Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On Why Rice Was Forbidden to Me (But Not Anymore)

I don’t know how to use a rice cooker.
I’m also Korean.
This is an existential dilemma that I have to live with every day. It's the second-most harvested grain in the world (behind corn) and obviously, Asian cultures depend on it as the basis for their diets. I grew up eating it every day. You'd think that at some point, I'd have learned to cook it properly. I only learned how to swim in college, I can’t drive stick, can’t shuffle a deck of cards, and I can’t put rice and water in a cooker, press a button, and wait for it to cook without screwing it up somehow. And it’s not like I’m a terrible cook. I can make a spot-on risotto, which isn’t that simple. But ask me to operate a rice cooker and I might as well be trying to safely land an F-16 on an aircraft carrier.
Cooking rice can be a bigger pain in the butt than first perceived. First, if you buy it in bulk, then you'll probably have to wash the rice. Some types of white rice are coated with talc powder for preservation and presentation, and I don't think that's something fit for human consumption. Washing rice, if you haven’t done it before, is one of the most mind-numbing tasks imaginable. You soak rice in water until it turns opaque, replace the rinse, and repeat again and again until the water runs clear. Needless to say, it can take a while and I gave up 30 minutes into this process. I then put the talc-enriched rice in the cooker according to the directions along with the suggested amount of water, checked after the prescribed time and found a good inch of liquid still in there. I let it cook a little longer, checked again, and found the rice burnt and stuck to the inside of the rice cooker. I got about 26 edible grains of rice from this. Considering the fact that I wasted over 30 valuable minutes washing rice, and another hour cooking it, I was angry at the whole process and chucked the entire rice cooker in the trash. I’m done with you, rice cooker.
Nowadays, rice cookers are even more daunting. They come with even more buttons with digital readouts, and it even speaks to you. When the rice is done cooking, a female voice that is supposed to be inviting will tell you that “your rice is ready.” This might seem cool and convenient, with even a tinge of social bonding that lessens the loneliness of life, but they're also a bit scary. I’ve seen “2001: A Space Odyssey,” where HAL talks to you in a soothing voice, even becomes your friend, only to cut off your life support at the end when you try to shut it off. I’m not letting a rice cooker do that to me. You can’t put your life in the hands of a machine, unless you’re John Connor running away from the T-1000.
My friends Bobby and Frankie were horrified when I told them that I did not know how to use a rice cookers. “How can you not know how to use a rice cooker. It’s easy!” One of them would ask. Then I’d go into the whole explanation I just wrote about. “Why don’t you try using a pressure cooker?” they replied. Pressure cooking rice is like killing a house fly with a .38 revolver. At the same time, shooting guns at flies can still be fun, so why not?
Frankie hooked me up with a fancy Fissler Blue Point pressure cooker, which is complete overkill for cooking simple white, short-grained rice. I used two cups of water to one cup of rice. After five minutes, it came out pretty well. Hey, I actually didn’t screw it up. And it didn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Somehow, I can cook rice with a pressure cooker, but not a rice cooker. But for individual servings, it’s still a lot of trouble for just white rice.
Next, I decided to cook brown rice, which comes out gummy when cooked in rice cookers and takes a long time on a stovetop. I used a cup of wild rice from Trader Joe’s, used 1 ½ cups of water and 1 cup of chicken stock. I also doubled the cooking time to 10 minutes. Afterward, there was too much liquid and I had to discard that. But the rice itself came out perfectly. If I go back to the 2:1 ratio, it’d cook well, and at half the time on the stovetop.
Emboldened by the fact that I’m not screwing up rice for once (and it only took a top-of-the-line cooking vessel to do it), I decided to try and make a risotto, It’s not hard to prepare, but the cooking process is VERY time-consuming. Risotto is temperamental and requires constant attention. It’s like trying to put a newborn baby to sleep. You have to observe it constantly, treat it regularly until it just reaches the state you want, and then do nothing else to disturb it, otherwise you end up with a mess. To make a risotto, you slowly incorporate liquid into the rice in small batches, just to the point where the rice is creamy, toothsome, but not gummy. This process usually takes about 30 minutes, sometimes longer. It’s an inexact science because you cook by feel. It might take 3 ½ cups of liquid, it might take over 5, you won’t know until it gets to that point. Until then, you can only stand over a stove, stir, taste and repeat, for a laborious amount of time. It’s one of the least exciting foods you can make, even if the end result is good.
I thought there was a chance that the Fissler pressure cooker could help remove all the annoying aspects of making risotto. The problem is, you can’t keep track of the cooking process, or know that exact measurements will work. You can only estimate the amount of rice and liquid and hope for the best. There’s no way of telling if the risotto will dry out or be gummy until you’re done. Nevertheless, my urge to cut corners was strong. If making risotto is like raising a newborn, then using a pressure cooker is like hiring a live-in au pair to do all the parenting so you can be inattentive. At the same time, parenting is hard, so go through that with risotto as well. For the Fissler pressure cooked rice, I went with 1 ½ cups of rice to 4 cups of liquid. I wish I could tell you that I had an exact ratio figured out, but I just figured out a median that sounded right. As for cooking time, I decided on 8 minutes, since Arborio rice isn’t as tough as brown rice, which I cooked for 10. I used the pressure cooker to cook down the aromatics, mushrooms and toast the rice like a normal risotto. Then I poured in the liquid, sealed it up, let it build up steam and cooked it for 8 minutes.
When I checked after that time, the risotto was undercooked. But the consistency of the rice was pretty good. It wasn’t too soft or gummy, and there was a pleasing creaminess. Most of the rice retained it’s individual texture, save for a couple of spots where it did get too gummy. I sealed the pressure cooker back up and reheated it for a minute. When I was done, I had this:
It was a lovely risotto. And it only took 10 minutes. As a control in my experiment, I also cooked risotto using the traditional method. I was on my third batch of liquid when the pressurized risotto was done.
The normal risotto ended up taking 30 more minutes to finish. The Fissler pressure cooker cut down the cooking time by 75%. I will say that the traditional risotto had a slightly nicer consistency, the pressure cooker made the rice slightly soggy. But my friend Lucy, who joined me for dinner and tasted both, said it would take a discerning palate to notice the difference. The consistency was fairly indistinguishable. Handmade risotto might have the refinement of a Lamborghini, but a Honda’s more practical for every-day life. Considering that I didn’t have to stand over a stove for 30-40 minutes, I’ll make the risotto with a pressure cooker 90% of the time. And at this point, I no longer feared rice, or the possibility of the cooking vessel talking to me
Mushroom risotto recipe
1 ½ cups arborio rice
2 cups sliced fresh mushrooms (any kind, I used cremini and portabello)
3 ½ cups chicken stock
½ cup white wine
2 shallots, minced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 Tbsps. olive oil
2 Tbsps. butter
Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
truffle oil (optional)
1. Heat olive oil in the Fissler pressure cooker over medium low heat. Sautee garlic and shallots until they sweat.
2. Add mushrooms and cook until they start to get soft.
3. Add rice and stir to coat in the oil. Let grains toast until they’re translucent, about a minute or two.
4. Add all the liquid and bring to a boil.
5. Seal the lid and cook under pressure for 10 minutes
6. After it’s cooked, stir in butter, Parmesan cheese and salt and pepper, if needed.
7. Let it rest for 10-15 minutes. When serving, you can drizzle it with truffle oil, if you’re fancy like that.