When I was younger and didn't have the cooking knowledge I do now, I remember walking into the kitchenware section at a department store. I'd been living on my own for a few months, and even though my mother had given me a few hand-me-down items for my kitchen, it was woefully bare.
I was intimidated and unnerved by the products and ended up purchasing a few items at my local supermarket instead. They were much cheaper but everything warped the first time I used it. I swore that I would save up and get the good stuff next time. I began doing some research (and ended up landing a job at the highest-end cookware store in my Ohio town) and I learned a lot about what makes a good pan, and a knife, and even a tagine. Still don't own one of those, actually.
But there are two really inexpensive items that I use all the time. My cast-iron skillets (which I purchased at a hardware store and will talk about in another column) and my electric rice cooker. It cost me $25 six years ago and Amazon has it for $35. And I love it.
I love it because I don't just use it to make plain white rice. No siree, Bob! I make cuisine in that hunk of aluminum and plastic. I create well-blanced meals that don't need to be stirred, rarely take more than 45 minutes to cook, and I only have to clean one pot. It's delightful, my little cooker, and your's can be, too.
Trust me, a $35 investment can bring you years of joyous meals. Here are a few I've come up with going from easiest/fastest to hardest/longest. Don't worry, I won't be using any French techniques or big words. These are truly simple dishes.
Dish 1: Rice and Vegetables
1 can Mixed vegetables
1 cup rice
Salt and pepper to taste
2 teaspoons herbs or spices
Drain the liquid from the canned vegetables into a measuring cup. Dump the vegetables into the rice cooker, dump the rice on top. Add water to the veggie liquid until you have 2 cups of liquid. Pour that over top of the rice and vegetables and sprinkle about two teaspoons of your favorite spices and herbs on top. Shake the cooker bowl, put on the cooker base, turn on. Wait for the timer to go off. Eat. This will take about 20 minutes to cook.
See, I told you this was easy.
Dish 2: Chicken and Rice
1 small chicken breast (raw or cooked) cut into 1/2-inch cubes (no bigger!)
2 cups of chicken stock
1 cup of rice
2 teaspoons Thyme, Oregano, Rosemary, etc.
Put items into the pot in the order they're listed. Cover and turn on cooker. Double-check chicken to make sure it is cooked through. Eat. This will take 20-25 minutes to cook.
Yep, still easy.
Dish 3: Spicy Rice and Beans
1 can of beans with liquid reserved; black beans work very well
1 cup of rice
Water to combine with reserved liquid to equal two cups
1 small jalapeno or other pepper
Combine items in pot, cover and cook. Remove jalapeno from pot. Eat. This will take 20-25 minutes to cook.
So, so easy.
Dish 4: Red Rice
1 small onion
2 tablespoons rendered bacon fat, or vegetable oil for the bacon-phobic
14 oz. can chopped canned tomatoes (fresh when in season)
1 cup white rice
1 clove of garlic
1 teaspoon of oregano, thyme, or basil
Salt and pepper
Sautee the onion in the bacon fat or oil. Dump in rice cooker with the other ingredients and cook. Once in a while there isn't enough liquid to cook the rice through, if this happens, add 1/4 cup of water, cover, and turn back on. This will take 20-25 minutes to cook.
A little more work, but still very easy.
Dish 5: Tofu, Mushrooms, and Brown Rice
1/2 small onion
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 clove of garlic minced or sliced fine
2 1/2 cups of Vegetable or Mushroom stock
1/2 cup cubed extra-firm tofu
1 cup brown rice
Handful of sliced mushrooms, cleaned and de-stemmed
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut the onion in half from stem to root and slice into thin slices. Add to hot skillet with the olive oil and sautee until the onion is clear, about 4 minutes. Dump onions into rice cooker and add other ingredients. Cover, turn on, cook, eat. This will take 45-55 mintues to cook.
Brown rice and tofu don't have to taste boring. You can add any sauce you like to the pot while it cooks. Fan of teriyaki sauce? Throw some in. Prefer soy sauce, pour it in but don't add more salt. Go to the Asian section of your local store and pick up a bottle of something that sounds good and put a tablespoon of it into the pot.
Dish 6: Basic Pilaf
2 tablespoons butter
1 small onion chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped fine
1 cup brown basmati rice
2 tablespoons of raisins or dried currants
1 small cinnamon stick
3 cups chicken (or vegetable) stock
Melt the butter in a skillet over medium-low heat, toss in the onion and cook while stirring for about 7-8 minutes until the onion starts to look golden. Add the garlic and stir for about 1 minute. Add the rice, dried fruit, and cinnamon stick. Stir for about 3-4 minutes or until the rice soaks up most of the butter. Dump in the cooker pan with the chicken stock. Cover and cook. This will take about 45-55 minutes to cook.
See? Still easy. But maybe you want dessert? No problem.
Dish 7: Rice Pudding
3/4 cup medium- or long-grain rice
1 1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 cups of whole milk*
1/2 cup of sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Add the rice, water, and salt to the rice cooker. Cook until it goes off, about 15-20 minutes. Remove the cover and stir in the milk and the sugar. Cover and turn the cooker back on. After about 20 minutes, raise the lid and stir every five minutes until it has the consistency you desire. Sprinkle the vanilla and cinnamon over the rice and stir. You can serve this warm, at room temperature, or cold. You can garnish with a fruit sauce or with whipped cream, or just eat plain.
*If you want a vegan or low-fat alternative, substitute low-fat coconut milk for the whole milk.
A rice cooker really is a life simplifier, and it's versatile. The only consistent things you need are rice and liquid. You can add whatever flavors you like, whatever ingredients you like, whatever liquids you like. You don't even have to use rice. If you're trying to stick to a low-carb diet, you can either eat brown rice or barley or another higher-fiber grain. You could use beer or wine instead of half of the water. Any stock works well. Herbs, spices, vegetables, meats (cut into small pieces if raw), whatever makes your tastebuds and your tummy happy. Experiment a little, have fun, and quit buying Rice-A-Phoney!