Make sure your rice is cooked perfectly

As a keen and investigative cook since my mid teens, it nevertheless took me a long time to get to grips with the precision necessary when dealing with rice—almost 20 years, in fact. Many might think that cooking a pot of rice is child’s play; well, let me tell you, it’s no such thing.

Those who think that a few handfuls of Uncle Ben’s (quite possibly the most tasteless and texturally inept rice ever ‘created’—so much so, that I fantasise that this strange grain might never have known a paddy field at all) boiled in water will a bowl of right rice make.

When I was writing the foreword to the republication of The Country Life Cookery Book last year, I noticed that the only rice used in several recipes compiled by its author, Ambrose Heath, in 1937, was Carolina, an American grain that, according to its present-day description, is the ‘grandfather of long-grain rice in the Americas… a delicate, non-aromatic rice with chameleon starch properties that allow it to produce fluffy, individual grains’.

It’s the ‘non-aromatic’ bit that truly appeals: how absolutely marvellous to be served a dish of rice that smells of nothing at all—just what I’ve always wished for! Maybe, wretchedly, this was the original Uncle Ben?

Well, of course, poor Mr Heath (of whom I have always had high regard) had little choice, in 1937. Who had ever heard of the finest Indian basmati rice, let alone carnaroli rice from Italy’s Po valley? No, it was just ‘rice’ then, was it not? I mean, which rice did my mother buy for making rice pudding, 50 years ago?

What I do remember, however, is Dad taking a 40-minute drive in the motor to the seedier side of Manchester in the early 1960s, especially to purchase a few pounds of ‘Patna Rice’ to serve with his thoroughly respectable curries, gleaned from the well-worn pages of his particular ‘curry’ bible, E. P. Veerasawmy’s Indian Cookery, which was first published in 1936. Heigh-ho! And what a great dad, to be sure, to take so much care over his rice, even then!

The following not-a-curry recipe particularly employs the whole, pungent cardamom pods, simply because Dad would always pop a few in his curries. I now wonder whether it was, quite simply, to test the tentative tastebuds of a nine- year-old boy. Or was it just because he was, forever, the authentic cook? To be honest, I like both of these thoughts. And the use of cardamom is very good indeed here, anyway.

Savoury duck pilaf

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 duck legs

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

A little oil or duck fat

1 large onion, finely chopped 4 cloves garlic, sliced

1tspn ground cumin

5–6 cardamom pods, crushed Half a tspn dried chilli flakes

350g basmati rice (Tilda brand, for preference, unwashed)

40g butter
500ml of chicken or duck stock Thinly pared zest of 1 lemon Roughly chopped coriander leaves, to garnish

1 lemon, cut in half, to squeeze over the finished dish

Method

Pre-heat the oven to 180 ̊C/ 350 ̊F/ gas mark 4. Season the duck legs and, using a lidded, cast-iron (or similar) ovenproof pot, gently fry them in the oil or fat, skin side down, until golden and crisp, then turn over and lightly colour the other sides; allow about 7–10 minutes per side, then remove to a plate.

Discard all but two tablespoons of the rendered fat and then add the onions and garlic. Gently fry until pale golden and stir in the cumin, cardamom and chilli. Add the butter and stir around for a little longer before tipping in the rice.

Coat the grains with fat using a stirring and folding motion until all are glistening. Pour in the stock all at once, bring up to a simmer and then slide the duck legs into the mixture, along with any of their exuded juices. Put on the lid and bake in the oven for 30 minutes.

Remove, but leave the lid on for a further 10 minutes before peek- ing. Now, lift off the lid, fluff up the grains with a fork and sprinkle over the coriander. Serve at once, on hot plates and with cut lemons handed at table.

Risotto alla Milanese

Serves 2, generously

If you wish to be absolutely strict with this recipe you should, most definitely, include a modicum of chopped beef-bone marrow or, at least, veal-bone marrow; the latter referring to the risotto’s most favoured companion, Osso- buco di vitello alla Milanese.

Interestingly, when we opened Bibendum restaurant 28 years ago, I would serve the risotto so com- pletely covered with shavings of white truffle, it was unclear what was hidden beneath them. Those, most definitely, were the days!

Ingredients

80g very best butter

1 large onion, very finely chopped

1 small glass dry vermouth (about 125ml)

200g carnaroli rice

400ml–450ml chicken (or, more authentically, veal)

stock 3–4tbspn freshly grated Parmesan

A little salt and pepper

Method

Using a deep-sided, heavy-bot- tomed pan, quietly fry the onion in 30g of the given butter until well softened, but not coloured.

Meanwhile, heat the stock in another pan. Now, add the vermouth to the onions, turn up the heat and reduce until almost evaporated. Pour in the rice and, stirring vigorously using a sturdy wooden spoon, allow the rice to become shiny with butter, before adding a ladle of hot stock. Continuing to stir with vigour, let the rice absorb the stock before adding another ladleful; you may not need all of it.

When the risotto is looking a lovely, pale-ivory colour, is sloppily pourable and the rice is starting to become tender and not chalky in the middle (eat the odd grain as you go, to check), remove from the heat and vigorously stir in two tablespoons of Parmesan and the remaining butter.

Cover and leave to settle for 2–3 minutes, then check for seasoning and lazily stir the risotto until it easily falls back on itself when lifted. Spoon onto hot plates and hand extra cheese at table.

** Read more fab winter recipes