Sticky Situation

So deeply rooted in history, so utterly essential that in many cultures, the word for “rice” is the very same word for “meal,” or just simply “food.” The whole world as we know it could have quite plausibly begun from a single grain of rice. Trying to break down the myriad varieties though, from ancient to modern hybrid, is where things start to get sticky.

That’s exactly what I want to pick apart today: Sticky rice. For starters, sticky rice is distinct from common long grain white rice, and no amount of special preparation will come close to its unique characteristics. Don’t let any blissfully thrifty cooks tempt you into thinking that any overcooked long grains, gummy and swollen with too much water, are even remotely acceptable substitutes. While many types of short grain rice may be lumped together and called “sticky rice,” true glutinous rice is a separate breed. It all boils down to its starchy constitution. Glutinous rice contains just one component of starch, called amylopectin, while other kinds of rice contain both molecules that make up starch: amylopectin and amylose. Amylose does not gelatinize during cooking, which keeps grains separate and fluffy. Without that buffer, you’ll find a range of creamier or downright cohesive results.

Thai sticky or glutinous rice has been the object of my affection and frustration since the very first forkful I enjoyed in Thailand itself. Back at home, understanding the culinary transmogrification happening to turn out such a familiar yet entirely unique staple has been a fascinating, humbling experience.

A medium-to-long-grain rice hailing from South East and East Asia, glutinous rice does not actually contain gluten, but the name refers to the rice’s glue-like sticky quality, which easily binds it into rice balls and cakes. Black Thai sticky rice is simply the wholegrain version, meaning the bran has not been removed. Contrary to the name, it’s actually more of a mottled, deep purple color and has an exceptionally chewy, toothsome bite. Like other unmilled or brown rices, it takes slightly longer to cook than white varieties.

Typically soaked overnight, gently steamed in a special bamboo basket, and painstakingly tended all the while, traditional methods of cooking are as intimidating as they are ultimately gratifying. Every minute of planning and preparation is well worth the effort, but not exactly an endeavor for an everyday meal. If you’re willing to sacrifice authenticity for the sake of almost-instant satisfaction, I’m happy to share a secret shortcut to get those sticky morsels on the table in a fraction of the time.

Use 1/4 – 1/2 cup dry grains per person and bundle them up in a nutmilk bag. Plunge into a pot of boiling water, keeping the top drawn tightly closed and out of the water, as if you were steeping an oversized tea bag. Turn off the heat and let soak for 10 minutes. Bring the heat back up to medium, bring to a simmer, and cook for 20 minutes. Elevate the bag in a large strainer, raise the heat to high, and steam for a final 10 – 15 minutes. If using black sticky rice, soak for 15 minutes and simmer for 25.

Most Americans might be familiar with mango sticky rice, a simple dessert featuring ripe mango slices crowning tender grains in a pool of sweetened coconut cream. The combination is hard to beat, tried and true, but so easily adapted for further flavor sensations. Consider the avocado, if you would, as an alternate fruit to feature. Straying a bit from the beaten path, I played around with this Blue Lagoon Sticky Rice by adding a touch of butterfly pea tea powder to the rich and creamy sauce, since it’s also a native Thai ingredient.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with eating fresh, hot sticky rice straight-up, ungarnished in all its fully fragrant, tenaciously clingy glory.

 

 

 

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Sushi Cups for the Rest of Us

Love sushi but hate the fuss and mess of making it at home? You and me both. Despite best intentions, such ambition inevitably leads to walls spackled with sticky rice, sesame seeds burrowed deep within kitchen tiles, and nori plastered across the table. Rolling up the compact parcels isn’t such a demanding task on paper, but in real life when deadlines loom and hunger gnaws with terrifying ferocity, all bets are off. If it’s still reasonably edible by the time I give up and scrape the mangled scraps into a bowl, I’d consider the venture a reasonable success.

