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.

Paella

There are a few things you must know about paella:

• It originates from the region of Valencia in Spain, and traditional versions were made in the field by hunters and contained not seafood but rabbit and snails.

• The pan is called a paella, and the dish is named for the pan. While you can cook a reasonable paella without the pan, it won’t have the same theater (see the video below). Besides, it’ll only set you back around $20 for a 15″ pan from Spain. (www.surlatable.com)

• Paellas were traditionally cooked outdoors over an open fire. This is still the best way to cook paella. Although you can achieve just as good an effect on the barbecue. When our kitchen was being remodeled, I cooked outdoor on the barbecue for two months. We ate a lot of paella. More

Sushi 101

It took me a bloody decade to learn how to properly make sushi rice. I’m going to tell you right here and now so you won’t suffer the same fate.

Crab & matsutake dynamite

Once you’ve got the rice made, the rest is paint by numbers. Although you’ve gotta have a nice sharp knife and really fresh fish, which I get at the Japanese market. They’ve got everything I could want — toro, hamachi, albacore, uni, sweet shrimp, halibut, salmon, etc. If you live in a big city you’ll have no problem finding a Japanese market with sashimi-quality fish. If you live in a reasonably good town, you should at least be able to find some sashimi-grade ahi (Trader Joe’s has sashimi-grade ahi and frozen sashimi-grade scallops, which I’m gonna tell you how to make scallop “dynamite” with…) If you live in the country, you may have to settle for cooked shrimp.

Here’s how to do the rice:

1 cup short-grain white rice (Calrose or sushi rice)
2 cups water
1 tbsp. seasoned rice wine vinegar (or 1 tbsp. rice wine vinegar and 1 tsp. sugar, mixed)

Rinse the rice in water: put the rice in the pot you intend to cook it in, and run some tap water over it. Swish it with your hand. It will become cloudy. Pour the water out, and repeat until it’s no longer cloudy (usually takes me 4 or 5 rinsings/swishings). Then cover with water and let sit for 15 minutes.

Drain the rice (all the water does not need to be drained, just most of it), add your 2 cups of water, cover and place on high heat. Once your rice begins to boil, cook for one minute. (You may need to lift the lid once or twice to prevent it from boiling over.) After the minute, turn to low, cover and cook for exactly five minutes. Once the five minutes is up, turn heat to high again and cook for 30 more seconds. Turn off and leave sitting, covered, for 20 minutes.

When the 20 minutes is up, remove lid and add vinegar, stirring very gently with a wooden spoon or spatula without breaking the rice kernels. When done, spread the rice within the pan and cover with a damp towel until ready to use.

For sushi, you’ll slice your piece of fish width-wise across the grain into sashimi-size pieces. Then you dampen your hands, take about a heaping teaspoon of rice in one palm, place two fingers from the other hand on top of it and fold your hand around it to form a small sushi rice patty. Repeat until you have as many rice balls as you have fish slices. Smear each with a dab of wasabi and place your sushi on top. “Irasshaimase!!!”

Or, you can make the ever-popular scallop dynamite, which I might happily point out makes ample use of mayonnaise (I made it in the above picture with king crab instead of scallops, and delicious matsutake mushrooms which are available in the fall at Japanese markets or in the woods near my mom’s house):

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Scallop Dynamite

1/2 lb large scallops, cut in quarters
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup sliced mushrooms
1/4 cup white onion, cut lengthwise into slivers
1/4 cup shelled edamame beans (soybeans)
Dash of chili sauce (Mexican, srirachi, whatever you’ve got…)
Dash of soy sauce
1/4 cup grated jack, mozzarella or colby cheese
toasted sesame seeds

Mix together all the above ingredients except the cheese and sesame seeds, being careful not to destroy the mushrooms in the process. Place in a small baking dish or a sheet of foil with the edges turned up. Sprinkle cheese over the top, and broil in a hot oven for 10 or 15 minutes, until the cheese is bubbly and golden. Remove.

Put a scoop of sushi rice on each of two plates (four smaller scoops if you’re serving this as an appetizer) and flatten out slightly. Carefully divide the dynamite between the two plates, scooping on top of the rice (you don’t want one guy to get all the yummy golden cheesy part). Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve.

