Rice is a favourite in this household. Not a daily thing, but we eat it often enough to have 7 or 8 different rices in the pantry at the moment. This doesn’t seem a lot when you compare it to the 7,000-odd rice varieties of the world. It does reflect the fact that each type of rice is fundamentally different in its properties and in its flavour. For a mostly bland ingredient, this is a remarkable thing.
After grain size, one of the first properties of rice that is noticed is the aroma while it is cooking. We all know the floral fragrance of Basmati rice wafting through the house as it steams. Friends have been known to ask What is the beautiful smell? Jasmine rice also has its fragrance that makes you stop and take notice.
More subtle are the aromas of ponni rice, sona masouri rice, brown rice, various risotto rices, varieties of red rice, etc. Most recently, ponni rice has made me stop in my tracks to better focus on the aroma – delicate and special.
Ottolenghi’s second chapter of his book Plenty More is called Steamed. It is mostly about rice, with one exception – a steamed eggplant dish. He uses wild rice, basmati rice, and sushi rice. Most commonly used is basmati rice, which is a little surprising given the dominance of Indian food in London and therefore the supposed availability of a range of beautiful rices from that country.
The vast variation in the types of rice dishes in this chapter is a testament to the noble ingredient – the bland underbelly of a dish that can absorb and highlight flavours and textures extremely well. It is the tofu of the grain world. This chapter is an extraordinary primer in what you can throw at rice to create extraordinary dishes. Always strong on herbs, Ottolenghi brings to the plate the sour notes of barberries and sour cherries, the crunch of nuts, the gay delight of red and green and yellow ingredients against the rice, the sweetness of dates and caramelised onions and the squigginess of shimeji mushrooms. The flavour combinations of the various dishes represent the Middle East, Asia, India and Israel-Palestine. Recipe ingredients are steamed, baked, poached and simmered.
It has to be said that some of these recipes are hard work, involving quite a number of cooking processes with associated pots, pans and utensils. Are the results are worth the time and effort? Not on a weeknight. Leave them for the weekend, long weekends or holidays.
I have said it before, and will mention again – I wish Yotham would sharpen his understanding of Indian ingredients. His use of curry leaves in the Curry Leaf and Lemon rice is prosaic. It is a good dish, but curry leaves respond to particular ways of handling and the rice could have had a more defined flavour had he used Indian techniques.
If you are working your way through Plenty More you will have noticed how perfect the combinations are in each dish. Each includes a sour note (no country understands sour as well as the Middle Eastern ones), some crunch, some freshness, a deeper underlying earthy flavour, some sweetness too. You begin to be able to swap in and out. No sour cherries? Use barberries. No onions in the fridge? Not a disaster, use a few sultanas to give the desired sweetness of caramelised onions. No tarragon? No worries, leave it out and add another green soft herb. (Tarragon is difficult to get here, won’t grow in my garden, and is expensive to buy. I leave it out.) No almonds? Use pistachios. No pistachios? Use hazelnuts or almond slivers. In fact, I took to making a small jar of mixed toasted nuts and seeds commonly used in his dishes, to shorten prep time for recipes.
One more note – about that Steamed Aubergine dish, the one recipe that is not rice based. It is nice, but I have a better one. By the way, steaming eggplants is one of the most glorious but underused ways of using them. Heavenly delicious.
ottolenghi steamed (mainly rice) recipes
Some of our write-ups on the recipes have not been published yet. The links will be added when they are published.
Rice Salad with Nuts and Sour Cherries