Cooking rice and cultivating houseplants. I have the kiss of death when it comes to these things. I don’t know what it is about me, but sooner or later every plant that comes into my care meets a sad, withered demise. I have even been known to kill cacti. But that’s another story.
Rice is the bane of my life. I like to think I have mastered the artistic side of cooking, but there is no way I can say the same for the science. Most stove-top cooking in my experience is an art, open to a wide scope of imagination, improvisation and impulse. Baking, on the other hand, is more like science, and that’s why I largely avoid it.
One of the exceptions to the stove-top art rule – along with béchamel sauce – has to be rice. The fact that I do get it right maybe once out of six times is not enough. Your rice has to be perfect, and you have to depend on it being perfect to be able to serve it with confidence. The sticky, gooey gunk I so often end up with just won’t do.
Aunt Clara’s instructions for rice have helped me a great deal, but I still can’t completely rely on producing rice that I can serve up with effortless pride to my guests, or even my Dominican husband, not to mention the extended family. Since I became Aunt Ilana I have had a reputation to live up to, and failure to produce decent Dominican rice is failure at the first hurdle as far as anyone is concerned.
Away from the DR and rice purists, the British for example are far less demanding. Cook the rice in a pot of boiling water until it is done, pour the whole lot through a sieve and rinse through with more water to get rid of the starch. I know what you are thinking. I can picture the look on your faces.
As if that were not bad enough, there is even something called ‘Easy Cook’ rice that would probably result in legal action for breaching the trades descriptions act or at the very least a trip to the psychiatrist if you tried to serve it to a Dominican. One can buy easy cook brown rice, easy cook basmati and easy cook American long grain. It is dry and chewy and the opposite of everything a good plate of rice should be. It is, as the name suggests, easy to cook though.
Not surprisingly, my worst culinary disaster ever involves rice. I have had a good few failures in the kitchen over the years, but the most memorable fiascoes are the ones that happen, spectacularly, in full public view.
I invited a large-ish and diverse group of friends for paella. I can usually be depended on to muster up a reasonable approximation of seafood paella in a non-stick wok, but this time I wanted to go for authenticity. I borrowed a real Spanish paellera, also bearing in mind that I was cooking for a larger number of people than the wok was able to feed. It was catastrophic. My stove was too small for the enormous paellera, even when I had three rings going. In my flustered state I added cold instead of boiling water to the rice, so the whole thing took what seemed like hours to come back to the boil. I probably also messed up the proportions because of the larger quantity, so instead of an appetizing paellera of yellow rice contrasting brightly with red peppers, green peas and prawns, I served up a chewy grey mush hours later than scheduled.
The lesson I learned, like many a cook before me, was never to serve anything untested to guests. What my guests probably learned, I can only speculate.
- 6 bell peppers
- 5 tablespoons of olive oil
- 3 cups of boiled fava beans or butter beans
- 3 bay leaves (optional)
- 2 teaspoons of parsley, finely diced
- A pinch of oregano
- ½ teaspoon of pepper
- 3 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 1 cup of tomato sauce
- 5 cups of water
- 2 cups of long grain rice
- 1½ teaspoon of salt (or more, to taste)
- Cut the top of the bell peppers and remove seeds and the white parts from the inside. Reserve.
- Using half the oil paint the bottom of a baking tray, and the outside of each pepper.
- Heat the oven to 350 ºF [170 ºC].
- In an deep bottom pot heat the other half of the oil over medium heat.
- Add the beans, bay leaves, parsley, a pinch of oregano, pepper and garlic. Cook and stir for a minute. Stir in the tomato sauce and water. Season with salt to taste.
- When the water breaks the boil, add the rice. Stir to mix.
- Stir regularly to avoid excessive sticking. When all the liquid has evaporated remove from the heat.
- Stuff the peppers with the rice and cover with the top of each pepper.
- Bake covered with aluminum foil for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and try the rice, it should be firm but tender inside. If necessary, return to the oven for another 5 minutes.
- Serve with meat or fish of your preference.