Updated: Jan 11, 2021
I can’t think of many ingredients more exceptionally Louisiana than rice. It’s the brilliant white yin to dark gumbo’s yang, the pillowy conveyor of smothered crawfish étouffée, the fragrant comfort for young tummies that don’t feel so well.
But for all the affection between this everyday staple and our bowls, rice isn’t even native to Louisiana or the French or America. Introduced to the southeastern coast of the U.S. as a crop grown to feed slaves, rice spread to South Louisiana sometime in the 1850s. During the Civil War, southern soldiers shifted around to different states, experiencing new foods like rice. And like many Cajuns today, it wouldn’t have mattered to the troops from Louisiana if rice was considered poor people’s food. Any plant that flourishes in the water would’ve been too promising to leave in the Carolinas. Luckily for us, rice not only grew well in our subtropical environment, but it also attracted another local delicacy: crawfish. Those little carmine crustaceans thrive on the debris caused by rice farming. In fact, there’s a type of rice called ‘ecreisse’, or crawfish rice, well-known for its crustaceanal magnetism. When the farming process was refined by the same German communities that also gave us andouille, rice soon became a fixture of every meal.
I’ve become increasingly nostalgic about rice, mostly due to The 20th Century Dinner Bell, a photo journal by Lucius Fontenot. His exhibit reflects on the Hitachi rice makers that populated nearly every home south of Alexandria. These rice cookers were so prevalent that Christiaan Mader, author of Ingrained is able to sum up our childhoods in just a few sentences:
“Many a Cajun child knew the Hitachi chime as the 20th-century dinner bell… What really counts, though, is what happens when the steam rises and whatever chime dings. When the rice is done, it’s time to eat.”
Alas, the Hitachi that fed my mom’s bunch bit the dust years ago. The exact chime, though, still lingers in the back of my mind as clearly as the sound of my mom’s keys jingling in the front door or my dad’s old coffee grinder waking us as regularly as a rooster. My own kids are no different; I know better than to make enough rice for tonight’s supper, but for tomorrow’s after-school snack as well. I love making them ‘fancy rice’, using all the little rice cooking tips and tricks I’ve absorbed from all the fabulous cooks I've known. Not only is super simple, but laaawd does it look fancy next to damn near everything.
Four Tips for Fantastic Rice
1. You need a bath, boo
Rice used to be processed with talc (gross), which had to be rinsed off. Thank goodness that’s no longer a thing, but that doesn’t mean you get to skip this step if you want your rice fluffy and individual in texture. A good rinse removes the outer starch, reducing its stickiness. Fill a large bowl or the pot you’re cooking the rice in with cold water, add the rice, and swoosh everything around, changing the water a few times. If you’ve got one, you can also use a fine-mesh strainer to rinse your rice under water until the water runs clear.
P.S. You wouldn’t rinse rice for risotto or some Asian dishes, where stickiness is sexiness.
2. Like the ocean
Rice isn’t going to deliver a ton of flavor unless you zhoosh* up your cooking liquid. Whether you’re using water or stock, make sure it’s as salty as the ocean (or a good potato chip). You can also throw in some woodsy herbs like thyme, rosemary, or bay to add an aromatic layer to your rice. Want to really wow a crowd? Add a Parmesan rind to your cooking liquid for a buttery, meaty flavor. Bonus tip- have that liquid boiling before the rice is added to the pot.
Ok, you have to stir your rice once to distribute evenly, but after that it’s hands-off. Each additional stir coaxes out starches that leave the outside of your rice mushy. Lifting the lid to commit said crime also changes the pressure in the pot, which means your mushy rice may end up with a crunchy core. If burning makes you nervous, use a pot with a heavy bottom to evenly distribute heat.
4. Give it a rest
When your rice is done, remove it from the heat to let it rest for 5 minutes before lifting the lid. This allows the rice to swell just a bit more and relax into all those flavors you’ve added.
4 cups chicken, beef, or mushroom stock (no sodium is best)
2 cups long-grain white rice, rinsed
1 bay leaf or 3” sprig of rosemary or a small bunch of thyme
2 T white wine or white wine vinegar
2 T butter, softened
2 T parsley, finely chopped
Salt and black pepper to taste
1. Warm stock and wine in a medium pot with a tight-fitting lid. Season with salt and pepper. Taste and adjust as necessary. Bring to a rolling boil.
2. Stir in rice, then place herbs on top. Allow to return to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to low. Cook 20-25 minutes (or according to package directions), until all liquid has been absorbed (I wait until I can hear the bottom of the pot crackling, but that’s because I’m ok with putting my ear that close to the pot.)
3. Remove from heat. Allow rice to rest for 5 minutes. Stir in butter and parsley, removing woodsy herbs as you find them.
*Zhoosh (the zh and sh are pronounced like Zsa Zsa Gabor’s name) is quite possibly my favorite kitchen word in the world. Its definition is to make something more exciting or attractive. One can zhoosh up rice with butter or zhoosh the pan when flambéing to increase the flames. My favorite, though, is to add a zhoosh of dark rum to my coffee.