To Mom with Love and Rice in Abundance
Parboiled, precooked, basmati, arborio, long grain, medium grain, washed or unwashed, brown, white, yellow, sushi, jasmine, sticky rice, dirty rice, wild rice, rice and gravy, rice pudding, rice cakes, risotto, rice a roni, rice and beans, rice casserole, chicken and rice, rice wine, rice flour. I sound like Bubba on the matter of his mama's shrimp. Around the world, rice is a staple, a traded commodity, a sole source of nutrition, a favorite libation, or just a tasty dish. If you're from the south, it's a part of everyday life. And in the soggy part of Texas where potatoes don't languish it's the starch of choice.
Growing up, I can only remember a handful of meals Mom would have real potatoes with. Mashed potatoes came from a box. A lot of sides came from a box back then. Biscuits came from a box, (although they were technically from scratch), scalloped potatoes came from a box; it was the age of Hamburger Helper. Kraft Mac n' Cheese was still 10 cents, (a box!) and while Uncle Ben's White and Wild Rice was from a box, it was at least the long cooking variety. When it came to rice, instant rice was taboo. Might as well serve packing peanuts she said. It was her thing, and it became my thing by default. Comfort food for me isn't macaroni and cheese or pot roast; it's Mom's Roast Beef Au jus over rice. If I think about it, I'm there. There was no gravy. It was simple pan drippings and a little extra stock seasoned with this blend of thyme and rosemary, and I don't know what else, served on the side in a bowl meant to be eaten with a spoon - like the meat was a second thought. I couldn't get enough of it. No mashed potato, no bread, just rice.
Perfection. Besides, all we had was Wonder Bread which would have dissolved at the thought of being dipped. Even today, rice with almost anything on it is my idea of comfort food. And if you've never had rice and brown milk gravy with fried chicken (not that anemic stuff as my Aunt Snookie - not from Jersey, from Silsbee, TX - would say), or my mother's stuffed peppers with rice and Rotel and more bacon fat than you'd care to know about, friend, you are missing out! On the subject off all things rice, if rice were an inkblot test I would say Mom every time.
Mom died from ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) June 23, 2003. She made rice until she couldn't stand at the stove any longer. She passed quietly in the early morning hours without fanfare or commotion and she was smiling. Contemplating the legacy of her life, I set out to put together a list of significant things I learned from her. What could have been an endless rendering, I narrowed to a meaningful 50. At the top of my list was Never leave the house without lipstick and A proper southern lady can rice without a timer - both of which I learned how to do by watching until I got it. Fact is, I don't recall that Mom ever really taught me how to cook anything. Her mother never taught her and my mother was married at 19 with little or no culinary opinion at all except for a considered dislike of brains and eggs. As I recollect, the story goes that on their wedding day, my dad's father told him that whatever she fixed, he was to like it. During the honeymoon, Mom asked Dad what he liked. He said he liked barbecue. She took that to mean barbecue sauce, which was partially true. But he was thinking the brisket and rib variety. So to please him, their first meal at home was barbecued eggs. Why, I'll never know. I'm thinking she found a recipe which would be like her to do. But he says it was just regular eggs with barbecue sauce on top and he told her he liked it, which wasn't a lie. He really did like it. But, to keep Dad happy because he said it was good, he ate barbecue on EVERYTHING for a week! Thankfully Mom matured in her kitchen sense and moved on to bigger and less barbecuey things! Mom took a lesson from her mom and while she didn't formally teach me, she was content to hang out nearby and let me have a go at whatever I wanted to make so long as I cleaned up. She was good to guide and give gentle instruction about techniques and basics. As a result, her legacy to me was no fear cooking. At 15, I picked wild grapes growing in the backyard and found a recipe in the Joy of Cooking for grape pie. I peeled, cooked and pressed those grapes, made my first pie crust and at 3 AM was rewarded with a perfect pie. I don't know how I did it. It was clearly an act of God. But my father still asks for that pie. The first meal I ever cooked for someone else was Beef Stroganoff for my boyfriend and his best buddy while his parents were on vacation (they were boys and they needed a home cooked meal, okay). It was her recipe, and there were no leftovers!
Unlike the kamikaze kitchen method I currently employ, she cooked strict to a recipe until she felt she knew it well enough to make it her own. She often boasted to others and told me how much she admired my ability to cook without a recipe, but I still think she was a better cook. From her I learned to judge if a recipe would work or not before I tried it. She seemed to know how things came together. She had this thing she would do "dissecting" foods she really liked for the first time. When I was 11, we went out for dinner. It was bitterly cold but we had a taste for Italian. Mom had a meatball sandwich that she apparently really liked right away. I can still see that look on her face. Dad said she was dissecting it. She removed one of the meatballs from the bun, and proceeded to take tiny bites, checking and contemplating making mental notes with each bite like a student dissecting a cadaver. Later that week, she made meatballs and sauce. And they were divine. She enjoyed experimenting with new foods. That same year my parents bought a hind quarter of beef. It came with kidney. Mom did not like brains and eggs. But she loved liver and onions with bacon. Dad did not share her love of this and it was never cooked at home. It she had a taste for it, she'd go to the Woolworth's diner for lunch and take me along. But every time she made something new that year, Dad and I would go to the freezer and check just to make absolutely certain that kidney was still safely wrapped up in there!
