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Cooking Lesson Four: Rice, The Wonder Grain

There's a reason most of the world eats rice everyday. It's easy, goes with everything and it's good for you too.

After covering bread, the major source of grain for most people (aside from maybe Captain Crunch, that is), I figured I ought to follow up with another great food basic, rice! Rice is not just a nasty bland side dish foisted on you by parents -- rice is a great base for all kinds of meals, and is so versatile you can eat it constantly and never get bored. (Not to mention the health benefits of eating a lot of grains.) There's even a great new cookbook called On Rice that is nothing but dishes from every cuisine in the world, served as one-dish meals over, you guessed it, rice! I got it a few weeks ago, and starting making recipes out of it right away -- if you get into the whole rice thing, it's an absolute necessity, especially as it has mostly non-asian based meals, which is usually all you get in stir-fry/"serve on rice type cookbooks.

Now, there are about a zillion kinds of rice and ways to cook rice, but I'm obviously not going to get nutty here. Any basic grocery store is going to have several kinds of plain rice (as well as the nasty minute kind), health food stores will have several more varieties, including brown rices and related grains like wheat berries. And asian groceries will have even more, including different varieties of sticky rices-- really, whatever kind of rice you want to use is fine. I personally would recommend looking for a stickier rice, as it will hold together much better when you put other foods over it. Also, there are major taste differences in rice. Experiment with different types and brands until you get what you want.

As for cooking your rice -- follow the directions on whatever kind of rice you are using, as cooking times and amounts of water can be very different from rice to rice. Rice isn't difficult to cook once you've got the hang of it, although it's another one of those intimidating cooking things. Stove-top cooking in a nice heavy pan will work just great. If you find you are fixing rice a lot, invest in a rice cooker -- believe me, it is worth the money. (Make sure you get a good one though -- don't get one of those rice cooker/veggie steamer deals with the glass lids -- they do not work.)

Now, the whole thing that is brilliant about rice is that it is great for turning almost anything into a solid meal. Once you've got the basic idea of stir-frying down, you can take anything you find in your fridge, cook it, and dump it over rice to make a meal. Here's the idea:

You need a large frying pan (or a wok if you actually have one), and some sort of cooking oil. Take any ingredients you have on hand -- all vegetables (fresh, frozen or canned), or vegetables with some meat or chicken. Prepare the ingredients -- wash veggies, and cut everything into bite-size pieces, and place to one side. Gather up whatever seasonings you've decided to use -- the easiest is to just use soy sauce and nothing else, but you can use anything you want -- peppers, any kind of cooking sauces, any seasoning (store-bought or your own mix). Heat a small amount of oil in the pan over med-hi heat, let the pan get pretty warm, and then start adding your ingredients. Start with the things that will take longest to cook (meats, "hard" veggies like raw carrots and onions), and add everything bit by bit until everything's in the pan. Keep stirring, adding the seasonings you've picked to taste, until everything is cooked through. Pour over a bowl of cooked rice and voila! Yummmmm!!

Obviously, you can get as sophisticated as you want here. One nice thing to try is adding broth (buillon is fine) towards the end, and then adding a little cornstarch diluted in cold water to make a thick sauce in the stir-fry. And there's tons of excellent recipes that follow this basic idea which you can use -- but my point is, you don't have to have a recipe or even a particular list of ingredients! Once you know how to whip this sort of thing up, you can always make a presentable meal out of whatever's in the house (well...assuming you keep some food around besides Captain Crunch). In college a roommate and I regularly ate "vegetable bin scraps over rice", and I still like to throw things together and see how it turns out. it's not alway great, but it's always edible.

One really good rice dish is a classic Japanese dish called donburi. There are about as many kinds of donburi as there are kinds of rice, but here's an easy one (great on cold nights):

You will need: 1 sliced onion (halve it lengthwise, then slice the halves thinly); about 3/4 lb beef, either ground or sliced into bite-size pieces; 1 c beef broth/buillon ; 2 T soy sauce; 2 T mirin (you should be able to find mirin in the "asian" section of your grocery store -- in a pinch you can use sake); 2 T sugar; 1 t ground ginger; cooking oil. (And don't forget to have a batch of rice ready!) You can use chicken and chicken broth instead of the beef if you like.

Heat a small amount of oil in a large frying pan or wok (med-hi). Add onions and cook until soft. Add meat and cook until cooked through. Mix the soy sauce, mirin, sugar and ginger in a small bowl and add to onions and meat. Continue cooking for another minute, then add broth. Bring liquid to a boil, then turn burner down to low and cover pan. Let cook for 5-10 minutes, then heap cooked rice in bowls and pour mixture over the rice. Dig in! (serves two)

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