Meant To Be Broken

If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. If it already is broken, it might not need fixing in the first place.

Broken rice (Cơm Tấm) is intentionally fractured, not defective. Once upon a time, in the earliest days of milling and manufacturing, it did begin life as the cheaper alternative to pristine long rice, though that’s no longer the case. In fact, it can command a premium price, especially overseas where it’s harder to find. Stumbling upon it randomly while perusing the endless aisles at MT Supermarket, I knew I hit the jackpot.

Contrary to the negative implications that might be associated with a “broken” item, it’s just as nutritious as any other whole grain. In fact, it has the added benefit of cooking more quickly due to the shorter, fragmented pieces.

If you think regular white rice is a brilliant blank canvas for soaking in flavorful sauces, just wait until you break this party up; impossibly porous, this segmented cereal drinks in every last drop like an edible sponge. Soft, sticky, tender yet toothsome, you get the best of all textures in every bite.

You could enjoy it in any other short grain rice recipe for a change of pace, though it’s most popular in Vietnam as street food. Flanked by pork chops, fried egg, meatloaf, pork skin, and sweet fish sauce, you would be hard pressed to find a dish any less vegan.

Rather than attempting to twist this dish into something utterly unrecognizable to accommodate my demands, I was inspired to break up with tradition and try a fresh approach.

Fragrant, subtly sweet, delicate and supple, this exquisite cracked cereal shines with a gentle approach to seasoning. Slightly nutty, warm and toasted, yet also bright and floral with hints of citrus, it’s already quite a prize cooked only in plain water. It would be a grave disservice to the grain if such a wealth of flavor was obscured. Thus, I merely accentuated the natural complexities locked within, adding a touch of sugar, salt, and a few drops of lemongrass oil. Butterfly pea tea (“blue matcha”) provides a bold blue hue, but the rich palate of flavors outshines even that vibrant veneer.

Serve with ripe mango, papaya, peaches, coconut, or any fresh fruit, really. Feel free to experiment! You can’t mess this one up; it’s already broken.

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Extra Virgin, Extra Special

One of the most important ingredients in my pantry, tied for a photo finish with salt, is olive oil. Always close at hand, in at least two or three varieties, it’s my top pick for baking and cooking, both sweet and savory. We’ve talked about the subject at length, but there’s still so much more to learn about such a historical, essential staple.

Reinvigorated by an inspiring Flavor Your Life Virtual Influencer Event, I’m taking another deep dive into this golden-green elixir. Assembled for the express purpose of sharing the rich, delicious heritage of authentic extra virgin olive oil from Europe, they’re on a mission to banish subpar, rancid blends from kitchens everywhere.

Extra virgin olive oil is the gold standard since it’s made simply by pressing olives without heat or chemicals, which makes it virtually free of the bitter acidity plaguing lesser, cheaper blends. A panel of trained, expert tasters test for defects, ensuring that each drop encapsulates a harmonious balance of fruitiness and spiciness. If the oil doesn’t have that signature essence, it won’t receive an Extra Virgin rating, no matter the painstaking processing methods employed.

Contrary to common belief, extra virgin olive oil has a high smoking point of 400°F, which is why it gets top billing in my cookbooks as a go-to for almost all recipes. The best dishes start with quality ingredients; there’s no two ways about it. That’s why I was so eager to put Le Stagioni d’Italia to the [taste] test.

Billed as having a robust flavor of artichoke and almond with a medium bitter, spicy aftertaste, as well as a green, ripe, fruity aroma, this powerful profile is a clear winner. Featured in a number of rice dishes during the online event, I was hungry for a piece of the action at home, with my own personal touches. Though the golden risotto was quite tempting, glowing luminously even on my dull computer screen, I had to go with cooler, more summery fare.

Sweet cherry tomatoes are slowly roasted to concentrate their natural sugars into tiny umami bombs, bursting with flavor across the landscape of plump carnaroli rice. Though these short grains are typically used for risotto or paella, they’re brilliantly tender yet toothsome once chilled, creating a more texturally satisfying salad than long grains that tend to get dry and brittle over time.

Amplifying the inherently rich profile of the oil itself, I decided to fold actual artichoke hearts into the mix, and instead of using cottage cheese as called for in the original recipe, finish each serving with a creamy dollop of almond ricotta. Infused with fresh herbs and zesty lemon peel, it’s bright, vibrant, complex, luxurious, and yet still approachable and comforting all at once. That’s the beauty of good olive oil; such versatility knows no bounds.

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Let the Good Times, and Rice Balls, Roll

Get your favorite fat pants on and pull up a chair; it’s almost time for Fat Tuesday! You never need an excuse to indulge, but Mardi Gras is the best excuse to splurge on rich Cajun and Creole fare. No need to repent with fasting and self-denial for Lent, as per the Catholic tradition, though. When you’re eating plant-based, even the most lavish feast can be rationalized as a “healthier” choice. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself when I reach for a third, fourth, and maybe fifth round of fried jambalaya.

Italians would call them arancini, but it just hits different when you say it with a southern twang. Plump, sticky sushi rice is slowly simmered with the holy trinity, tomatoes, garlic, and a powerful punch of savory spices. Morsels of meatless sausage meld with the mixture for a substantial, satisfying bite. It’s a complete meal in one convenient, crispy package.

