Like most moms, I have had experience with picky eaters. Luckily, the problem has never been with my own kid, but she has friends who are, and they always appear surprised that I don’t know that they “don’t like” this or that. Kids are funny that way — they are so self-absorbed (and I mean that in a truly loving way) that they don’t realize that their personal likes and dislikes are not universally known. However, as I often say, I don’t cater to picky eaters, something which I learned from my mom. I’m a good cook, I make tasty food, and it won’t kill you to try what’s been set out before you. End of story.
Thinking about picky eaters reminds me of my father-in-law. Wally is absolutely not a picky eater, and, as a cook, it is actually a joy for me to see how he enjoys the meals that I prepare, especially because I know I am often cooking things that may be new to him. He tries it all and is interested and asks questions. However, shortly after my husband and I were married, his parents came to visit and one night I made something for dinner that included rice. Wally ate dinner with pleasure and I was surprised later when my husband told me privately “Just so you know, my dad hates rice.”
First of all, you never would have known in a million years that the man didn’t like rice — which says a lot about his good manners, something that we clearly don’t teach well enough any more. Second of all, who doesn’t like rice? It has to be the most innocuous food on the planet, eaten by billions of people every day.
Turns out, Wally has a pretty valid reason to not love rice, or even to completely despise it. My husband’s parents were each raised in eastern Europe and their respective families pretty much lost everything during World War II. Wally’s family had lived for many years in what is now Romania, but, because of their German heritage, they were declared German nationals by Hitler’s government at the beginning of the war. Caught between the Russian and German armies, Wally’s parents fled their farm, travelling in a horse-drawn wagon with seven children and an elderly grandmother. Their trials were many and far too numerous to recount here, but it ends with rice. An abundance of rice, because rice is what other nations provided to war-ravaged Germany at the end of the war. Rice for breakfast. Rice for lunch. Rice for dinner. You can see why the man hates rice.
But here’s the deal: he hates rice, but every once in a while, according to my husband’s childhood memories, Wally would ask to have rice with dinner. Not because he wanted to wax poetic about post-war Europe, but to remind himself about how much better his life had become since then. For Wally, rice represents many things: a country destroyed, a family that managed to stay together through unimaginable hardships, and the promise of a nation across the Atlantic where any man — or woman — could begin life anew.
And that’s the roundabout way of getting to rice itself — not metaphorical rice, but the real thing. You have probably stood in the grocery store in front of a shelf that looked just like this and wondered “WTF?”:
There are something like 40,000 types of rice, but there are only a handful on a typical supermarket shelf. So here’s a quick rundown about rice and how to use it:
Long-grain vs. short-grain: As implied by their names, this is all about size. Long-grain rice is a longer, more slender rice; it tends to be less sticky and cook into separate grains. Short-grain rice is smaller and plumper and sometimes referred to as “pearl” rice; it tends to have a creamier texture.
Long-grain white rice: This is a standard rice, the kind usually used for quick-cooking varieties. It is often enriched with minerals, which means you should not rinse it before cooking.
Arborio: A short-grained Italian rice typically used for risotto dishes. It soaks up liquids really well, so is excellent to cook in broth or to use for puddings, because it retains the flavor of the cooking liquid.
Basmati: Typically used in Indian cooking, Basmati rice is a flavorful long-grain rice and has a soft texture.
Brown: This is a highly nutritious and chewy rice which includes both the bran and germ parts of the grain. It requires a longer cooking time than traditional white rices. Personally, I like to mix brown rice with a standard white long-grain rice, just to balance out the textures.
Jasmine: With a beautiful fragrance, this long-grained rice is often found in Thai dishes. It has a somewhat firmer texture than Basmati rice.
Orzo: Is not a rice, it just looks like one. It is actually a type of pasta, typically mixed with rice to make rice pilaf.
Texmati: An American original, Texmati rice is a cross between a traditional long-grain white rice and Basmati. It smells a bit like popcorn when cooking and is pretty versatile for most recipes.
Wild: Actually, wild rice is not a rice at all, but is a seed from a grass native to North America. It is similar to brown rice in that it is chewy and highly nutritious and requires a longer cooking time than other rices. Like brown rice, I like to mix wild rice with long-grain white rice to balance out the chewiness.
How to cook rice: Check the package of the variety you are cooking, however, most long-grained rices are cooked at a ratio of 1:2 (rice:water); short-grained and brown rices will require more water (sometimes 1:3). Rinse the rice (if it’s not enriched) in cold water until the water runs clear (this helps remove excess starch from the grains). Then place the rice in a saucepan with the right amount of cold water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to very low, cover, and simmer for about 20 minutes (short-grained and brown rices will cook at least twice as long). Sometimes I put half a lemon in the rice while it is cooking to give it a subtle citrus flavor.
There are a million ways to use rice, but here’s my take on a simple Lebanese recipe that my family loves:
Lebanese Lentils with Carmelized Onions
2 cups sliced onion
1 cup brown lentils, rinsed
3 cups cooked long-grain white rice (Texmati is nice with this dish)
To make the carmelized onions: Heat three tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a large sauté pan and add the onions. Stir to coat in the olive oil, sprinkle with two tablespoons of sugar, and reduce heat to low. Stir every few minutes; if the onions start to burn, reduce heat further. Carmelized onions are best when cooked slowly — it can take 45 minutes until they are a caramel brown color and they should be soft and slightly sticky with a few crispy bits here and there.
To make the lentils: Place rinsed lentils in a saucepan with enough water to cover. Add salt, a 1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme, and 2 tablespoons of olive oil; bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and allow to simmer uncovered for about 45 minutes or until tender. Add water as needed if they get dried out while cooking. The end result should not be soupy, but a little thickened liquid is fine. Be sure to add salt and pepper to taste at the end.
To serve: This is beautiful when served on a big platter, with the rice layered at the bottom, covered with the lentils, and then topped with the onions. Drizzle olive oil over the whole thing and serve with lemon wedges. Another beauty of this dish is that it is fabulous served either hot, warm, or cold!