Rice to the Occasion!

In addition to aroma and taste, color is also important when cooking this ancient grain.

"Let me tell you a story," said the doctor to the chef. "You know Goethe, the German poet?"

"What a question! Of course, I know him," said the chef. "We used to sing songs together in kindergarten."

"Well, then," the doctor said, launching into his story, "Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was really in a dark mood. A 'lousy stay' is how he described his visit to the guest house in Catania, in eastern Sicily. He called the innkeeper, who had gone out of his way to prepare a meal fit for a king, a 'mule driver.' The German poet was seething with anger and fury because of one dish of chicken and rice.

"The Sicilian transferred the contents of the pot to an elegant serving dish, sprinkled some grated cheese and black pepper over it, and placed it proudly before the poet, who instead of tucking into the tempting delicacy, was nauseated by the sight of it."

At this point, the chef declared that Goethe was an idiot - culinarily speaking, that is.

Leafy greens and rice soup

A fragrant and very tasty soup, made with rice and leafy greens. You can play around a bit with the quantities and types of greens, adding or subtracting as you wish. The quantities here are for six diners.

Ingredients:

1/4 kilo rice (Basmati, Thai or Persian)

1 leek (whole, with the green leaves), finely chopped

about 2 dozen basil leaves, chopped

1 bunch (about 12 sprigs) parsley, chopped

3 stalks celery, chopped

1 medium carrot, chopped

1 small hot pepper

1 package mangold (Swiss chard) leaves, coarsely chopped

1 small head of lettuce, coarsely chopped

2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced

1 bunch spinach leaves, rinsed

salt, pepper

olive oil

grated Parmesan cheese

Pour 1/2 cup olive oil in a large pot. Heat the oil and saute the leek, basil, parsley, celery, carrot and hot pepper until the vegetables are soft. Add the mangold, lettuce, potatoes and spinach; saute while stirring until the green leaves soften. Season with salt and pepper. Add 2 liters of water, bring to a boil, lower the flame and simmer for 20 minutes, covered. At this point, you have the option of using a hand blender to slightly puree the contents of the pot, but the leaves can also remain whole. Add the rice, bring to a boil again and simmer for about 15 minutes (until the rice is ready).

Ladle into bowls, drizzle on a little olive oil, sprinkle with Parmesan and black pepper and serve.

Pumpkin risotto

A lovely orange dish for the dining pleasure of your vegetarian friends, though carnivores will likely be licking their lips, too. The recipe is for six servings.

Ingredients:

2 leeks (the white part), cut into 2-3 pieces

2 medium carrots, cut in half

3 stalks celery

1 small bunch of parsley

1 small bunch of dill

2 sprigs of basil

1 tomato, cut in half

a half-dozen sprigs of thyme

100 gr. butter

1 medium onion

olive oil

1 kilo pumpkin

needles of 1 small sprig of rosemary

1/2 kilo Arborio rice

10-12 tbsp. grated Parmesan

salt

Start with the stock: Place the leek, carrot, celery, parsley, dill, tomato, basil and thyme in a medium-sized pot. Add 2 liters of water and 1 tsp. salt; bring to a boil. Lower the fire and simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, covered. Adjust for saltiness, drain the vegetables and return the soup to the pot, over a very low flame.

Tomato risotto

In Italy, this dish is normally made with tomato sauce. Here we use raw, canned tomatoes, but one mustn't skimp on their quality: You should invest just a few more shekels in a can of good-quality, peeled Italian tomatoes. Anything less won't do.

Ingredients:

2 leeks (the white part), cut into 2-3 pieces

2 medium carrots, cut in half

3 stalks celery

1 small bunch parsley

1 small bunch dill

2 sprigs basil + 1 small bunch basil (leaves only)

1 tomato, cut in half

a half-dozen sprigs of thyme

1 medium onion

1 tbsp. anise seeds

3 garlic cloves

1/2 kilo Arborio rice

1 can peeled tomatoes (400 gr.)

olive oil

salt, pepper

Start with the stock: Put the leek, carrot, celery, parsley, dill, tomato, basil sprigs and thyme in a medium-sized pot. Add 1 1/2 liters water, 1/2 tsp. black pepper and 1 tsp. salt; bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 45 minutes, covered. Then check and adjust for saltiness, drain and return the soup to the pot, over a very low fire.

Meanwhile, chop the onion, basil leaves and garlic. Puree the canned tomatoes (with their juice) in a blender. Fry the anise seeds for 3 minutes in a pan, without oil (this is like quick-roasting). In another medium pot, pour in 1/2 cup olive oil and saute the onion until translucent. Add the anise seeds and stir for a minute. Add the basil and garlic; stir for another minute. Add the rice and mix well.

Now add a ladle of the soup and mix with a wooden spoon until the liquid is absorbed. Repeat this process (using no more than 1 liter of soup altogether) until all the liquid is absorbed. Add the pureed tomatoes; mix until all the liquid is absorbed by the rice. If the rice is still hard, add a little more stock and mix until it is al dente.

When the rice is ready, turn off the heat. Wait 3 minutes and transfer to serving dishes. Don't forget a little drizzle of olive oil and a bit of freshly ground black pepper.

Ask the Chef

Dear Haim and Eli:

Could you please provide a brief explanation about the origins of rice, the various types and their suitability for different kinds of cooking?

Tzipi Friedman, Tel Aviv

Dear Tzipi:

The answer to your question could fill a book. We shall try to squeeze an appropriate reply into a few sentences. You should know that rice is the most common grain in the world and feeds about one-third of the world's population. Its history is as old as mankind. It originated in East Asia. The ancient Chinese began to cultivate rice as much as 7,000 years ago. Rice arrived in Europe around the fourth century B.C.E., together with the armies of Alexander the Great, and until the Middle Ages it was used as a seasoning or a medicine. Early Europeans boiled rice to the point of dissolution and used the resulting water as a treatment for intestinal ailments. This folk remedy is still in use today. In the 15th and 16th centuries, rice became part of Sicilian and Spanish cuisine, and later became a dominant food in northern Italy and northern Spain.

There are myriad varieties of rice in the world and every chef swears by his favorite. Generally speaking, rice may be divided into three main categories: short-grain Japanese, long-grain Thai/Indian/Persian, and rounded Italian. Japanese rice is best for Japanese food, of course. Italian rice is also widely used in Spain and good for sticky-rice dishes (like risotto and paella). Long-grain rice is good for the remaining dishes.

In conclusion, a tip: The popular custom among mothers and grandmothers (of which we are occasionally guilty, too) notwithstanding, there is no need to rinse rice before using it. A good portion of the rice's nutritional components go right down the drain with the water.If you haven't guessed by now, dear Tzipi, we love rice more than anything.