I have an embarrassing confession: As a self-proclaimed foodie of Filipino decent, I can’t cook a good rice dish to save my life.
Allow me to clarify. Along with 2 billion other people, steamed rice has been and always will be the staple starch in my life. I can steam rice with my eyes closed. Using a little trick that my dad showed me, I use nothing but my finger as a measuring tool and a cheap little rice cooker to make perfectly steamed white rice. I’m perfectly happy using steamed rice to mop up and accompany all the flavors of the meat and vegetables that come out of my kitchen.
But rice dishes like risotto, fried rice, and pilaf have mostly been beyond my repertoire. In fact, other starches such as potatoes are mysteriously absent from my kitchen. We always have store bought bread around but I never make it myself. And somewhere deep within my kitchen cabinets lurks a box of pasta that is occasionally boiled up. Other “exotic” starches such as cous-cous might as well come from a different planet.
The consequence of using mostly steamed rice at home is that it has seriously hindered my versatility in the kitchen. Main dish proteins and vegetables are my strength while potatoes, pasta, and other rice dishes continue to be an Achilles heel.
In my journey to becoming a better eater, it is paramount that I overcome my past failures, laziness, and content in regards to cooking carbs. It’s human nature to focus on what we’re good at, but improvement and growth demands to focus on some of the things we suck at.
Studying for my Nursing Certification Licensure Exam (NCLEX) kicked my ass into focusing on what I was bad at in order to succeed. There is no way I would of passed if I kept studying what I loved in adult, cardiac and psych nursing and avoided what I had little interest in with mother-baby and pediatrics. But I did what I had to do to ace the damn test and cardiac nursing is still my bread and butter. Meanwhile, I’m fine with leaving kids and moms to Abbie.
My first stop on my journey towards improvement brings us to my favorite Vietnamese Cookbook. There I discovered Chicken and Vegetable Clay Pot Rice. Traditionally cooked in a clay pot, this recipe is usually cooked in a Dutch oven. Studded with chicken and colorful vegetables this dish eats like Asian fried rice. Instead of day old cooked rice, raw rice is heated in oil and nearly boiling broth is then thrown into the rice to be gradually absorbed. This cooks and tenderizes the rice.
Meanwhile, marinated chicken along with the vegetables is cooked separately before placing on top of the cooking rice. The rice, chicken, and vegetables eventually mix and mingle resulting in quite possibly the best rice dish I’ve ever made.
I think it’s a pretty damn good start to expanding my horizons.
Chicken and Vegetable Clay Pot Rice
Adapted from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoon light (regular) soy sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
3/ pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
5 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
2/3 cup chopped celery (pea-sized pieces)
2/3 cup chopped carrot (pea-sized pieces)
5 or 6 dried shitake mushrooms, reconstituted, trimmed, and chopped into pea-sized pieces (I used fresh shitake)
1/2 cup frozen peas, preferably petite peas, thawed
2 cups long-grain rice
2 2/3 cup chicken stock (infuse it with a little ginger)
In a bowl stir together the salt, white pepper, sugar, soy sauce, and oyster sauce. Add the chicken and use chopsticks to mix well. Set aside
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for about 1 minute, or until fragrant. Add the celery, carrot, and mushrooms and continue to sauté for about 3 minutes, or until half cooked. Add the chicken and sauté gently for 3 to 4 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Remove from the heat, stir in the peas and set the pan aside.
Rinse the rice and let it drain for 10 minutes in a sieve positioned over a bowl. Meanwhile, bring the stock to a near simmer in a small saucepan and then cover to keep it hot.
In a heavy-bottomed 5 quart dutch oven or similar pot, heat the remaining tablespoons oil over medium-high heat. Firmly shake the sieve holding the rice to expel any hidden water, and then add the rice to the pot. Stir constantly with a large spoon for almost 3 minutes, or until the grains are opaque and feel light. Add the stock and expect dramatic boiling. Immediately give the rice and stock a big stir, then lower the heat to medium so that the contents simmer and cover the pot.
During the next 5 minutes, encourage the grains to absorb the stock and cook evenly. To do this, periodically remove the lid give the rice a big, quick stir, and then replace the lid. I typically stir the rice 3 times. When you stir the rice the third time, the rice should stick to a bit to the pan and most of the stock will have been absorbed. (If it has not yet reached this point, continue cooking for a minute or so and check again). At this point, level the rice and turn the heat to low. Cover and cook for 10 minutes.
Uncover and add the vegetables and chicken and any juices from the skillet, distributing them evenly over the rice. Replace the lid and continue cooking for 10 minutes longer. Uncover and stir the contents, scraping the bottom to combine all the ingredients. Replace the lid from the heat and let the rice sit for 10 minutes to allow the flavors to meld.
Fluff the rice with chopsticks or a fork and then spoon it into 1 or 2 servings bowls or platters. If a little curst has formed on the bottom of the pot, scoop it out and serve the shards separately for anyone who enjoys their crisp, nutty taste.