Dinner in Havana

A smoky bar and stiff rum drink. A slow lusty mambo playing in the background. Late afternoon light spilling in from the open door, people outside bustling past or standing in the shadows of arched doorways speaking Spanish. A dark woman in a white cotton dress eying you from a corner table. (Or handsome dark-eyed man in a fedora, if you’re a gal.) Suddenly, you realize you’re a little drunk. And hungry.

Papas rellenas, costillitas, beans and rice and a mojito.

If you were to go out for dinner in Havana, you would likely wind up in a private home at a “paladar” — restaurants people have set up in their living rooms or on their balconies, serving homecooked food. Your choices are that or a government-run restaurant. (Imagine eating at a government-run restaurant in a U.S. DMV or passport office… you’d be dreaming of Olive Garden or Sizzler…)

I’ve never been to Havana. I’ve contemplated sneaking in… but figured instead I’d just wait and go with everyone else, once the embargo has been lifted and the Disneyfication has begun. But sometimes I put on Buena Vista Social Club, light a Cuban cigar I smuggled in from Mexico, make some firm mojitos and cook up some Cuban food. Costillitas, in particular — Cuban-style ribs on the grill. These may be the best ribs on earth. Better than St. Louis, better than Tuscan arrosto misto, better even than Hawaiian… (I’ll teach you how to make ALL these in due time, my friends…) And papas rellenas, potato puffs stuffed with spiced beef — a dish I first had at a Cuban restaurant in Madrid. And of course, rice and beans.

The following recipes will serve 4-6, making for a nice Havana-style dinner party in your own paladar. Mojitos recipe included!

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Costillitas

1 rack baby back ribs
1 cup orange juice
juice of one lime
6 large garlic cloves, mashed
1 onion, sliced lengthwise into slivers
1 tsp oregano
salt & pepper

Remove the sheathy membrane from the back side of the ribs (to do this, slip a flat-head screwdriver between the membrane and the bone, and peel off). Cut the rack into segments of 3-4 ribs each, and salt the ribs well for about an hour.

To “mash” the garlic, you can use a mortar and pestle. Or you can grate the cloves on the fine grate of a cheese grater. Combine the garlic with the juices, the onion and the oregano in a bowl. Set aside 1/3 of the juice mixture for later. Place ribs in a large roasting dish and marinate with citrus/garlic mixture for an hour at room temperature. (Or several hours in the fridge.)

Get your grill good and hot. Then cook the ribs, turning frequently and basting with marinade, for about 40 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve over rice, drizzled with the reserved citrus/garlic mixture and onions, with Cuban-style beans. (Recipe below)

Papas Rellenas

1 large russet potato, peeled and quartered
1/2 lb ground beef
1 small onion, chopped
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp chopped green olives
2 eggs
panko bread crumbs
vegetable oil for frying
salt & pepper

Boil potatoes until cooked. Cool and mash in a bowl. Separate egg whites from yolks. Add yolks to potatoes with salt and pepper, and blend thoroughly. Meanwhile, cook ground beef in pan with chopped onion, tomato paste, olives and salt and pepper until browned. Remove from heat and cool.

Whip egg whites in a bowl until frothy. To make papas rellenas, scoop a large tablespoon of potato mixture into the palm of your hands and flatten. Place a teaspoon of the beef mixture into the middle of the potato, then close potato around it to form a ball. Dip the ball in the whipped egg whites, and then in panko to coat thoroughly. In a saucepan, heat about 1/4 inch of oil over medium-high heat. Cook the papas rellenas, a few at a time, turning frequently until browned on all sides. Remove and keep warm until all are cooked and ready to serve.

Cuban-style black beans

1 cup dried black beans, soaked overnight
1 bay leaf
1 chopped onion
1 chopped green pepper
salt & pepper

Cover beans in 3 cups of water. Add bay leaf, chopped onion and green pepper. Bring to a boil in a pot, then lower heat and cover. Cook for 2 hours or until tender, adding more water as necessary (beans should be saucy). Once beans are tender, add salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Mojitos
for each drink:

Juice of two limes
2 heaping tablespoons sugar
4 or 5 mint leaves
1 ounce light rum
fizzy water

Combine lime juice and sugar and stir until sugar dissolves. Place in a tall glass with mint leaves, and toggle with a chopstick or back of a knife, bruising leaves to release oils. Add rum and ice, then fill drink with fizzy water. Serve with a stirrer.