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Few people would compare rice to wine, but Caryl Levine, one of the founders of Lotus Foods in El Cerrito, California, does just that. It's common knowledge that the flavor and aroma of wine is influenced by its terroir, the growing area of the grapes that gives the wine its special characteristics. According to Levine, this is true of rice as well.
Heirloom and exotic rice varietals differ in flavor from region to region due to "the unique soil, water and growing conditions." Her remark might explain why I see at least a dozen kinds of Basmati rice in my favorite Persian and Indian markets, and numerous brands of jasmine rice in Chinese and Thai markets. People from a specific region value the special character of their own rice.
Levine introduced me to a Chinese black rice called forbidden rice, Bhutanese red rice and small-grained Kalijira brown rice, which cooks nearly as fast as white rice. Last week, at the Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, California, I sampled their new rice, bamboo rice, infused with an extract made from a species of bamboo that grows wild in south central China. Aromatic, pale green and high in fiber, it tasted so good even when cooked plain in water, as did their other special kinds of rice.
When I moved to Israel in 1969, our supermarket had one or two brands of plain white rice, that's all. For brown rice, I had to go to a health food store. Now you can find exotic rice at your local natural foods store, and supermarkets also offer a much wider variety than before, including Basmati, brown rice and risotto.
Not all whole grain rice is brown. Red and black rice are whole grains too. In the past few years, we have become more aware not only of the health benefits of whole grains, but also of their good taste. Even if I wasn't interested in nutrition, I would use these kinds of rice for their flavor and for the interest they contribute to my meals.
If your family avoids grains during Passover, you may be looking for ways to use up the rice in your pantry. Rice is the perfect base for creating simple-to-prepare meals, the kind most of us need during this hectic pre-holiday season.
Most often I prepare rice as a pilaf. Levine favors this method too, which is the same for exotic rice as for white rice. She stirs the rice briefly over heat with chopped onion that has been sauteed in olive oil, then finishes cooking the rice in chicken or vegetable broth or water. This works fine for black, red and brown rice. All you need to do is taste the rice and cook it to the tenderness you like.
Pilaf is tasty on its own, but you can add other vegetables, like diced mushrooms, carrots and zucchini, to make it a complete side dish. Even easier, throw in some frozen vegetables along with the liquid. For extra richness, stir a few spoonfuls of a prepared sauce, such as pesto, into the pilaf when it is ready.
To serve rice pilaf as an entree, add a protein element - whatever happens to be in your refrigerator. If you have a little cooked or canned salmon, stir it into the pilaf with some frozen peas and dill. Even something very basic, like cubes of cheese combined with a little chopped green onion and red pepper, will turn cooked rice into supper.
Cold cuts work well too. My friend and publisher Ruth Sirkis, author of Cooking with Pleasure (in Hebrew), uses smoked turkey and chopped hard boiled eggs to give substance to a colorful rice salad with pickled red peppers, parsley, corn kernels and pine nuts.
If you want to use up your legumes before Passover as well, combine them with rice to make a complete vegetarian main course that appears in various versions on tables around the world. You're probably familiar with Middle Eastern mejadra, made of lentils and rice, which is popular in Israel. To make such dishes quickly, use canned lentils or chickpeas or frozen fava or lima beans.
According to Gracia Grego, author of Lebanese Cooking (in Hebrew), a traditional dish around Passover time calls for cooking rice with fresh (green) fava beans and flavoring the combination with sauteed garlic, cinnamon and paprika. A similar dish, Basmati rice with fava beans and dill, is a favorite for No Ruz, the Persian New Year, which is celebrated this week. Although white rice is the customary choice, these dishes taste great with whole grain rice or with wild rice, which is not a true rice but works well in rice recipes.
For me, the most festive way to prepare rice is by garnishing it with toasted nuts and dried fruit in the Middle Eastern tradition. A friend of mine embellishes her Basmati rice with sauteed onions, dried cranberries and toasted cashews, which does wonders to dress up plainly cooked rice of any kind.
CHICKEN AND BROWN RICE SALAD WITH WATER CHESTNUTS AND KIWI
With its sprightly ginger and orange dressing, this main-course salad is completely different from the usual chicken salad with mayonnaise. Serve it warm or cool. Cook brown rice pilaf as in the first paragraph or use four cups of any cooked rice, and make the dressing with three or four tablespoons oil. For a vegetarian dish, omit the chicken or substitute baked cubes of tofu. Other good fruit for this salad are diced mango or orange segments.
3 or 4 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2â„3 cup chopped onion, preferably red
3 cups chicken stock
11â„2 cups long-grain brown rice
2 to 3 cups cooked chicken, diced or in strips
11â„2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. orange juice
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tsp. grated peeled ginger
1â„2 tsp. grated orange zest
1â„4 cup chopped parsley
a 225-gr. can water chestnuts, drained, sliced or 1â„2 cup roasted cashews
11â„2 cups diced papaya (optional)
Heat two tablespoons oil in a large saute pan or wide casserole. Add half the chopped onion and cook over low heat, stirring, about five minutes or until soft but not brown. Add rice and saute, stirring, about two minutes. Add stock, stir once with a fork and bring to a simmer. Cook over low heat, without stirring, for 40 minutes. Taste rice; if not yet tender, simmer two more minutes. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl, fluff with fork and cool.
Whisk together vinegar, orange juice, remaining oil, salt, pepper, ginger and orange zest. Add three tablespoons of this dressing to chicken. Add remaining onion and mix well. Peel kiwis; cut one in half slices and the rest in quarter slices.
Toss chicken mixture with rice and remaining dressing. Add water chestnuts, parsley and kiwi quarter-slices and mix lightly. Taste and adjust seasoning. Garnish with kiwi half slices.
Makes 3 or 4 main-course servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.