Internationally ingrained; PART 2: RICES OF THE WORLD

In the second part of our series, we introduce some of the world's famous rice dishes. From Milanese risotto and Greek dolmades to Indian lamb biryani and Caribbean rice and beans, Michael Bateman shows the depth of influence these humble grains have had on cooking around the globe
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The Independent Culture
TO WELL over a billion people, rice is not a gourmet choice. Half the world's population regard a bowl of rice as a survival kit. But we in the West do not eat it out of necessity. If we want to stoke up on starchy foods, we have vitamin-rich potatoes by the sackful, or baskets of fibrous wholemeal bread, not to mention the rising tide of pizza and pasta.

Plain rice can be the most bland and unassertive of foods. Indeed for much of our history, it has been considered food for invalids and children (witness school rice pudding). Well, it's not what you eat but the way that you cook it.

White rice, it's true, falls a bit short on the flavour front. It is grain which has been busted and hulled and then polished, which not only reduces its vitamin content (not to mention the F-word, fibre), but removes most of its taste.

Not all rice-eaters would agree. Indian basmati rice, cooked by the absorption method (taking up every bit of cooking water) offers a chewy texture, a nutty taste and a sweet aroma. In fact, some basmati rice and Thai fragrant rice is aged in order to improve aroma.

The absorption method of cooking (described last week) maximises what little flavour rice has. The way to lose flavour is to cook it, as we often do in the West, in plenty of boiling water. The Italians refer to this method as risi inglesi (English rice). Yet it is a method adopted in many hotel kitchens (by the French as often as the English). The chefs boil the rice, drain it, dry it in the oven and finish it as required by reheating with butter. Today's recipes are not about using rice as a filler or accompaniment. Rice is the very soul and spirit of these classics.

Risotto needs no introduction, but among our recipes this week it is the only one using European short-grain rice. Short-grain rice, such as arborio or vialone, expands like a concertina and absorbs more liquid than long-grain rice. All the others use white long-grain rice. Kedgeree and biryani illustrate the range and interest that can be achieved in a rice dish, while in the recipes from southern Europe and the Middle East, rice is used as a richly-flavoured stuffing.

The recipes published this week and next have been collated and refined by Clare Ferguson, one of Britain's more international cookery writers. The 50 recipes in her new book, Rice, From Risotto to Sushi, which comes out next month, are a mixture of ancient and modern (she acknowledges a debt to the Indonesian writer Sri Owen, whose Rice Book is the encyclopaedic history of the subject). Clare also introduces dishes from her own world travels, including some from the young cuisines of Australia and New Zealand. You mean you hadn't heard of sticky risotto pancakes or rice tart with feijoa salsa?

RISOTTO

ALLA MILANESE

Italian risotto is very straightforward if good quality ingredients are used. Fresh butter, best risotto rice such as carnaroli or arborio, a glass of good wine and strong, flavourful stock are all essential.

Serves 4

75g/212oz salted butter

1 medium onion, sliced

3-4 garlic cloves, crushed (optional)

450g/1lb white Italian risotto rice

125ml/4fl oz white wine

1 large pinch of saffron threads

14 teaspoon sea salt flakes (if stock is salty use sugar)

1 litre/134 pints boiling chicken stock

75g/212oz fresh Parmesan, finely sliced

freshly ground black pepper

sprigs of flat leaf parsley, to serve

Heat 50g (112oz) of the butter in a medium-sized, heavy-based saucepan. Add the onion and garlic, if using; fry gently for one minute, then stir in the rice and the wine. Let it bubble away. Grind the saffron, salt or sugar in a small bowl, then add a ladle of stock. Pour half this mixture into the rice and reserve the remainder. Continue simmering the rice, adding ladles of boiling stock at intervals, until all the liquid is used and absorbed (about 28 minutes). The risotto should be tender but still very rich, moist and glossy. Alternatively, add all the stock at once and cook over a low heat for 28 to 32 minutes, stirring gently from time to time.

Add the remaining butter and saffron, then stir in half the cheese and some pepper. To serve, sprinkle with the remaining cheese and garnish with sprigs of parsley.

RICE AND PEAS

Peas or beans with rice is one of the world's greatest food combinations. Depending on the culture and location, "peas" could mean pigeon peas, black-eyed peas, gunga, gungo, goongo or Congo peas, red beans, black beans or even fava beans. Refer to a specialist cookbook for the different soaking and cooking times needed for each variety - kidney beans, for example, must be thoroughly boiled to eliminate toxins.

In this recipe, the hot Caribbean chillies are left whole but pierced to provide fruitiness as well as heat.

Serves 6-8

500g/1lb 2oz dried peas or beans, such as pigeon peas, gungo, black-eyed peas, red or black kidney beans, or black turtle beans

2 habanero or Scotch bonnet chillies, pierced several times with a needle

1 onion, quartered

750g/1lb 8oz smoked shoulder bacon or ham, or 1 bacon or ham hock

500g/1lb 2oz white long-grain rice, or white easy-cook rice

400ml/14fl oz canned coconut milk

For the chilli sauce:

4 garlic cloves

2 medium hot green chillies, eg serrano or jalapeno

1 bunch fresh oregano

1 bunch fresh flat leaf parsley

8 spring onions, chopped

juice of 5 limes or 3 lemons

1 tablespoon mixed French mustard

salt, to taste

To soak the peas or beans cover with cold water and leave overnight or pour over boiling water, cover with a lid and soak for an hour. Drain if using red beans, boil vigorously for 15 minutes then discard the water.