Mom was neat to a pin, kept lists and filed everything. She kept a tight recipe box and wrote out index cards rather than keep clippings (we won't even go there regarding the state of my files). She had the complete Southern Living Cookbook series, more cookbooks than you could shake a stick at and indexed every issue of Bon Apetit, Cuisine, Food and Wine and Taste of Home. Though she is not with us anymore, I still call my dad when I need one of her recipes (which out of respect for her, I am strict to follow). She couldn't make bread rise (except the frozen variety) and except for tomato aspic and lime jello in a can of pineapple, she couldn't make jello jell either. For some reason as well, her watch always quit working. She said it was some sort of electronic thing going on in her body that kept her from making proper bread and jello or keeping her watch running. But her rice was absolutely perfect every time and she never burned the gravy.
I guess when you boil it down (pardon the pun), Mom had a lot in common with rice. She never considered herself pretty though I found her amazingly beautiful. She had a simplicity about her that didn't need much to enhance what was already perfect about her just as she was. She was by every definition a southern belle, with perfect elegance down to the last grain. Although she was a smoker until she became ill, she considered it highly improper to walk around with a cigarette hanging from your lips. When she smoked, she sat. Even that looked refined for her. Her stockings always matched her slacks and she hated to wear the same outfit to an event twice but carefully folded and wore her house clothes more than once to save on laundry. Meek and humble to a fault like white rice on a platter, she stood for everything good and could endure the heaviest burden without disintegrating. In times of great trial, she was the one I could depend on when there was nothing else. Unlike cheap rice, there was nothing uneven or gummy about Mom. She knew how to find a bargain and dressed with care both for her appearance and her pocketbook. A simple side dish, she held and tied everything and everyone together, smoothed out the rough patches between my dad and I and laid a foundation for whatever went on top. And like the little bubbles on the surface that tell you when your rice is nearly done, she had a way of simmering quietly that let us know she was nearly done with something as well.
So the next time you're looking for something to serve on the side, dig in your pantry and reconsider rice, then call your mom. Call your best friend's mom. Chances are both are just waiting for you to think of them. In the meantime, enjoy Mom's recipe for stuffed peppers.
Marcy Abbey's Stuffed Green Peppers with Rice
1/2 C uncooked rice
6 Large Green Peppers
1 lb. Ground Beef
1 medium onion, chopped
1 C finely diced celery
2 T bacon drippings
1 1/2 C grated cheddar cheese
2 teaspoon celery seed
1/2 can Rotel Tomatoes and Green Chilies
1 can tomato soup
1 soup can water
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
Preheat oven to 350. Cook rice until tender (I assume you know how to do that! Okay fine, instructions below). Cut tops off peppers, remove seeds and boil 5 minutes. Drain upside down on paper towel. Saute beef, onion and celery in bacon drippings until brown. Add cooked rice, 1 cup grated cheese, celery seed and Rotel. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stuff peppers with mixture and place in a greased baking dish. Make a sauce by mixing soup, water, tomato sauce and 1/2 C grated cheese. Pour over peppers. Bake uncovered in 350 degree over for about 45 minutes. Baste with sauce several times during cooking. (Note: freeze peppers before cooking in plastic bags with a generous amount of sauce over each. You may want to double the amount of sauce to have plenty for freezing.)
How to cook rice
The ratio is always 2:1 water (or broth) to rice for basic rice. If you want your rice starchier, add more water so it cooks longer. Drier, fluffy rice, stay to the ratio. DO NOT WASH YOUR RICE! And please, buy decent rice. You get what you pay for. Stick to medium grain rice for all purpose use. I do like Uncle Bens, it's consistent when you cook it, but you can find other equally good rice.
So for this recipe, put 1 cup of water in a medium saucepan. Salt the water a bit. Any time you cook rice, feel free to season your water as you like or cook the rice in broth. Anything you add to the water to enhance your rice will just make it that much better! But keep it pure for this recipe. Bring the water to a boil and add the 1/2 C rice. Stir it just a bit. Let the water and rice come back up to a boil and then turn the fire way down until the rice is just simmering. Cover it TIGHLY! Steam is your friend with rice. If you cook rice too fast the water will boil away before the rice is done and I guarantee it will stick and burn to the bottom of your pan. Not to mention it will not taste good and is no picnic to remove from a pan. Trust me on this one. I won't tell you how many trials I went through learning to cook sushi rice (which is a horse of a whole different color). After about 15-20 minutes go peek at the rice by lifting the lid. If you see tiny "holes" or bubbles on the surface of the rice, take a spoon and gently pull some rice away from the bottom of the pan just to see how much liquid is left. At this point the rice should still have a little bit of liquid left and the rice should still be very moist and not quite done. Put the lid back on and let it go about 5-10 more minutes, then check it again, taking a little taste to see if it's tender, which it should be after about 25 minutes or slighly less. Turn off the heat and remove the pan from the burner. Keep it tightly covered and let it hang out on the stove for about 10 minutes so the steam can do its thing and finish cooking the rice. For the pepper recipe, it doesn't really matter if the rice is sticky or dry so don't get all worked up about it if your first attempt doesn't come out perfect. It's going to get mixed up with all the goodness anyhow so it's a moot point. But for any other purpose, after it has hung out for a while, fluff it with a fork before serving. Unlike pasta, you do not want to stir the rice while it's cooking (unless you're making risotto, which I'm not so keen at). It has to steam. While I am a purist too like my mom when it comes to rice, I will say that a rice cooker does make good rice. I've heard you can use a slow cooker to basically do the same thing and the rice never gets overdone, which is not tasty. And PLEASE out of respect for my mom and for the love of the person you serve it to, don't use instant rice. It's evil, nasty stuff. So there. Now go cook some rice.