Variety is the spice of rice

PART 3: RICES OF THE WORLD: In the final part of our series, Michael Bateman introduces the less familiar facets of rice. From crispy crackers and moreish noodles, to tangy vinegars and wines, rice is the basis of a multitude of foodstuffs which we explore via recipes from Clare Ferguson's inspirational book

Alternatives to white rice are plentiful. Not only are there countless other varieties but also rice derivatives which take all shapes and forms.

Brown rice, black rice (also known as wild rice) and red rice (from the Camargue) are grains which have not been hulled or polished, making for a chewy texture. All three need a longer cooking time than regular white, polished rice. Both wild and Camargue rices are technically water-grasses. They are less stodgy than brown rice and go well with gamey foods.

Rice is also the base of many noodle and vermicelli products in the Far East, making a lighter, more digestible alternative to wheat-flour noodles. Below are recipes for savoury dishes from Thailand and China.

Finally, we recognise the role of rice as a dessert ingredient. In India, sweetened with condensed milk from long, slow simmering, it is the main component of the famous kheer. Ground rice is also used in more delicate puddings, such as an almond rice custard. Lastly, there is a shortbread which depends on rice flour to provide extra crispness.

CAMARGUE RICE AND DUCK BREAST

Red rice from the Camargue in the south of France is a rogue strain with a pretty red-brown colour. A wholegrain rice that is chewy and interesting, it seems destined to become a new and fashionable ingredient. Similar red rice strains grow in other areas, such as India and the American South.

Serves 4

4 magrets de canard (Barbary duck breast portions), about 1kg/214lb total

4 garlic cloves, crushed

4 sprigs French tarragon, scissor-snipped, and 4 sprigs, to serve

2 tablespoons clear, scented honey

2 teaspoons green peppercorns, crushed

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

8 tablespoons creme fraiche, to serve

For the spicy red Camargue rice:

400g/14oz red Camargue long-grain rice (or American red rice)

750ml/24fl oz boiling duck, chicken or pork stock

For the onion confit:

2 red onions, thinly sliced, blanched briefly in boiling water and dried

4 tablespoons redcurrant, gooseberry or guava jelly

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Rub the duck with the garlic, snipped tarragon, honey and peppercorns. Marinate in a non-reactive dish for 15 minutes. Put the rice in a medium, heavy-based pan cover with the stock, return to the boil, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

To make the onion confit, put the sliced and blanched onions in a pan with the jelly and vinegar, and stir until the jelly has dissolved and a glaze forms. Set aside.

Oil and preheat a cast-iron grill pan or char-grill. When the rice is almost cooked and the stock almost absorbed, set the four magrets, skin sides down, on the grill. Drizzle over the remaining oil. Cook, pressing down firmly with a fish slice or spatula for eight to 10 minutes.

The duck should be warmed through but the surface should remain rosy. Put the cooked breasts on top of the cooked rice and pour over the remaining marinade. Cover pan and cook for a further 10 minutes over a low heat. Remove the magrets and set aside to rest. Stir most of the onion confit into the rice (drained, if necessary).

To serve, spoon the rice on to heated plates. Slice the breasts and arrange on top of the rice, add generous spoonfuls of very cold creme fraiche, a sprig of tarragon and a trickle of the onion confit.

THAI NOODLES

Mee krob is a classic Thai dish that ideally requires a large wok, a pair of tongs and a ventilator fan. But care, optimism and an open window will do - and don't try to cook more than one skein of noodles at a time. Buy the noodles, vinegar, fish sauce, tom yam stock cubes and tiny, fiercely hot, bird's-eye chillies from an Asian grocer.

