I have never really understood rice. I get it when it comes along with most kinds of ethnic food — Indian, Thai, Chinese, etc. I get it when it is wild or brown. But I don’t get it when it’s just white, made in a pot, and scooped on a plate alongside a pork chop and some green beans. That I don’t get.
Rice to me is bland and pretty boring, meant to soak up flavors pretty much exclusively, or to hold sushi together. Not to mention my biggest admission here: I am frequently confounded by how to cook rice. What is the proportion of grains to water? How does it differ for different grains? Are you supposed to salt it? Do you cover it or leave it uncovered? Do you stir?
This recipe, promised in my Ropa Vieja post, solves all these dilemmas. I ate it last week bathed in Cuban meat juice and black beans, but it is certainly flavorful to stand alone. And, though I have no idea if this is a definitive way to cook rice, it hasn’t failed me yet. I have made this rice several times now, and never had it go wrong. Salted, uncovered, no stirring, for those of you who want the Cliff’s Notes version.
This recipe begins in an almost risotto-esque manner: toasting the rice with cumin seeds in a few tablespoons of olive oil before adding the water. This helps bring out the flavor of the cumin and to infuse the rice with that flavor better than if there was water in the way. Then you just add water, get it to the right simmer, and use all of your willpower to LEAVE IT ALONE. The recipe says to cook it until the “surface of rice is covered with steam holes and grains on top appear dry” — this seems like vague instruction when reading it, but you’ll know it when you see it.
Yellow Rice with Toasted Cumin
Adapted from Gourmet, 1995
Makes 1 medium-sized pot; at least six servings
– 2 tablespoons olive oil
– 2 teaspoons cumin seed
– 1/4 teaspoon saffron, crumbled (optional: I’ve made the rice with and without, and while the saffron adds a certain extra color and flavor, it’s by no means necessary)
– 2 cups long-grain rice (honestly, I don’t really know what this means; I used basmati)
– 4 cups water
– 3/4 teaspoon salt
1. In a medium pot, heat oil over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Sauté cumin seeds until they turn a few shades darker and are fragrant, about 10-20 seconds. Stir in saffron and rice and sauté, stirring, 1 to 2 minutes, or until rice is coated well.
2. Stir in water and salt and boil rice, uncovered and without stirring, until surface of rice is covered with steam holes and grains on top appear dry, 8 to 10 minutes more.
3. Remove pan from heat and let rice stand, covered, 5 minutes. Fluff rice with a fork (“fluffing” is the official term — it’s basically just a whisking motion with a fork, kind of lifting and separating the grains).