Friday, June 26, 2015

You Want a Rice Cooker Even If You Don't Eat Rice

You may think that rice cookers are only worth having for those of us who eat a lot of rice, but you'd be wrong. There's a lot more you can do with a rice cooker than just steam rice--like the polenta pictured above, perfectly smooth with no lumps. All you have to do is add polenta and water in a 1:4 ratio, hit the cook button, and perfect polenta comes out at the end. Well, you do have to stir the polenta once it's done cooking; it looks like this when the rice cooker flips over to "keep warm":

But then, you need to salt it of course, and maybe you want to stir in some butter at the end, so you have to give it a stir anyway. And that's after 45-60 minutes of no stirring at all, versus frequent stirring in the traditional method.

You can also make a great no-stir risotto with a rice cooker (Wolfgang Puck approves, though the timing and method in his recipe seems specific to his equipment). This one takes a little getting to know your particular rice cooker, since just letting your rice cooker do its thing on risotto will result in overcooked risotto at the end. Risotto generally calls for more fluid than steaming rice does since the targeted end result is wetter than steamed rice. And if you're Kenji L-A, you may add in more dairy/cream at the end, making some risottos a little soupy.

For my rice cooker, I have to stop the cooking about 10 minutes before it finishes "naturally", out of a normally 60 minute cycle. (Nominally 60 minutes, but my rice cooker will sometimes cut minutes short as it adjusts automatically with Zojirushi magic to whatever's going on inside its belly.)

On the other hand, Kenji L-A's method of making risotto in a skillet instead of a tall pot, which allows for more even heating over the volume of rice in the pan, works so well and easily (you only need to stir once in the middle of the cooking time!) that I think it's simpler just to do it on the stove-top rather than in a rice cooker. But the rice cooker option's there, say, if you need your burners or skillet. A caveat about Kenji L-A's recipe, though: I found his cooking time of 10 + 10 minutes (stir halfway through a total of 20 minutes) to result in overcooked rice, and needed to shave a few minutes off. Maybe it's the arborio rice I'm using versus his carnaroli, or maybe the minimum heat setting on my stove is higher than on his.

Besides polenta and risotto, rice cookers are also handy for making steel-cut oats without having to watch over them. I don't actually use mine for steel-cut oats anymore, though, since scaling up to doing 5 days worth (the work-week) at one time in a large pot, using the boil-and-overnight-soak method (I skip the frying and go straight to boiling).

Notice the theme here, about slow-cooking grains. Rice cookers are basically automated slow cookers, which may also work well for these uses. Though, my multi-function rice cooker has convenient "porridge" and "steam" functions as well, which I use for congee, polenta, and steel-cut oats, and, well, steaming, respectively. (Mine actually even has a "bake" function, which I've used for some tasty green tea sponge cake a couple times, but I haven't used it enough and am not enough of a baker to be able to say much about it.)

And what can you steam with a rice cooker? Whatever you want that will fit inside! Mine has a convenient plastic steamer insert (so as to avoid scratching the non-stick surface of the inner pot), but it's rather shallow and hangs close to the top. I've done vegetables, dumplings, and meats before. Pretty easy-mode for steaming chicken when you need a quick and easy weeknight meal, as I did here:

As always with meats, it's a good idea to salt it before you cook, for both flavor and moisture retention. And then I followed up with a modified chimichurri sauce, using cilantro, garlic, and gochugaru instead of parsley, garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes, and whatever other variant ingredients:

You could also get creative and efficient with your rice cooking and steam meats over your rice to allow the juices to drip over the rice as it cooks.

The bottom line is that while named for and designed around cooking rice, rice cookers are just another kitchen tool, and very versatile ones at that. Have one just sitting in a cabinet? Try cooking something other than rice in it. You might discover a new convenient way to cook a dish you love (but which isn't quite worth the time and effort), or maybe expand your multitasking capabilities.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Link: 5 Lessons From a Scientist-Cook

I'm no scientist like the author of this piece's husband, but these are five good tips on how to approach cooking that also describe how I do things. Well, I absorbed the lessons of the scientific method early on in my academic education. While cooking with a spirit of exploration gives you the freedom to do, learn, and figure out new things, you also need some rigor in your experimentation in order to pin down what exactly it is in your variations that brought about the change in results.

Check out the kitchn's article!