Serves 4-6

250g/9oz fine rice vermicelli noodles

groundnut oil, for deep-frying

3 eggs, beaten

100-125g/312oz-4oz castor sugar

6 tablespoons rice vinegar

4 tablespoons light soy sauce

4 tablespoons Thai fish sauce

100ml/312fl oz spicy stock, such as stock made from tom yam stock cubes

1 tablespoon mild paprika

2 teaspoons coriander seeds, crushed

250g/9oz uncooked prawns, shelled and deveined

4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts, finely sliced

175g/6oz fresh bean sprouts

6 spring onions, sliced lengthways

3-4 bird's-eye chillies, sliced crossways

1 bunch of fresh coriander, chopped

Separate the layered skeins of noodles without breaking them. Cook one skein at a time. Pour about 5cm (2in) groundnut oil into a large wok and heat to 190C/375F, or until one strand puffs up immediately. Put crumpled kitchen paper on a tray, ready for draining the fried noodles. Using tongs, add a skein of noodles to the very hot oil. Cook for 10 to 15 seconds until puffed up and slightly browned, then turn it over carefully with tongs. Cook the second side, then set it on the kitchen paper. Repeat until all the noodles have been cooked. If there is any dark debris in the oil, pour all the oil through a large metal sieve placed over a heatproof bowl and return the oil to the wok. Reheat and continue cooking. Pour out the hot oil, return the cooked noodles to the empty wok, and keep them warm.

Heat a small pan, add a tablespoon of hot oil, then half the eggs. Cook the omelette briefly on both sides. Remove and repeat with the remaining mixture. Roll up the omelettes, slice into strips and set aside.

Wipe out the pan. Add the sugar, vinegar, soy and fish sauces, stock, paprika and coriander. Heat, stirring, until syrupy. Add the prawns and poach until firm. Remove and set aside. Cook the chicken in the same way. Increase the heat, add the beansprouts, spring onions, omelette and prawns. Toss gently. Tip the mixture over the hot noodles in the large wok. Turn the noodles to coat, breaking them as little as possible. Add the chillies and coriander, and serve hot.

RICE STICKS WITH SZECHUAN-STYLE SAUCE

Rice sticks are dried noodles packed in large skeins. The noodles are about 5mm (14in) wide, and are a brilliant larder standby item - very versatile and easy to prepare. Szechuan peppercorns are spicy, rather than hot. They are available from Chinese food stores or specialist spice merchants.

Serves 4

150ml/5fl oz groundnut oil

125g/4oz shelled raw peanuts

2 teaspoons Szechuan peppercorns

1 small onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

300ml/10fl oz freshly made, strong, hot China tea, or green tea

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

1-2 tablespoons dark sesame oil

5cm/2in fresh root ginger, peeled and finely sliced

2 teaspoons mild paprika

3-4 dried bird's-eye chillies, crumbled

juice of 1 lemon

For the rice stick salad:

250g/9oz celery stalks

2 cooked chicken breasts

175g/6oz mangetout

250g/9oz carrots, finely sliced

6-8 green lettuce leaves

250g/9oz dried rice stick noodles

1 bunch of fresh coriander leaves, torn

Heat the oil in a wok to about 190C/375F, or until a cube of bread browns in 40 seconds. Add the peanuts and Szechuan peppercorns and cook, stirring, for one-and-a-half minutes. Empty the pan into a metal sieve set over a heatproof bowl. (This prevents the nuts overcooking and scorching.)

Put the contents of the sieve, two tablespoons of the cooking oil, the onion, garlic and half the tea into a food processor. Whiz to a paste. Add remaining tea, soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, paprika, chillies and lemon juice and whiz to make a sauce.

Remove the leaves from the celery and reserve. Pull the cooked chicken into shreds, or cut into cubes, and finely slice the mangetout, carrots, celery stalks and lettuce. Put the chicken and vegetables in a pan with salted boiling water. Cook for two minutes, drain and discard the liquid. Meanwhile, pour boiling water over the noodles and leave to "cook" for three to four minutes or until white and firm. Drain. Just before serving, reheat by pouring over boiling water, then drain quickly and add to the other ingredients.

Put the rice stick noodles in a bowl, add the vegetables, chicken and sauce and toss well. Scatter with the torn coriander and celery leaves and serve.

SHORTBREAD

Rice flour is used here with an equal quantity of plain flour, giving a delicate crispness to these little biscuits. They are delicious with coffee or mint tea, or served with ice-creams, custards or sorbets. Edible rice paper (another rice product) is often used in cooking biscuits or sweets.

