Friday, May 27, 2011

Spring Fling


Back in the early days of this blog, I briefly wrote about a personal spring harbinger: rice and peas. When I first started blogging, my intention was merely to serve as a seasonal reminder of what was available, just so that we reconnect with real food. The recipes were afterthoughts I added to spark interest in the treat of the moment. I didn't really delve into the story behind the recipe, until it occurred to me that my favourite blogs were the most personal ones: the tales piqued my curiosity, made me want to try a new recipe. So, here's the story:


I cannot say it enough: I love fresh peas (I haven't counted, but I think I might have mentioned this fact six times since the beginning of April!) So much so, that I often make rice and peas several times in the year, substituting frozen peas for fresh the rest of the year. But when I was a child, rice and peas were strictly a spring thing. (I keep calling it rice and peas, forgetting that this moniker may cause confusion: the rice and peas I eat is nothing like the West Indian dish of the same name; my rice and peas is only ever made with green peas.) From late April to early June, my father would come home from the market with bushels of fresh peas. The family would sit around the kitchen table, and shell the peas. Then my mum would make rice and peas.


I'm sure that my parents made other things with the fresh peas, but I only remember rice and peas, or mame gohan, as my mum calls it. It's a Japanese thing: each season has its own rice dish. Spring is particularly replete with several variations -fresh peas; fresh lima beans; broad beans; tsukushi (horsetail); fiddleheads; morels and other spring mushrooms; and so on, and so forth. Basically, just about any vegetable that is available locally is added to a pot of rice, and celebrated as a seasonal treat. The peas of my childhood were most likely not local -and neither are they at this precise moment in Quebec- but they signified the definite arrival of spring.


It's easier than making risotto (although, risotti are really not all that complicated to make), and the ingredients used are more readily found in the average pantry. Any vegetable will do, you need not limit yourself to peas, but it should be something that does not require a long cooking time, as it needs to be ready when the rice is done. 


Harbinger Rice
Serves 4 as a main dish, or 6 as a side dish

2 cups Japanese, Thai or Basmati rice
1-2 cup vegetables
2 Tbs butter
½ tsp salt

Thoroughly wash the rice: swirl the grains in potful of cold water, changing the water several times until it is almost clear. (Theis water has little gastronomical value, but it is great for plants: collect in a watering can, and use to quench your garden's thirst.)
Strain off the rice, and shake out as much water as possible. 
Pour rice into a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, add 500ml/ 2cups cold water, the vegetables, butter, and water, cover pot, and let sit for 20 to 30 minutes.
Once the rice has soaked, turn on heat to high, and bring to a boil.
When steam starts escaping the pot, turn the burner down to low/simmer, and leave to cook for 15 minutes.
Turn off heat, and leave to rest another 15 minutes.
Lift lid, and gently stir in the vegetables so that they are evenly distributed in the rice.
Serve immediately.

Interestingly, delicate vegetables such as peas and asparagus do not overcook this way, despite being in a hot pot for half an hour. Any vegetable that crosses your mind, or your kitchen counter, can be used. Usually, only one vegetable is featured, and the rice becomes a main dish, with little side dishes complementing the star. However, certain wild vegetables need to be pre-cooked before being added to the rice. Morels can be cooked down with the butter and a few drops of water, before being added to the pot of uncooked rice. Fiddleheads are probably best boiled completely in abundant water, cooled down, and added to the pot of resting rice (use 1 tablespoon of soy sauce instead of the salt), otherwise it might get over-cooked. (In a blind fit of hunger, I added almost every single vegetable I brought back from the market in the pot. It was good. So really, anything goes.) If you leave out the vegetables, butter and salt, you have the Asian method of cooking rice. I did not include a weight measure for the rice, because the rule of thumb for rice is 1:1 by volume -so if you only have a drinking glass to measure with, you only need a drinking glassful of water to cook the rice.

I've been always told that cooked rice should not be kept in the refrigerator: it dries out, and becomes tough. Although adding a few drops of water to the rice before re-heating usually does the trick, green vegetables become drab and unappetizing. One way of avoiding  the gun-metal green peas is to do as the Japanese do: keep the cooked rice at room temperature, and eat the rice cold. As long as your kitchen is not overly warm (under 22'C/ 72'F), the rice should keep for 3 days at room temperature.



Bon app'!



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