Dip, dunk, or plate the sizzling hot spheres with creamy remoulade sauce, tangy and punchy, spiked with vinegar and hot sauce to really get the party started. Go all out with a dollop of scallion pesto on top, or for a simpler finishing touch, sprinkle on plain scallions generously and call it a day.

With such bold flavors condensed into these tiny packages, you couldn’t ask for anything else… Except, maybe, one more helping.

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Sush-Easy

To anyone who can proclaim to dislike sushi, I can only shake my head in wonder. You don’t like rice? While the term has come to imply raw fish in modern usage, the actual translation of the word only refers to seasoned rice. Mouthfuls of lightly vinegared grains never hurt anyone, so why the animosity? If the paper-thin sheath of seaweed is still too briny for your liking, plenty of alternative wrappings are at your disposal for more colorful, flavorful containment. Beyond the predictable and traditional, there’s a bold new world of fillings to wrap up and roll out.

Let’s start with some Italian fusion with some Caprese Sushi. Mix herbaceous basil pesto into cooked and cooled sushi rice for a bold green backdrop. Press it into place along a paprika soy paper wrapper and line the center with vegan mozzarella, fresh heirloom tomato slices, and sun-dried tomatoes. Roll tightly, slice into a few thick pieces, and drizzle balsamic glaze across the plate before placing your fresh futo maki on top.

Traveling now to the jungles of Indonesia, Satay Sushi is a spicy, crunchy, savory treat that’s even better than anything on a skewer. Turmeric soy paper is the golden foundation for this one, with plain sushi rice cradling shredded carrots, grilled or sauteed meatless chicken, a thick smear of crunchy peanut butter, and everyone’s favorite hot condiment, chili crisp. You could always serve peanut sauce alongside, since I tend to encouraging going at least a little bit nuts.

Back to my own roots in New York City, Everything Bagel Sushi really is everything I could ask for in a mere maki. This one employs a sesame soy wrapper, of course, layered with the standard sushi rice, luscious lashings of vegan cream cheese, crisp cucumbers, minced red onion, dill, and a heavy sprinkle of everything bagel seasoning. Who needs the bread when you’ve got a compact roll ready to grab and go?

Finishing out with the next big blue plate special, Benedict Sushi promises to shake up the brunch routine with style and substance that would make the average English muffin crumble. It all starts with a spinach soy wrapper, rolling up around rice, blanched asparagus, vegan scrambled egg, and meatless ham. Slice and serve with a rich pool of hollandaise sauce for dipping, or dunking, as you see fit.

What’s your favorite way to wrap and roll? Do you stick with the traditional, understated vegetable maki, or shake things up with more unconventional fillings? While it’s hard to argue with the instant gratification of restaurant takeout, I promise you won’t find options nearly so fresh, fun, or fanciful as in your own kitchen.

Noshtalgia

Nostalgia (nos·​tal·​gia):
1 The state of being homesick : homesickness
2 A wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition

Nosh (näsh):
1. Food
2. To eat enthusiastically

Noshtalgia (nosh·​tal·​gia):
Longing for a food you can no longer eat

Every time I return to my hometown on the east coast, I’m hit by a wave of noshtalgia that could drown the strongest Olympic swimmer. Driving by the space where my culinary roots originally grew, at Health in a Hurry, I’m suddenly yet predictably swept out to sea. The taste memories come flooding back; the white bean delicata, the almond pate nori rolls, and oh, the beet marmalade! What I would give for just one more bite.

Slowly, painstakingly, I’ve begun to reassemble the recipes by sheer force of will, powerful cravings, and a touch of good luck. All previous formulas have been lost to time, but some were so powerfully ingrained through repetition of preparation and consumption that they reemerge from their decade of slumber fully intact, unharmed.

As if they had been written down on the backside of a napkin that I finally thought to turn over, I find the formula instantly, without any revisions nor concessions made.

Welcome back to the world, Lemon Curry Rice Salad.

Arguably our most popular dish, I must admit that its charms were lost on me at the time. Adding raisins to a savory entree was still unappealing to my immature tastes, and the base composition was so basic.

Rice, curry vinaigrette, some vegetables and scallions, tossed and dished out. Sure, I ate plenty of it given the opportunity, and made gallons at a time to fill the front cases, but I never thought it would be something I yearned for when it was gone.

Older, wiser, and hungrier than ever, one bite of the grain and vegetable amalgamation brought me right back to those early years, blending up batch after batch of dressing, thinking for sure it was more than we could ever use and yet discovering that somehow, it still wasn’t enough to feed the hordes that arrived for their fix.

Warming, well-seasoned but not spicy, the golden elixir brightens a riot of textures, from the crunch of toasted cashews to the toothsome grains of rice, crisp carrot strings to the tender green peas and chewy dried fruit. It’s a daring, seemingly discordant combination, a diverse set of distinctive characters, that somehow manage to work together in delicious harmony.

Now I get it. Now, after reducing quantities to a more manageable amount, it would have been wise to double up, at least.

When you fall in love with the warming, tangy, and sweet blend, rest assured that it’s well suited to scaling up. Double, triple, quadruple, or more; feed an army or just keep some on hand to arm yourself against sharp pangs of noshtalgia. Trust me, you won’t regret it; this one has stood the test of time.

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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.