The Rice Principle: A Reminder That We Share Similar Appetites

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Everlasting Meal jacket.jpg A lot of rice turns any amount of anything else into a meal. A small helping of meat perched upon a bowl of rice makes a meal of meat; a single egg with a bare scattering of scallions, or five cubes of eggplant, four peanuts, and three leaves of basil seem like square meals if their spareness is offset by a generous bowl of rice.

A recipe by the Italian cookbook writer Marcella Hazan calls for chopping olives and parsley, mixing them with boiled rice, and serving the dish as one would pasta. It sounds lean but good. I like another Italian recipe, from the cookbook The Silver Spoon, that says to cook a pound of spinach in salted water, sauté it in a lot of butter, boil rice in the spinach cooking water, and serve bowls of the rice topped with the buttered spinach and a lot of grated Parmesan.

These dishes work not just because rice is filling, but because rice has a knack for making any small thing you top it with seem like what you're tasting the whole time. A friend named this effect the "bean principle" after I served him a bowl of bean broth into which a few precious beans had escaped. The absence of beans, he said, made him appreciate the ones that were there more acutely.

It should be called the "rice principle" since it's the dietary strategy of most of the world's nearly seven billion inhabitants, who live on rice and whatever is placed, to be acutely savored, on top of it.

Rice is a good reminder that all of our appetites are similar. The rice principle does not just feed Asia and Italy, but Spain and all the Middle East, and dozens of other cultures where small amounts of ingredients are cooked and served amid large quantities of rice.

It will do for you what you believe food should, no matter who you are. Gourmets are satisfied: the seductions of rice are whispered of; it can be topped with buttered spinach and Parmesan or shaved with white truffles, and to the palates of children who still think eating a beastly reality of life rice remains agreeably anodyne.

Unlike eggs, which we make too mechanically, we don't make rice mechanically enough. It's worth making a pot of rice without planning for anything but to be hungry. There are a lot of rice recipes that begin: "Start six hours ahead," or "Rinse each grain thoroughly, three times." There is also ubiquitous Minute Rice, and rice that comes already cooked, needing only to be reheated. Aim, peacemakers, for the third way.

In Italy, white rice is simply cooked in salted water, like pasta. This is how it's done in England, too, and is a perfectly good way to cook rice. Bring a pot of water to a boil, salt it more lightly than for pasta, then add the rice and cook it at a fast, rolling boil. Check it as often as you want. Strain it when it's done. Spread it on a baking sheet on the counter to keep it fluffy.

You can also use a rice cooker. I use mine religiously. If you have a rice cooker, you can drop your bags the minute you enter your kitchen, add rice, a pinch of salt, and press start, all before you take off your coat. It will be cooked before you've even settled into being at home.

Do the same without a rice cooker by putting rice and salt in a pot with the prescribed amount of water, bringing it to a boil, then lowering it to a simmer, covering it, and cooking it for twenty minutes. This is worth knowing how to do, so that if your rice cooker breaks, you can still eat rice. Measuring cups are unnecessary in the two latter scenarios: the ratio of rice to water is all that matters. If the instructions on a bag of rice say a cup of rice to two cups of water, it can be a teacup of rice to two teacups of water.

We fear this method because we fear mushy rice. I've had to cook my way through mushy rice to get to fluffy rice. If you decide to cook through, too, there are good recipes for what to make with mushy rice.

Then approach dinner, as most of our fellow eaters do, with the rice principle in mind. Fill deep bowls with rice and put an array of ingredients in little bowls on the table. This turns a miscellany into an exciting meal that you can call "rice bowls." They will be closest to Indian thali meals, where a beautiful succession of strongly flavored tomato sauce, coconut chutney, and thin, fragrant lentil soup are served with as much rice as you can eat.

The only requisite ingredient for your own version is a bowl of any shape or color of hot rice.

Serve one thing that's warm: Each bowl can get a newly fried egg on it, or hot stir-fried spinach or scallions, or vegetable leftovers, like sautéed kale or roasted squash. If it's a leftover vegetable, chop it, warm it in a pan with a bit of broth or water, then mix it with a drizzle of vinegar and a handful of toasted sesame seeds, or peanuts, and top the rice with it or serve it in a bowl alongside.

Serve a little bowl of something cool and raw: thinly sliced radishes, chopped cucumbers drizzled with vinegar, thick slices of avocado, chunks of tomato, fresh herbs.

Serve one vibrant, intense-flavored thing: spicy pickled chiles, a homemade salsa of scallions, herbs, and vinegar, Korean kimchee, Indian pickled mango.

I like a little can of sardines, too. If you don't, try leftover beef, chicken, or pork, cut into cubes and panfried.

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Tamar Adler is a New York-based writer. She was the founding head chef of Farm 255 in Athens, Georgia, and a former cook at Chez Panisse. Before beginning her career in food, she was an editor at Harper’s.

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