Rice to Entice


I’ll bet you’re thinking, “What does this Italian guy know about rice?” Well, it’s true that pasta is the carbohydrate of choice is my neck of the boot (Southern Italy, that is.) Nevertheless, we Italian Americans have a keen talent for spotting a good thing when we taste it. Truth is, pasta runs a close second to rice in my household. And really, anything I put on pasta can easily be placed on a dish of rice and taste just as good – even better in some instances. (Nonna, forgive me!)

Rice plays such a major role in the culinary traditions of so many cultures around the world. It’s the global favorite. Think about it. All of Asia is hooked on rice. Always has been. That’s a lot of rice! Then there’s the Caribbean and South America, where rice is king as well. In the U.S., Southern cuisine features rice in many of its dishes, especially in Creole and Cajun cooking. So my affinity for rice puts me in very good company.

Growing up, rice made limited appearances on the dinner table. Mom did have one good rice recipe up her sleeve, though. She prepared the rice in chicken broth. When it was done, she’d fluff it up and mix freshly chopped scallions into it. So simple but really nice with her fried chicken cutlets. My grandmother’s rice repertoire was mostly limited to mixing it with butter and Parmigiano cheese. Every once in a rare while she incorporated Sunday’s leftover sauce and chopped meatballs into freshly prepared rice. It was garnished with grated cheese and served it as a side dish. It was good. Her Steak Pizzaiola or Chicken Cacciatore were also ladled over rice. But that was about it.

When I started living on my own, rice quickly exceeded pasta and potatoes as the norm in my kitchen. It was fairly inexpensive, nutritious, delicious and extremely versatile. I became a master at fried rice featuring chicken, pork, beef, vegetables – you name it – and always with scrambled egg, please. Rice replaced noodles in my soups. I had a ball as I would gumbo and etouffee my way through the week with ease. I believe I ate rice every day. Then I hit my thirties – hard. Metabolizing carbohydrates slowed down as my weight went up. I had to cut back a bit.

So now I balance the carbs with protein and fresh veggies. It’s fine, really, because I still eat plenty of my beloved rice. Just not every day! I will opt for brown rice at times. Kind of nutty in flavor. And they say it’s a better choice for those watching their weight. Wild rice is also pretty tasty. (It’s not technically rice, but who’s looking anyway.) I like to mix chopped almonds in mine. However, a good white rice – whether it’s basmati, jasmine or texmati – is still my preference. I’ll go as far as leaving the potatoes out of my beef stew so I can enjoy it over rice. If I’m going to carb, I’ll drop the potato-like, well, a hot potato any day.

Have you ever tried a rice salad? It’s really something special. Prepare your rice as directed, and let it cool. Be sure the kernels are separated. It won’t work with sticky rice. Then take some really ripe tomatoes and dice, saving all the luscious juice. Do the same with celery, red onion, flat leaf parsley and fresh basil. Mix your veggies into the rice, as well as a can of rinsed black beans. Now you’re ready for a dressing. I recommend red wine vinegar and olive oil here. Simple, but classic. Chill and serve.

I can extol the glories of rice for days and days. Suffice it to say, since space here is limited, that rice can take center stage or play a supporting role at any fine meal. In other words, look to entice with rice. Recipes are limitless but start with Phyllis’ below. It’s a keeper. That’s it for now. I’ve got some rice pudding in the fridge with my name on it.

Victor Ribaudo

Spicy Szechuan Tofu
Sure, you might want to try this recipe because it’s good for you, but you
would also be right on target to try it because it’s zesty and redolent with
Asian tang. Tofu is s highly versatile ingredient absorbing any flavors you
want it to have, in this case, spicy chili paste, sesame oil, garlic and
fresh ginger.

My Chinese mentors, the late Virginia Lee and Grace Chu inspired this
recipe. Both had tantalizing stir-fried tofu in their repertoires. Madame
Chu lived to age 100.

6 squares firm tofu
2 T peanut or vegetable oil
1 cup ground pork
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 t salt
2 t minced fresh ginger
1 T hot Szechuan chili paste
1 T dark soy sauce
½ t sugar
1 T rice wine
½ cup chicken stock
2 T cornstarch
1 t Szechuan peppercorns, ground*
1/3 cup diced scallions
1 T sesame oil

1. Cut tofu into ½ inch cubes.
2. In a wok or skillet, bring peanut oil to a high heat. Add ground pork
and stir fry** until all pieces are separated and pork loses its pink color.
3. Add garlic and salt, stir frying just until the flavor is released.
4. Add ginger, chili paste and tofu, stir-frying very gently.
5. Add soy sauce, sugar and wine, stir frying until mixed.
6. Pour in stock, mixing until it begins to boil and then add cornstarch
mixed with 2 T water.
7. Stir-fry gently until sauce thickens.
8. Sprinkle with peppercorn powder, scatter on scallions and drizzle with
sesame oil to serve.
* You can grind them in a spice mill or just put them in a baggie and role a
bottle or rolling pin over them.
** “Stir-frying” is a misnomer. There is no stirring in stir frying. The technique is to slide the spatula underneath the food at the center of the wok, lift it up and turn it over. Then repeat this procedure from a
different angle. Thus, the top surface becomes the bottom surface and all gets cooked evenly. Always heat your wok first before adding the oil. Get your wok as hot as possible without burning the oil. Don’t use a nonstick pan.

Photographer Bill Brady

Written by Victor Ribaudo

Recipe Provided by Phyllis Kirigin, aka sweetpaprika

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