Put the peas or beans in a pan with boiling water to cover by 7cm (3 inch). Add the chillies, onion and bacon, ham or pork. Boil for 10 minutes, part-cover and cook at a moderate boil until fairly tender. For presoaked peas or beans, cook red or black kidney beans for 45 to 50 minutes; black- eyed and gungo peas for one-and-a-quarter to one-and-a-half hours; black turtle beans for one-and-a-half to two hours.

Add the rice and coconut milk. Simmer, part-covered for 16 to 18 minutes. Drain off any liquid into a pan, reduce to two tablespoons and return to the beans. Discard chil-lies. Remove meat, slice, then return to pan.

To make the chilli sauce, crush the garlic, deseed and slice the chillies, and snip the herbs. Put with the other sauce ingredients in a food processor. Whiz for the minimum time it takes to form a sauce.

Carefully remove the cooked habanero or Scotch bonnet chillies from the rice pan, and discard. Serve the rice and peas in a bowl with a dollop of chilli sauce on top and serve the remaining sauce separately.

KEDGEREE

Kedgeree, that remnant of Britain's Indian colonial past, depends on first class ingredients and recently cooked, cool (not chilled, not hot) rice for its full charm. Though traditionally a breakfast dish, it is perfect for brunch, lunch or an informal supper . If you have other smoked seafood such as scallops, mussels, oysters, or even clams, these too may be added to the poaching water to reheat before mixing with the rice.

Serves 4

500g/1lb 2oz smoked haddock

50g/2oz unsalted butter

2 red onions, finely sliced

3-4 garlic cloves, chopped

1 teaspoon coriander seeds, crushed

1 pinch of turmeric or saffron

250g/9oz cooked white basmati rice

2 soft-boiled (4 minute) eggs

100ml/312fl oz creme fraiche

1 medium hot red chilli deseeded, blanched and finely sliced (optional)

sea salt and freshly ground pepper

sprigs of parsley, to serve

Poach the fish in a little water for four to six minutes until it flakes easily. Discard the skin, remove any bones, break the fish into chunky pieces, then return it to its still-hot cooking liquid. If you plan to use any other cooked seafood, add at this time.

Heat the butter in a pan and add the onions, garlic, coriander seeds and turmeric or saffron and saute for two minutes. Add the drained, flaked fish, the cooked rice, one to two tablespoons of poaching liquid, and the eggs, shelled and cut into quarters.

Cover the pan and reheat for two minutes. Stir in the salt and freshly ground black pepper, the creme fraiche and sliced red chilli, if using.

Pile into a serving dish, add sprigs of parsley and serve hot. Triangles of fresh hot toast make a pleasant accompaniment.

DOLMADES

This vegetarian version of the classic dish is from the Ionian island of Zante, where dried fruits are produced in quantity. Serve the dolmades as a starter - as part of a mixed meze with feta, olives and pickled chillies, for example - and always with a bowl of authentic thick Greek yoghurt.

Makes about 45-55, serves 6-8

250g/9oz fresh vine leaves, or preserved vine leaves, drained (about 50-60)

250g/9oz onions, quartered and finely sliced

125g/412oz spring onions or baby leeks, trimmed and finely sliced

1 large bunch of fresh herbs, chopped

150ml/5fl oz extra-virgin olive oil

150g/5oz white long-grain rice, soaked briefly in cold water

50g/112oz currants

25g/34oz pine nuts

2 lemons

600-700ml/20-24fl oz boiling vegetable stock

2 teaspoons salt

freshly ground black pepper

To serve:

1 tub Greek yoghurt, about 250ml/8fl oz

2 lemons, cut into wedges

If using brine-preserved leaves, leave them in a colander under running cold water until the sink is half full. Agitate them, then leave to drain. If using fresh leaves, blanch five to six at a time for about one minute in a large pan of boiling salted water. Rinse in cold water and drain in a colander.

Mix the onions and spring onions or leeks with the herbs, half the oil and the drained rice. Season to taste. Stir in the currants, nuts and juice of a lemon. Put a heaped teaspoon of filling at the stalk end of each leaf. Roll this end then the side flaps towards the centre, neatly but not too tightly. Roll up, keeping the seam beneath, leaving room for expansion. Continue until the filling has been used.

Put half the remaining leaves over the base of a large pan, flameproof casserole or frying pan, overlapping each leaf. Pack in the dolmades in concentric circles.

Cover with the remaining leaves and a flat, heatproof plate. Pour in boiling stock until just covered, add the salt, then bring to the boil, cover, reduce the heat and simmer for about 45 to 55 minutes or until rice is sticky, swollen and tender. Leave to stand undisturbed for 10 minutes. Drain if necessary. Serve hot or warm, but not chilled. Drizzle with the remaining oil and serve with yoghurt and lemon wedges.

