Sarah writes: I have a daughter who has to eat gluten-free, so we make a lot of rice. I cook it on the stovetop, but I’m wondering if the fancy electronic cookers are worth the money? If so, could you recommend one?
Tony’s take: I’m a little ambivalent about the rice cooker/stovetop debate. Personally, I prefer rice on the stovetop, but I do think rice cookers are worth their relatively modest cost, especially for a weeknight regimen like yours. It’s a good debate (stovetop vs rice cooker) and one that I cover in detail below. I also share my evolving thoughts on brown rice (I’ve developed feelings for short-grain brown Arborio) as well as a recipe for a fall-ish green chile and cauliflower composition. It’s all rice, all gluten-free. Hope your daughter approves!
– About rice cookers: Full disclosure: I’m no rice-cooker savant. I’ve got a 10-yr old Hitachi Chime-o-matic which I pull out of the cupboard only about once a month. But I use a bunch of different rice cookers in the restaurants and I recently purchased this simple Zojirushi model for my mom’s birthday (one I would recommend for you, too: reasonably priced and dependable). My advice: stay away from cookers with crazy programmable settings (they break) and stick with simplicity (an “on” and “off” button, settings for brown and white rice, and little more). Beware that the cookers’ non-stick inserts can wear down over time (don’t expedite that process by scraping with a metal spoon or a scour brush). As for actually operating the cookers, you’ll find that these machines’ greatest strength (they allow you to go about living while the rice steams and holds indefinitely), can also be a fault: they don’t always allow you to personalize some elements of the cooking process. For most folks, this shouldn’t be a big deal and the cookers’ convenience and dependability far outweigh any negatives.
– My stovetop method: I like to steam the hell out of rice. I favor an aggressive form of the absorption method: bring the water to a boil (approximately 2 parts water to 1 part rice), stir in the rice (and salt and olive oil), cook until most of the liquid is absorbed, then cover and steam at relatively high heat for a couple of minutes before lowering the heat and steaming gently for 15 minutes, covered and undisturbed. I find the initial blast of steam helps to ensure that the grains get the proper texture, tender but toothy (and most definitely not mushy).
– Brown rice: I’ve never been a fan. It’s a textural thing; most brown rice cooks to a soggy chewiness which is palatable only if you’re convinced your health depends on it. Enter short-grain brown rice. I’m sure it’s been around for a while, but it’s only recently that I’ve taken note. The smallish grains have a pleasant, toothy texture kind of like wheatberries (but better). Most short grain brown rice you’ll find at the market is brown Arborio. But despite its origins, the Arborio doesn’t need to be stirred like risotto. Just up the water ratio (to 2.5 water parts to 1 part rice) and follow the regular steaming procedure. I like adding vegetables and flavorings to fill out the brown rice; lately, sautéed cauliflower and spicy green chiles have been my thing. Just fold the vegetables into the rice once it’s absorbed most of the liquid, then, cover, and steam until both the cauliflower and rice are tender, about 20 minutes.
RECIPE (Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish)
1. Boil the rice: Bring 4 cups water to a boil. Stir in 1 tsp. kosher salt, 1 Tbs. olive oil and 1 1/2 cups short-grain brown rice. Reduce the heat to medium and cook at a steady simmer, stirring occasionally, until most all of the liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes. If you’re using a rice cooker, cover it during this step, and then add the vegetables below (step 3) as the rice steaming starts to subside.
2. Meanwhile, saute the cauliflower and chiles: Heat 2 Tbs. olive oil in a large heavy-based skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 cups cauliflower florets (about 1/2 head) and 2 Anaheim chiles (cored and diced; leave the seeds in for heat if you like), sprinkle with 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, and cook, stirring, until the cauliflower browns in places, 2 to 3 minutes. Add 1 garlic clove (minced) and cook, stirring, until the garlic becomes fragrant and browns lightly in places, about 30 seconds. Remove from the heat.
3. Steam the rice: Transfer the sautéed cauliflower to the rice pot or rice cooker. Reduce the heat to medium-low (or just let the rice cooker continue to do its steaming thing), cover, and cook without disturbing for 20 minutes or until the rice cooker “dings”. Check that the rice and cauliflower are tender, then stir in 1 cup grated Parmigiano and a couple squirts fresh lemon juice and season with salt to taste. Serve immediately.