Of the many ways I can be humbled in the kitchen, rice is at the top of the list. I’m not a bad cook but, oh, the pots of rice I have driven to a gummy, scorched grave.
I blame heritage and inattention. An Italian mother raised me largely in the Midwest. Pasta, I can nail in my sleep. But rice? It’s my kryptonite.
This didn’t cause me much concern until I moved to the South, where rice was king before cotton. The culinary canons of South Louisiana, the Lowcountry of the Carolinas and the Georgia coast rest on a bed of tender rice.
My rice failings quickly became apparent, so I embarked on a simple culinary quest: Learn to cook a good pot of long-grain rice.
My first call was to Pableaux Johnson, 48, a food writer who often refers to himself as “your Cajun grandma with a beard.” Show up in New Orleans on any given Monday and he may invite you to sit at the long table in his house, where he puts out red beans and rice, the classic washday dish, for an ever-changing band of writers, musicians and other outcasts.
I came at Johnson from the flank, acting as if I were just calling for a casual rice chat. I even threw in some random facts to cover my ineptitude.
“You know, half the rice in America is grown in Arkansas,” I said.
And, by the way, did he have a good, basic method for cooking it?
“Sweetie, buy a rice cooker,” he said. “That’s how little old Cajun ladies roll and little old Japanese ladies roll.”
Cultures that live and die by rice have embraced the electric rice cooker since it debuted in Japan in the 1950s. There is no shame, Johnson said, in using a machine whose premeasured precision guarantees perfect rice with the push of a button and frees up a burner on the stove.
But for me, that would be to admit defeat. With apologies to all the people who believe they can make an entire Thanksgiving dinner in their rice cookers, I didn’t want another one-function gadget in my kitchen.
I turned my attention to the Middle East and called Samin Nosrat, 34. She’s a cook in the San Franciscoarea who spent part of her adolescence cleaning rice with her grandmother near the shore of the Caspian Sea in northern Iran.
Nosrat, who is working on a cookbook called “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat,” made me feel better but not less confused.
“I don’t think you’re alone,” she said. “I think rice phobia is a thing.”
Then she got off on a tangent about the kind of Persian rice that gets crispy on the bottom of the pot. Almost every culture has a version of this. It’s called tahdig in Farsi. Spanish paella cooks know it as socarrat. Koreans call it nurungji.
“My mom and every Iranian lady has their own style of making Persian rice and their own Teflon pot to make it in,” Nosrat said. “It’s fully this crazy superstitious thing with all these stories attached to it. It’s like the entire point of rice.”
But prompting Iranian ladies to explain how to make rice is impossible, she said:
“All of the instructions are like, ‘You cannot let it boil but it can’t not boil’ and ‘You have to rinse it for many hours, but if you rinse it too long it will get too wet.’ ”
So I ventured back South, calling the people who grow an heirloom variety called Carolina Gold. Carolina Gold is a nutty, sweet and slightly persnickety long-grain rice that can cook up either fluffy and independent or sticky enough to hold together in Southern dishes like Hoppin’ John.
The farmers who grow it pay homage to the African slaves who were expert rice growers and developed the Gullah/Geechee Lowcountry cuisine.
Matthew Raiford, a chef, and his sister, Althea, are testing a strain of Carolina Gold on their family’s 25-acre farm in Brunswick, Ga. They are the sixth generation to work the farm, and they grew up eating rice dishes that evolved from slave kitchens.
“Down here, rice has always been one of those things that’s about how do we survive,” he said.
So, I asked, how do I cook it?
“You got to love on it a little bit,” he said.
Could he get more specific?
“I didn’t learn how to cook rice when I went to culinary school,” he said. “I just watched my mom and my aunt make it in the rice pot. We had rice and lima beans. Rice and peas. Rice and everything. I just grew up with that thing around rice.”
At this point, I knew I was going to have just go it alone – with a little help from a sympathetic cook with my same affliction.
Virginia Willis, a Southern chef, couldn’t make decent rice until she went to culinary school. She finally mastered a pilaf with chicken stock that bakes in the oven. In her book “Bon Appétit, Y’all,” she calls it her $20,000 Rice Pilaf because that’s how much a year of culinary education cost her.
I like how Willis cooks, so I decided to try baking my rice the way she did. I stripped down her recipe and tinkered with it, using water instead of chicken stock, and playing with ratios. I also decided I liked a little butter and salt in my rice, despite dire warnings from rice purists.
And then I made rice. Pots of rice. I made it in the morning and at night, when I was tired and when I was hangry (that’s a mix of hungry and angry) and when I was happy and the house was filled with people.
And now, I know rice. At least, a little bit.