A tasty dish of basmati rice and peas I ate a few days ago at a vegetarian Indian cafÃ© reminded me of one of my first attempts at cooking. I was a 19-year-old newlywed in my kitchen in Bat Yam, with no clue of how to cook rice. At the local grocery store I found a box of rice labeled "risi bisi." I thought it sounded like a cute name for busy-day rice, since it was actually a mix, presumably used for days when time was short; all you needed to do was add water.
Of course, the aromatic Indian rice dotted with peas that I had recently was a lot better than my rice from a mix. But the rice resulting from my teenage effort was acceptable - it wasn't mushy or impossibly hard, and it gave me the desire to go on to cook "real" rice. It also got me curious about the dish's name. I learned that risi e bisi meant rice with peas and was the name of a centuries-old specialty of Venice. According to Judith Barrett, author of From an Italian Garden, this was the dish the ruling doges ate at the feast of their patron saint, St. Mark, for whom Venice's famous Piazza San Marco, the city's central square, is named.
Like many cooks, Barrett prepares risi e bisi as a soup of short-grain rice and peas cooked in broth or water with chopped onions sauteed in butter and olive oil, and serves it with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Micole Negrin, author of Rustico, a book on regional Italian country cooking, prepares a more elaborate version of risi e bisi, beginning by cooking fresh pea pods in chicken broth for two hours. To flavor her dish, she sautees salted meat with chopped parsley and green onions and cooks the rice in the risotto style, adding broth in batches and waiting until each portion has been absorbed before ladling in more. For additional enrichment, she stirs in butter along with the grated cheese just before serving. She notes that the rice should be soupy, although she does not serve it as a soup.
In contrast, the Indian rice with fresh peas has the dry texture of a pilaf, or as an Israeli neighbor who explained rice cookery to me described the ideal rice, "orez ehad ehad," meaning rice one by one - each grain distinct and separate from the others. The Indian rice occasionally is lightly studded with toasted cumin seeds or a few whole cloves, which give it a delicate hint of spice, and might have a touch of butter. Unlike risi e bisi, which is served on its own as a first course, this light-textured, delicate rice is a partner for intensely flavored saucy dishes.
Peas are often paired with rice in a Mexican-American side dish known as Mexican or Spanish rice. It too is often prepared by the pilaf technique: The rice is heated briefly with a sauteed onion and cooked with broth, peas and diced tomatoes.
In France, I learned the easiest technique of all for preparing rice with peas - almost as effortless as using a mix. You boil the rice in plenty of water as in cooking pasta, drain it and heat it with butter, or even better with butter-sauteed onions, and cooked peas.
In fact, all of these styles of combining rice and peas can be prepared in a short time and require few ingredients. With rice in your pantry and shelled peas in your freezer, you have the makings of a savory side dish or appetizer that can be ready in minutes.
RICE WITH PEAS, FRENCH STYLE
This dish is a delicious accompaniment for broiled, baked or poached fish and is a snap to prepare with frozen peas. But when fresh peas are in season, this is a good dish to use them, as you don't need a large amount; you'll need only about 450 grams to give 1 cup shelled peas, and they'll need about 7 minutes to cook.
The rice is cooked like pasta and then is rinsed. I learned this technique when I worked in a restaurant kitchen in Paris. Doing this makes it easy to cook the rice ahead. All it needs is quick reheating with a little butter or oil.
To make it with brown instead of white rice, cook the rice in the water for 35 to 40 minutes.
1 cup long-grain white rice
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup frozen peas
2 to 4 Tbsp. butter or 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil or vegetable oil
1â„2 cup minced onion
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
Bring about 6 cups water to a boil in a large saucepan and add a pinch of salt. Add rice, stir once, and cook uncovered over high heat about 12 to 14 minutes or until tender; check by tasting. Drain in a strainer, rinse with cold water until cool, and let drain for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, thaw peas at room temperature or by briefly heating them in the microwave; or heat them for 1 minute in a small pot of boiling water or until just thawed.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add onion and saute about 5 minutes or until softened but not brown. Add peas, rice, and salt and pepper to taste. Heat mixture over low heat, tossing lightly with a fork, until hot. Add remaining butter if desired; cover pan and let rice stand for 2 minutes, or until butter melts. Add chopped parsley; toss again lightly. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.
Makes 4 servings.
EASY RISI E BISI
Although this dish is generally served as a first course in restaurants, I also like it as an accompaniment for vegetarian entrees or for a mild-flavored baked fish such as cod. If you'd like to serve it as a soup, use 6 cups of broth.
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. butter (optional)salt and freshly ground pepper
1 medium onion, chopped
11â„2 cups Arborio rice or other round risotto rice
1 to 11â„2 cups frozen peas
4 cups hot vegetable broth or parve chicken-flavored broth
1â„3 cup chopped parsley
1â„3 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy medium saucepan. Add onion and saute over medium heat for 5 minutes or until soft but not brown. Add rice and stir for 2 minutes until coated. Add 1â„2 cup broth and stir. Simmer over medium heat for 1 or 2 minutes until most of broth evaporates.
Add 2 cups hot broth and stir. Simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, 9 to 10 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Add remaining broth, stir and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes.
Add peas and cooked for 3 minutes or until rice is just tender and most of liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat. Add butter and season to taste with pepper. Let stand 2 or 3 minutes. Add parsley and 1â„3 cup Parmesan. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with more Parmesan.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Fresh from France: Vegetable Creations and 1,000 Jewish Recipes.