LAMB BIRYANI

An elegant culinary result of Moghul rule in India. Because the lamb must first be cooked until tender (and the stock used to cook the rice), this stage can be done well in advance, even the day before. Indian cooks always cut their onions into wedges lengthways, a method that produces pretty shapes and good caramelized edges, and is also worth using in western- style dishes. Serve this dish with accompaniments such as a spicy sambal or mango chutney.

Serves 4

2 whole green chillies, pierced

1kg/214lb boneless leg of lamb

750ml/24fl oz water or stock

1 bunch of coriander stems

5cm/2 inch piece root ginger, sliced

2 cinnamon sticks, crushed

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

125g/1lb 4oz clarified butter or ghee

4 onions, sliced into wedges

black seeds from 2 teaspoons green cardamom pods, crushed

1 teaspoon cloves

12 teaspoon ground turmeric

2 teaspoons cumin seeds, crushed

2 teaspoons coriander seeds

2 red or yellow peppers, quartered, deseeded and cored

75g/212oz cauliflower florets

175g/6oz courgettes

300g/10oz white basmati rice

4 garlic cloves, finely sliced

1 large pinch of saffron threads

75g/212oz shelled pistachio nuts

1 large bunch of coriander

Place the five first ingredients and one of the crushed cinnamon sticks in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil, cover and reduce heat to simmer. Cook for one-and-a-quarter to one-and-a-half hours until the lamb is very tender. Remove and cube the lamb. Measure 600ml (20fl oz) of stock.

Heat the butter or ghee in a pan and fry the onion for two to three minutes until golden. Add the remaining spices and fry over a moderate heat until the seeds begin to pop. Remove the onions with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add the pepper, cauliflower and courgette pieces to the pan and fry for one to two minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon. Add the rice and garlic. Stir over moderate heat for two minutes, until well coated with butter and spices.

Transfer the rice mixture to a large saucepan, then add layers of the onion, lamb and spiced vegetables. Pour in the remaining lamb stock, return to the boil and then reduce to a gentle simmer.

Sprinkle in the saffron threads, cover the pan with a lid and cook for 15 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed. Blanch the pistachios, then add to the pan with the sprigs of coriander.

Cover with a lid and turn off heat. Cover the saucepan with a cloth, then let stand, covered, for 10 minutes on top of the stove. Alternatively, put the pan in a preheated oven at 180C/350F/Gas 4 for 10 minutes. Serve with chutneys and a raita.

STUFFED VEGETABLES

Persian seasonings are fascinating and refreshing. This dish has a spicing mixture which hinges on pepper, cinnamon and mint (known as nano dok), together with turmeric, cumin and sumak, red-brown souring powder. Dried barberries or dried sour cherries can be difficult to find, so dried cranberries could be used instead.

However, all these ingredients are available in Middle-Eastern foodstores, Iranian grocers, specialist delis and the more enlightened supermarkets. Both short- and long-grain white rice (basmati is a favourite) work well in this homely, but delicious vegetable dish.

Serves 4

4 large beefsteak tomatoes, with the top sliced off and reserved

4 large, peppers with stems

2 tablespoons butter, ghee or clarified butter

2 garlic cloves, chopped

2 onions, chopped

250g/9oz twice-minced lamb

2 cinnamon sticks, crushed

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon cumin seeds, crushed

1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

1 teaspoon sumak (optional)

50g/112oz dried sour cherries, barberries or cranberries

100g/312oz white long-grain rice (eg basmati)

100g/312oz bulgar (burghul or cracked) wheat

750ml/24fl oz lamb or chicken stock

12 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons of fresh sliced mint or 2 teaspoons dried mint

To serve (optional):

8 sprigs of mint

250g/9oz sheep's- or goats'-milk yoghurt

pitta or other Middle-Eastern flatbread

Scoop the tomato pulp and seeds into a blender. Halve the peppers, remove and discard the seeds and membranes. Roast the vegetable shells in a preheated oven at 200C/400F/Gas 6 for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile heat the ghee or butter in a heavy-based saucepan and saute the garlic, onions, minced lamb, cinnamon sticks, turmeric, cumin, pepper and sumak, if using, for five to six minutes over high heat, stirring regularly.

Whiz the tomato pulp and seeds in a blender, and add to the saucepan with the fruit, rice, bulgar wheat, mint and 600ml (20fl oz) of the prepared stock. Season with salt. Return to the boil, cover, then simmer for 10 minutes.

Spoon the mixture into the vegetable shells and spoon one tablespoon of reserved stock over each. Set the tops back on the tomatoes. Cover the dish with a double layer of foil and return to the oven.

Reduce the oven heat to 180C/350F/Gas 5 and cook for about 40 to 45 minutes or until the rice is plumped up, all liquid is absorbed and the vegetables smell sweetly aromatic.

Serve hot with a spoonful of yoghurt on top if liked (remove the tops of the tomatoes first then replace at an angle). Sprinkle with fresh or dried mint and serve with sprigs of mint and flatbreads to mop up the juices.

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