The Rice Principle: A Reminder That We Share Similar Appetites

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.

Or softly scramble eggs and add a handful of roughly chopped ripe tomato, salt, and a handful of fresh cilantro at the very end, and serve it on hot rice. I existed on solely this and sautéed eggplant for a month in China. The first I ate because it is humble but exquisite. The second is because eggplant is one of the few words I can pronounce perfectly in tonal Mandarin.

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For a truly pacifying rice dish, make rice and lettuce soup. I first made this soup after looking at a head of lettuce and wondering why I'd never seen lettuce risotto on a menu. I didn't get the answer, because I then began wondering why no one ever boiled risotto rice. I'm sure lettuce risotto is on a menu, and it's just a menu I haven't seen. And people surely do boil risotto rice, and ought to, because it turns out wonderfully.

I passed this recipe along to a friend who reported that it was "butter's highest and best use, because the lettuce becomes an expression of butter ... sweet, crunchy, innocent butter."

Rice and Lettuce Soup

1 1/2 onions, medium diced
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup parsley leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 cup Arborio rice
8 1/2 cups chicken stock or combination chicken stock and water
1 very big head lettuce, such as romaine

Cook the onions in butter in a medium-sized pot, salting them once you have added them to the pot. When they're softened, add the parsley. Add the rice and liquid. Let it cook about half an hour until the rice is completely cooked through, and then for another 20 minutes until it's jagged around the edges. Turn off the heat. Taste for salt. Cut the lettuce in thin ribbons. When you're ready to eat, warm the soup up, add the lettuce to the soup, and mix it through.

Serve each bowl with rice mounded in the middle and more liquid poured over. Drizzle with good olive oil and crack fresh white pepper over it, or black if you don't have white.

The best example of the rice principle is also the one we think is the fanciest. Risotto needs clarifying. The plainest risotto calls for rice, onion, white wine, butter, broth, and Parmesan cheese. If you have those ingredients, which you probably do, you have a perfect version of that famous dish.

The many elegant risottos you've seen on menus or tasted are slight variations on it, the ingredients that define them used as minimally as possible. Lobster risotto may be made with broth of simmered lobster shells, but there will only be a little lobster atop your broad bowl of rich rice. Risotto Bolognese will seem plump and meaty but won't contain much meat. A few wild mushrooms, their scraps simmered into earthy mushroom stock, sliced thinly and sautéed in a hot pan with butter and dropped onto each bowl makes the finest mushroom risotto.

Except for risotto Milanese, always served topped with a piece of beef shank called osso buco, risotto with meat is not an accompaniment to the meat but the main dish, and a very good way to serve a lot of people on a little meat and a lot of rice.

I make risotto by chopping half an onion medium fine and cooking it in butter. I add a cup of rice, stir it a few times, add a quarter cup of white wine, let the alcohol burn off for a minute, then add hot chicken, beef, or fish stock by the ladleful, keeping the rice at a low bubble the whole time. If a dry spot in the risotto pan doesn't get immediately refilled with starchy liquid when I push the rice away, I add more stock. I keep it going for about twenty-five minutes, then turn it off, add a big squeeze of lemon, a lot of grated Parmesan, and freshly cracked black pepper. You can certainly use more specific recipes, but none should be much more complicated than that.

The most illuminating addition I've read is by Elizabeth David, who seems always to have had the right terminology for everything. Her risotto instructions say that the rice should be "impregnated" by butter before the wine is added. The rice goes from being transparent to being opaque, and seems filled up.

Maybe the truest evidence of the almost sacramental simplicity of Italian risotto cooking is a dish called risotto in cantina for which risotto is made with onion, wine, butter, and broth, and then served in a bowl of sharp white wine, which is, we are firmly instructed, not to be mixed with the risotto, but dipped into before each bite. That is from Elizabeth David, too, who remarks that she doesn't know why it sounds so enticing. Neither do I, but it does, doesn't it?

The Neapolitan street folod arancini are a spectacular use of leftover risotto, which after sitting for a night becomes claylike and can be shaped around little pieces of cheese, rolled into balls, dipped in breadcrumbs, then deep fried. You can also simply shape cold risotto into little cakes and panfry them in olive oil until golden brown.

Always make more rice than you need for a meal. Asian cultures make fried rice, for which rice must be a day old. What makes fried rice good is every grain getting a chance to fry individually in hot oil. I've tried to make fancier fried rice by cooking a pot of rice especially for frying. It was mushy and inferior. (Thank heavens for the occasional, calculable superiority of old things.)

My favorite is Thai fried rice.

TEMPLATEReadMoreBookExcerpts.jpgExcerpted from Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace (Scribner)