Makes 32

250g/9oz salted butter, at room temperature

1 teaspoon black cardamom seeds (from 8-10 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed)

125g/412oz castor sugar

150g/5oz rice flour

150g/5oz plain flour

25g/34oz blanched, skinned pistachios, finely slivered or chopped

14 teaspoon salt

14 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon double strength rosewater or almond essence

2-3 sheets rice paper (optional)

2 teaspoons blanched pistachios, slivered, to decorate

Cut the butter into small pieces, and put in a food processor with the black cardamom seeds. Work them together in small bursts, gradually adding the sugar until the mixture becomes light and fluffy.

Mix the rice and plain flours with the ground pistachios, salt and baking powder. Add a quarter of this mixture at a time down the feed tube, using the pulse button, until a soft, crumbly dough results. Alter-natively, use a bowl and whisk.

Turn out the dough on a floured work surface and mix in the rosewater by hand. Put the dough on a sheet of Teflon fabric, Bakewell paper or rice paper, and pat out into a rectangle about 25 by 20cm (11 by 9in). Using a knife, mark into 32 evenly sized rectangles, about 6 by 2.5cm (3 by 1in) each. Prick all over with a fork.

Sprinkle a few slivers of pistachio nuts over each biscuit, then bake in a preheated oven at 120C/250F/Gas 12 for one hour or until pale gold, crisp but not deep brown. Remove from the oven and separate each biscuit, cutting cleanly through the rice paper as well, if used. Cool biscuits on a wire rack and, when completely cold, store in an airtight container.

ALMOND RICE CUSTARD

Traditionally this dish used almond "milk" obtained from grinding blanched almonds, infusing them in liquid, then squeezing out their liquid in the dish. The almonds were then discarded. Almonds are expensive, so Clare Ferguson infuses them, but does not discard them. This gives a slightly grittier, grainier version, but delicious nonetheless.

Some people loathe the marzipan taste of almond essence, so you can use Noyau or Amaretto liqueur instead.

Serves 4-6

750ml/24fl oz milk

100g/4oz very fresh ground almonds

1 large pinch of salt

50g/2oz ground rice

150ml/5fl oz single cream

75g/212oz castor sugar

18-14 teaspoon almond essence or 2-3 teaspoons Noyau liqueur

To serve:

1 ripe pomegranate, or 175g/6oz soft berries such as blackberries, mulberries, red or white currants

25g/34oz pistachio nuts or toasted almond flakes (optional)

15g/12oz icing sugar (optional)

Boil 250ml (8fl oz) of the milk until frothing, pour on to the ground almonds, stir well, then pour the mixture into a blender or food processor. Whiz for 10 seconds.

Mix the salt, ground rice and cream. Heat the remaining milk until frothing. Pour on to the ground rice and cream mixture, then whisk. Return to the pan, bring to the boil, then simmer, stirring, for two to three minutes or until thickened. Add the unstrained almond-milk mixture, and the sugar.

Continue cooking and stirring briefly, then remove from the heat. Cool the custard over iced water. When almost cold, stir in the almond essence or liqueur to taste. Pour into four to six small dishes. Chill.

If using a pomegranate, break it open, remove the clumps of red seeds and scatter a pile of them in the centre of each bowl. If using soft berries, remove the stems and place in the same way.

Sprinkle with almonds and dust with icing sugar, if using. Serve warm, cool or chilled: it thickens more on standing. Crisp biscuits would also make a suitable accompaniment to this dish.

KHEER

Best-known of India's superb condensed milk puddings is kheer, though regional versions have other names. Holy texts tell of these dishes being offered to the gods. Cardamom, pistachio nuts, rose or almond essence and Indian kewra water (made from pandanus leaves) may also be added, as well as sugar in various forms. Varak - real silver, hand-beaten into paper-fine sheets - is available from Asian delicatessens or specialist grocers. It adds drama to this already exotic and sumptuous dish which is wonderful served warm, cool or chilled.

