My earliest childhood memories in the kitchen are of adults having heated conversations about rice. The way it should look, how it should taste, and what texture it should have. Above all, they would ultimately concur, never stir it after you’ve poured the liquids, otherwise you’ll get arroz meneado. Nothing could be worse than ending up with an atole, a porridge-like rice sticky and gooey from being stirred. These conversations swirled around the kitchen where opinionated cooks (friends and relatives) jealously guarded the integrity of the rice.
This is not much different from the frenzy in Italy over the possibility of overcooked pasta, which for Italians brings on a lot of excitement and emotion, something which can actually get a little scary if you’re not used to it. Trust me, they don’t like overcooked pasta. It’s the same with rice, it’s got to be just right.
Rice was the staple we ate almost everyday with beans. And like the beans, it could be prepared in a variety of ways. But one thing is for certain: if you want rice that is fluffy and not stuck together, you have to begin by toasting the rice in oil.
Each time I toast my rice, I feel my Tía Oralia leaning over my shoulder, telling me how the rice should sound when it’s stirred in the pan before adding the liquid. When I make white rice with crema mexicana, I am twelve years old again, sitting primly in a flowery summer dress with Tía Gloria doting on me in her cavernous, lonely house in Monterrey.
Mexican rice is easy to master and quick to prepare, why would one ever eat instant rice? On the other end of the spectrum is paella. Much revered by Spaniards (who inherited rice from the Moors and then introduced it to the New World,) paella is not for culinary slouches. My good friend, Ana from Seville, taught me to make a delicious paella with short grain rice, a rice that reminds me of the arborio rice I use for risotto. The technique for making paella also includes toasting the rice in oil.
In addition to being a simple dish, rice is healthy, especially if you pair it with vegetables or legumes like lentils or beans. It’s also gluten-free. If you’re game, experiment with the million different varieties of rice in specialty grocery stores: basmati rice, arborio rice, red rice, black rice, or brown rice. Brown rice, for example, is a very healthy rice, but it’s not as easy to make a pilaf style rice which is what latino and Spanish rices are.
All rices have different cooking times and not all will end up fluffy. But, beware! Your aunts might suddenly appear from the más allá (the beyond) to scold you about technique. For now, enjoy this easy recipe for simple rice and, remember, no stirring once you pour the liquid!
- 2 cups long grain rice
- ¼ cup canola or corn oil
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 teaspoon cumin powder or grind cumin seeds yourself in a molcajete (mortar)
- 1 onion, minced
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 4 cups chicken broth or 4 cups water with 2 Goya chicken bouillon cubes
- ¾ cup chopped or sliced fresh vegetable of your choice such as red sweet peppers, lima beans, peas, carrots, etc.
- sprigs of cilantro for a garnish
- corn tortillas to be warmed on a comal and eaten with rice.
- Heat the oil in a pan that is no more than 3 inches high on the sides and place the rice to brown slowly; stir the rice for about 3 minutes on low flame to toast it
- Add the chopped onion, garlic, salt, and vegetable and cook for another 3 minutes. You may need to add additional oil.
- Add the liquid, arrange vegetables evenly with a spoon, and bring to a boil. After it’s boiling, lower to a steady simmer and leave uncovered as it cooks slowly.
- After 15 minutes, check to see if rice is almost ready, if water has evaporated too quickly and rice is still not done you make have to add a little more liquid, (keep it heated so you can add it if needed).
- Serve it in the same skillet or transfer to a heated earthware bowl with a lid and garnish with the cilantro.