For anyone else in the same sort of sushi boat, I’d like you to meet your new life (and sanity) preserver. Edible cups made of classic nori seaweed, crisp and delicate, in addition to more avant-garde carrot and daikon papers, are here to save the dinner. Swaddle your rice in flavorful wrappings without the need to roll. More elegant than the usual mess of fillings dumped into a bowl, these savory cupcakes are just as charming as they are delicious. Feed yourself or a number of last-minute guests with ease, even if some visitors aren’t fond of the “fishiness” that traditional maki rolls possess. Pale orange carrot cups have a subtle, natural sweetness that makes them an ideal offering for more picky eaters or younger palates, white the daikon option has a slightly bitter edge, perfect for cutting the richness of creamy avocado or a generous drizzle of miso mayo. In both cases, the only additional ingredient in the mix is agar, holding these thin edible vessels together.

It’s with equal parts excitement and frustration that I share this fantastic innovation, though, if you might have guessed from the previous product links. I first encountered these savory sushi cupcake papers at the Winter Fancy Foods Show, and regrettably, have yet to hear a word from or even about the company since. Why on earth hasn’t this concept caught on to spread like wildfire? There might be more competitors on the horizon, which is a relief, since my small stockpile has long since been exhausted. It’s an idea that’s just too good to keep to myself, regular availability not withstanding.

In lieu of perfectly formed nori, carrot, and daikon cupcake papers, what’s your quick fix solution when sushi cravings strike? Temari sushi or larger onigiri are probably the most direct conversions, offering single-serving bites of rice and vegetables without the need to roll, while temaki would be ideal finger foods to pass at a party.

Though this feels like another tale of “the one that got away,” I’m holding out hope that these sushi saviors will make a big splash on the market in the days to come. Either that, or someone will devise a press to turn nori into cupcakes at home. A hungry but lazy cook can dream, right?

Pot of Gold

Tell the truth: How many times have you purchased a new product based largely on the container it came in? There’s no judgement here since it’s a marketing ploy I’ve fallen prey to more often than any reasonable shopper should, and I have shelves full of various empty jars to prove it. Insidious yet obviously effective, product packaging is a considerable factor for success in businesses both big and small. It conveys quality, makes a brand memorable, bolsters its presence on the shelf by setting it apart from the pack. For many years, that’s precisely why I knew about Petit Pot, enviously eyeing those shapely glass bottles stacked high in refrigerated cases. I know, you should never judge a book by its cover, but I had nothing else to go on since all of the luxuriously decadent contents were all dairy-based. Until now.

In a radical departure from the original line of French pot de creme offerings, the brand new Riz au Lait Coco is their very first non-dairy and fully vegan treat on offer.

Loosely set, erring much more on the side of a lightly thickened sauce than rich custard, this very quality lends it a deceptively light texture on the palate. For such a heavy, typically fatty main ingredient, this is both a marvel and a rarity. Tender grains of rice swim in a pool of coconut milk, accompanied only by a hint of cane sugar and salt. Dainty, unexpectedly delicate, the thinner texture creates a delightfully refreshing overall experience.

Coconut-forward but not aggressively so, each spoonful bears a lightly toasted tropical flavor but keeps things very simple. Perfectly fitting the definition of comfort food, there are no challenging flavors or surprises concealed in these attractive little containers. What you see is what you get, delivering on the high quality such packaging has always conveyed. Serve them absolutely chilled, straight out of the fridge and unadorned, for an ideal summer snack or dessert.

Locally made in San Francisco and sadly limited in availability nationwide, I’d like to think that this is just the start for a blossoming young company. After all, there’s clearly ample demand for more non-dairy desserts; the proof is in the pudding.

Red is the New White Rice

History tends to repeat itself and predictably, what’s old is new all over again. Dubbed one of the hottest food trends emerging for 2018, ancient grains are being lauded as the latest superfood darlings that you’ve never heard of. Though the exact varieties are novel additions to the daily American diet, their roots go far deeper than the inexplicable attraction to all things rainbow-colored or bacon-topped. In fact, these staples are more commonplace than peanut butter and jelly. Triticale, einkon, freekeh; their names sound like snippets of poetry to the lyrically-inclined ear, and their flavors are equally enchanting. Distinctive in character, they fell out of favor in the early years of the industrial food revolution, when refined consistency (read: homogeneous blandness) was the benchmark of sophistication. All things earthy, coarse, and distinctive fell by the processing plant wayside.

