I've been thinking a lot about rice lately. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't seem that important. In the midst of attacks, more attacks, and attempted attacks, me thinking about rice in the small corner of Wisconsin hardly seems mentionable at all really. But maybe that is the point. That all of us are tiny, living (or trying to live) out our lives in a small way in a minuscule part of the globe. Like grains of rice, each one of us matter and are important. Like grains of rice, we function better together than separately.
I've been reading Michael Solomonov's Zahav - maybe you are too. I find myself losing 20 minutes at each instance I open it, so full of stories and good looking things to make and eat. A different perspective on the world - and on rice. When I was growing up, my family always had a late Sunday lunch - usually a casserole or something long cooking that could go on "timed bake" while we were away at church. Even when I was really little, I would hope for chicken and rice, which my Mom baked in a beat up graniteware oval baking dish. The rice would bake and stick to the bottom and sides of the oval, and it was the best part. My Mom thought so too - and would gladly take the portions that would stick to the sides. Until this point in my life I was unaware of Persian rice, which prizes this crisp bottom layer and gives it the name "tahdig", which means, literally, the bottom of the pot.
Solomonov talks about his (half) brother-in-law trying these last 40 years to continually perfect his pots of rice. Something so simple becoming so transcendent that it changed the way Solomonov thought about cooking in general. The surest way to perfect something is to do it often, over and over again; the humblest of ingredients become transformed into something much more, in this case the grains of rice reminding us of humanity, of family and tradition, culture and heritage. All of those tiny grains nourishing generations of people all over the planet - it's almost easy to feel an overwhelming connectedness to people everywhere when considering it.
I've never been the best rice cooker. In my kitchen notebook, I have rice ratios written that no matter how much I try I can never memorize. While I will likely take years more before mastering savory rices (and tahdig is now definitely on my list), I feel pretty confident about one rice dish: arborio rice pudding. The source recipe is long gone, and what remains is a sugar-slashed version that includes a bit of almond extract. To make it in my favorite oatmeal pot, I use the smaller ratio listed. The full amount will cook nicely in a 3 quart pot.
Take care not to cook the rice too long since it thickens more as it cools. The pudding is my favorite texture, temperature, and flavor about 2 hours after making it, and I sometimes plan my dessert eating around it that way. But even chilled completely, the texture is so lovely and soft. That is the nature of arborio, it is the definition of comfort.
Arborio Rice Pudding
yields 3 cups (4 cup amounts in parenthesis)
- 6 T. arborio rice (1/2 c.)
- 3 c. whole milk (4 c.)
- 3 T. sugar (1/4 c.)
- good pinch of kosher salt
- 1 t. vanilla extract (1 1/2 t.)
- 1/4 t. almond extract (1/2 t.)
- as many raisins (or currants) as you wish or don't wish.
Combine all the ingredients except the extracts in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Immediately lower the heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring regularly, until the rice is al dente. Remember that it will continue to thicken as it cools, and also that the rice will continue to soften after you remove it from the heat. When it has cooked enough, stir in the extracts and transfer it to a glass storage container. Cool at room temperature for a bit and then refrigerate. Best eaten within 3 days.
I usually don't measure the quantities of vanilla and almond extracts that I use, or the amount of raisins. I've also been known to include some freshly grated nutmeg or even a cinnamon stick if the mood strikes. But no matter what I do to it, the arborio never lets me down with a lacking texture. It's silky and encouraging, and just the thing to remind you of all the good things in life when the bad seem overwhelming and likely to overcome you.