Serves 4

40g/112oz butter ghee or unsalted butter

40g/112oz white basmati rice, washed, drained and air-dried

2 fresh bayleaves, crushed

2 litres/4 pints full-cream milk

100g/4oz light muscovado sugar

75g/212oz currants or raisins

12 green cardamom pods, crushed, black seeds removed, pods discarded

25g/1oz toasted pine nuts

1-2 sheets thin silver foil ('varak') (optional, for special occasions)

Heat the butter ghee or butter over mod- erate heat in a large, wide, heavy-based, preferably non-stick five-litre saucepan.

Stir-fry the rice until it darkens to pale gold. Add the bayleaves and milk. Increase the heat to high and, stirring constantly, bring to a frothing boil (about 10 to 12 minutes). Reduce the heat slightly.

Let the milk boil for another 35 to 40 minutes, until reduced to about half the original volume. Add sugar, currants and cardamom, and continue to cook on a low heat, stirring often, for another 15 to 20 minutes, until reduced to about a half to a quarter of its original volume. Stir and cool over iced water, then chill.

Decorate with nuts and varak, if using, lifting the foil on its attached tissue paper, inverting it over the pudding, then pulling off the amount needed using a fine brush. The pieces do not need to look immaculate - fragments look good.

THE MANY FACES OF RICE

GROUND RICE Used to make desserts, batters, crisp doughs. Useful as a thickener, but glutinous rice flour is better for fine biscuits, batters and wrappers. Cooking: 50g (112oz) added to 600ml (20fl oz) of hot liquid cooks in about 10 to 15 minutes.

RICE FLOUR Fine flour used for thickening, and to give lightness to sauces, batters and doughs, such as in steamed buns and dim sum. Also used in Asian pasta making. Inexpensive and convenient.

FLAKED RICE Used for puddings and cereals; quick cooking and thickening. Cooking: 40g (114oz) cooked for 10 to 12 minutes in 600ml (20fl oz) hot milk, until thick and creamy.

RICE CRACKERS Proprietary snack food, low-calorie, gluten-free.

RICE PAPER Made from the fibres of several rice-like plants. Used under baked items to prevent sticking. When baking, use moderate oven heat. Brittle when dry.

JAPANESE HARUSAME NOODLE Dried hair-thin filaments, virtually translucent, made of rice flour (some made from potato or tapioca flour). Sold in skeins. Cooking: as for rice vermicelli noodles.

RICE VERMICELLI NOODLES, RICE STICKS Dry, translucent, rice flour pasta, looped into skeins. Range from very fine vermicelli to wide rice sticks about 1cm (12 inch) across. Packet cooking instructions are rarely accurate. Cooking: rehydrate in hand-hot or near-boiling water for five to 15 minutes (traditional method is a long soak in cold water). Drain and serve as is, or reheat. Steam-heat, poach, quickly stir-fry, deep fry or add to composite dishes.

VIETNAMESE RICE PAPER WRAPPERS Dried rice paper circles or segments. Eaten raw, steamed or wrapped around fillings, they must first be moistened with water. Deep-fried, they can also be served as crisps. Cooking: soften in hand-hot water, then prepare as for rice noodles.

SAKE (Japanese rice wine). Pale to deep gold. Sherry, diluted gin or vodka, dry vermouth or Chinese rice wine can be substituted. Use in batters, marinades, sauces. Refrigerate after opening.

MIRIN (sweetened rice wine). Pale yellow liquid, more diluted than sake. Used in cooked rice, dressings.

RICE VINEGAR Used in dressings, marinades, sauces, dips and rice dishes. Red is mellow, fruity (almost like balsamic vinegar) with a strong flavour. Clear white is sharp; yellow is mellow; black tastes caramelised. Japanese white rice vinegar is milder than Chinese.

BOOK OFFER

Readers of the Independent On Sunday Review may obtain Clare Ferguson's fully illustrated and comprehensive new book Rice, from Risotto to Sushi (with 50 recipes from the world of rice), which is to be published next week by Ryland Peters & Small (pounds l6.99), at the special discount price of pounds 14.99, including postage and packaging. To order the book, call Direct Cust-omer Services on 01256 302699, quoting reference number GLR202.

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