaded basil
2 tbsp. Thai fish sauce
4 tbsp. sugar
4 tbsp. lime juice
2 tbsp. ketchup
4 large pieces dried cooked rice (or rice squares)
1 cup vegetable oil

Mix together 1 tbsp. fish sauce, 2 tbsp. sugar and 2 tbsp. lime juice until incorporated. Toss together onions, carrots and basil.

In a saucepan, heat 1 cup water over high heat until it begins to boil. Add shrimp, turn off heat and cover. Let shrimp steam for 2 minutes, then remove from water and set aside.

Heat oil in a wok or saucepan over medium high until a grain of your dried rice sizzles and puffs in the oil. Drop the rice chunks into the oil, a few at a time, and fry, turning once or twice, until puffed and crispy. Remove to paper towels to drain.

Heat remaining fish sauce, sugar and lime juice in a pan over medium-high heat until it begins to bubble. Stir in ketchup, and cook until it is thick and glazy. Toss in your puffed rice pieces, and flip in the pan to coat with the sauce. Once rice is thoroughly coated, remove from heat and set aside.

Toss green onion salad with the lime/fish sauce dressing.

To plate: place a piece of the puffed rice (or if it has broken up, a couple pieces) on each of four plates. Top each with a steamed shrimp, and a quarter of the green onion salad. Sprinkle chopped peanuts over the top and serve.

Year of the Sandwich — A Soft Spot for Soft Shells

Spring is a really good time for food. And several great seasonal items appear around this part of the year.

One of my very favorites is the morel mushroom, which they sometimes (rarely) get at Whole Foods. So driving down the street the other day, rather than shaking my head sadly at all the people mortgaging their futures to shop there when the Whole Foods came into view, I pulled in.

Soft shell crab sandwich

There were no morels.

I continued back to the seafood counter to see if there was anything interesting there. And my eyes nearly escaped their sockets when I realized it was also the time of year of one of my other most favoritest things: soft shell crabs. And on sale, no less!! More

An Ode to the Roadside Diner

One thing must be assumed when stopping into a roadside diner for a meal. It’s usually about one of two things — the uniquely American experience, or the convenience. With rare exception, you are not likely in for great dining.

So it was on a Sunday early afternoon on one of America’s most beautiful highways — U.S. 395, which winds from the high Joshua Tree-dotted Mojave desert along the eastern Sierras, past the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48, miscellaneous charming frontier towns, dazzling Mono Lake, the stunning ghost town of Bodie, to Nevada and the eastern flank of Lake Tahoe and on to Oregon. We had just emerged from a long 20-mph southbound slog through blizzard-like whiteout conditions, descending toward home from a ski vacation in Mammoth, and were starved. More

The Cheeseburger Martyr

On our flight from Havana to Los Angeles, there was a Cheeseburger Martyr.

There are many things to be thankful for on your flight from Havana to Los Angeles. You have just experienced one of the most fascinating countries and warmest people in the Western Hemisphere; you will soon have access to your car, grocery stores and bank ATMs; you live in a place where you are free to say whatever you want about the government.

The Cheeseburger Martyr, up first to get his carry-on before anyone else

There is no reason to be shitty.

The man looked pleasant enough as he boarded and sat down in the row in front of us — grandfatherly, fit, Patagonia-esque dress, a kind smile. The facade would soon be betrayed, however, when the food service started. More

The Best Restaurant in Havana

Javier, one of the staff at the Airbnb where we are staying, was walking us through the dusty streets of Central Havana when he paused to point out a crowd of well-dressed people milling in front of a rather grand Baroque portal. A sign above the entrance read: “La Guardia.”

“That’s the best restaurant in Havana,” he struggled in his limited English. “Robert de Niro and Natalie Portman eated there.”

Javier was leading us to another restaurant just around the corner from La Guardia. We had asked him about good, authentic Cuban food, and he assured us that the deceptively named Notre Dame des Bijoux was the place to get it.

Jesus Gomez at his rooftop grill

We walked through a much less impressive portal into what seemed to be someone’s home (many of Cuba’s restaurants are run by people out of their homes). And quite a home it was — an explosion of tropical plants grew up from the floor, one wall was plastered with teacups, another was covered floor to ceiling with framed photographs. And in a throne-like chair, in a satin fuchsia robe with rings on every finger, surrounded by his ten toy dogs, was Tommy Reyes Martinez, a flamboyant former Cuban National Ballet dancer who owned the restaurant. More

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