Celebrating heirloom edibles is just a small indication of the healthy food revolution that’s been brewing for years, catapulting one slice of the past into mainstream awareness at a time. Now that the media has focused its lens on grains and pseudo seeds of bygone eras, carbivores the world over have a reason to rejoice. Even those less enamored of the macro-nutrients should be cheered by the greater availability of more diverse options, introducing a bold new palate of colors with which to paint the dinner plate. You needn’t step too far outside your comfort zone to capitalize on this newfound, old-school inclination. Bhutanese Red Rice is just one option that offers a savory departure from the common white variety.

High in fiber due to the residual crimson bran, red rice cooks much faster than the familiar brown grain but retains just as much savory, nutty flavor, if not more.

Visually inspired as always, the stunning burgundy hue guided my recipe experiments as soon as I got my hands on these soft, tender grains. Though I could have easily just eaten a plain bowlful with a pinch of salt, it would be a shame not to pump up the volume on that ruby rice with further red flavoring. Wine was a natural pairing, infused right into the grains as they cook to soften the alcoholic edge but emphasize the deeper, nuttier, grassier notes. Caramelized onions were a given, although now I’m kicking myself for not adding roasted red peppers into the mix as well. Luckily, I have a feeling that this staple crop will now be an essential ingredient in my pantry as well, so there should be many more opportunities to paint the kitchen red.

Red, Red Rice Pilaf

1 Cup Bhutanese Red Rice
2 Tablespoons Coconut Oil
1/2 Cup Diced Red Onion
2 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon Whole Cumin Seeds
1 Teaspoon Whole Black Mustard Seeds
1 1/2 Cups Dry Red Wine
1/2 Cup Vegetable Stock
1 Bay Leaf
1/4 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
1/2 Cup Toasted Sliced Almonds
1/2 Cup Frozen Peas, Thawed

Rinse the rice with cold water and thoroughly drain. Set aside.

Melt the coconut oil in a large saucepan over medium heat and add the onion. Saute for 2 – 3 minutes until translucent before adding the garlic. Turn down the heat to medium low, season with salt, and slowly cook, stirring periodically, until caramelized; about 30 minutes. Add in the cumin and mustard seeds, lightly toasting for 2 – 3 minutes until aromatic.

Introduce the red rice next, sauteing for just a minute or two. You’re not trying to sear the grains, but coat them in the oil and aromatics. Deglaze the pan with the red wine and vegetable stock, scraping the bottom to make sure that nothing sticks or burn. Add in the bay leaf and red pepper flakes, cover, and bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat to low and maintain a steady, gentle simmer. Cook for 20 minutes, until the rice is tender but still toothsome. Keep covered for 5 – 10 more minutes for any remaining liquid to absorb.

Stir in the almonds and peas last, fluff with a fork, and serve while steaming hot.

Makes 4 Servings

Printable Recipe

Treasure Chestnuts

Inspired by the Japanese kuri gohan, the beauty of this side dish is its simplicity, highlighting the seasonal delight that is freshly roasted chestnuts. Harmonizing with the naturally nutty flavor of brown rice, those toothsome grains cling to each tender morsel for an incredibly satisfying bite. Though chestnuts are sadly hard to come by when winter ends, you’ll find yourself craving this combination all year long.

Chestnut Rice

2 Cups Short Grain Brown Rice
2 1/2 Cups Water
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Cup Roughly Chopped, Roasted and Shelled Chestnuts (About 20)
2 Tablespoons Vegan Butter or Coconut Oil
1 Tablespoon Toasted Black Sesame Seeds

My favorite way to prepare this dish is in an electric pressure cooker since it’s so crazy fast, but it can just as easily be made on the stove top. If working with a pressure cooker, simply toss in the rice, water, salt, chopped chestnuts, and butter or oil. Lock in the lid and set it to 20 minutes on high pressure. Once that time has elapsed, quick release by opening up the valve to immediately discharge the built up pressure. Stand back and cover with a dish towel to prevent any spray or steam burns. Let the rice stand for 5 more minutes before uncovering.

For stove top prep, combine the water, salt, and butter or oil in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Add the rice and chestnuts, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer gently for 45 to 50 minutes, until the liquid has fully absorbed. Let stand for 5 more minutes.

Top with sesame seeds right before serving.

Makes 4 Servings as a Side Dish

Printable Recipe