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Sometimes our cooking projects don’t work out. The dough never rises, or the sauce breaks and there’s no bringing it back. We should know in our heads that we can’t hit it out of the park every time. It’s just that I hate putting a sub-par meal in front of my dear husband, though he is gallantly gracious about it when it happens.

My recent failure was Lamb Biryani. I had leftover lamb and was excited to make this, my favorite Indian dish, and bought a prepared jar of Biryani sauce from the produce market on Taraval that carries a wide variety of specialty sauces and spices. I used the recipe on the jar for chicken biryani, which directed me to use 6 tablespoons of the biryani paste for a recipe calling for a cup and a half of rice. As I spooned the 5th tablespoon into the mixture I could tell it was going to be plenty and stopped there. As it was, the 5 tablespoons was far too much. The dish was so over-spiced as to be almost inedible. It would have worked if I’d used something like 2 or 3 tablespoons instead. The recipe on the jar also said the rice would be cooked in 12-15 minutes, and I knew that was a lie, too. Rice is never done in under 20.

Rice is a tough one. It’s such a staple, but it is not a slam dunk that it will turn out right and for that reason I used to hesitate to make it, much as I like it. Rice demands that you pay careful attention to it even as you are supposed to leave it alone. And if you accidentally serve undercooked rice and you get a crunchy first bite…(shudder) it is a big turnoff. Enter our beloved Zojirushi 4-cup rice cooker. rice cooker

This wonderful kitchen appliance takes the guess work out of cooking the rice and, in my case, freeing me up to put a little more time in on the veggies or salad. I highly recommend getting one if you don’t already have one on your counter. In digging into a little history of the rice cooker on the internet, the introduction of the first commercially successful rice cooker in 1956 by the Toshiba corporation became so immediately successful that it was considered a kitchen revolution for homemaking women in Japan. They had to produce 200,000 units per month for the Japanese market and within 4 years they could be found 50% of Japanese households.  (SONY Corp. founder Masaru Ibuka had also tried to develop a rice cooker using a different cooking technology roughly a decade earlier – the first electronic device he worked on with his team – but the rice always seemed to turn out overcooked or undercooked and Ibuka and his team moved on.) If you are interested in the technology behind how these cookers work, you can check out a more in-depth explanation here.

I haven’t come close to using all my rice cooker’s features – like the timer – but  you can steam shellfish along with the rice or add spices and other ingredients if you want to get fancy. It also does a very wonderful job at making brown rice more tasty, though you have to plan ahead to allow for its 90 minute cooking time. (The steamed white rice takes 50 minutes and the machine plays a happy little rice tune when it is done.) Living in San Francisco, we pick up some Asian-influenced habits and my daughter routinely eats rice at breakfast time so I usually make extra and our leftover rice from Chinese Food takeout never, ever goes to waste.

Now that the standard way to make rice has been taken care of by the rice cooker, I will branch out and cook more labor intensive risotto or Spanish rice dishes. These preparations call for the rice to be sauteed or toasted in oil, absorbing some richness (i.e. fat) for a few minutes before the liquid is added to it. I first made risotto following the basic risotto recipe from Carlo Middione’s cookbook La Vera Cucina. Most valuable was his careful description throughout of how things would look during the process. In step one, for example: “Add the rice and stir well. In about 1 minute you should be able to see a white spot in each grain of rice, and the rest of it will be translucent. This is called l’occhio, the eye.” And later on, ”the risotto should be creamy (but not with the grains damaged in any way), and when you push it up against the side of the pan, it should ooze back down very slowly like a mudslide, what the Italians call all’onda, like a wave.” In following Senor Middione’s wonderful clues and catching ‘all’onda’ I’ve been able to make decent risottos from the first attempt.


Good Spanish rice was harder to come by. My daughter wanted it to taste like the kind we’d get at Baja Fresh and I was having a fair bit of trouble making that happen.  After several hit-and-miss attempts and gaining a very valuable tip from a good cook friend about toasting the rice, I have my solid formula for Spanish Rice success, at least by my family’s standard.

Spanish Rice
1 cup rice (jasmine)
1/3 cup spanish onion diced fine or 2 tbsp. yellow onion grated
vegetable oil
½ cup canned tomato sauce (Hunts, Del Monte)
1 14-oz. can chicken broth

Saute the onion in 1 tbsp vegetable oil. Add the rice and toss in the oil to coat, for about 1-2 minutes. Add 1 cup of chicken broth. Measure ½ cup of the tomato sauce into measuring cup, then top off with chicken broth to measure a full cup. Add this to the rice.
Bring to boil, then reduce heat and cover. Simmer for about 20 minutes, check about halfway through or at 15 minute mark and add a little more stock – the rest of the 14oz. can – if necessary. (I usually add a pat of butter at the halfway mark too.)
When liquid is absorbed, turn off heat, let sit for several minutes, uncover and serve.