Rice: it should be so simple.

Infuriatingly Enigmatic Puerto Rican White Rice

The dinner menu should ideally vary as much as a debutante’s wardrobe, with no single item making more than one appearance over the course of a week. While my ongoing attempt to embody this principal provides me with a sense of abstract superiority and adds a flavor of Russian Roulette to Mr. P’s anticipatory ride home, a particular basic food group strikes fear into my heart once every seven days: starch. The seven weekly starches are as follows: baking potatoes, red potatoes, pasta, fresh bread, noodles, packet rice, white rice. Yes, I just admitted that I buy Rice-a-Roni, Near East, etc. I can hardly tolerate them, but Billy-the-Kid loves the rice pilaf and broccoli/cheese varieties, so I take one for Team Peña every now and then.

The white rice, however, sets me on edge like no other culinary undertaking, not even the crown roast of lamb of the spring of 2007 or the duck a l’orange the following summer. White rice is done Puerto Rican style in Mr. P’s casa; when we first lived together in 2000, I was unpacking groceries one day when I noticed him standing frozen and silent, staring in bewilderment at a package of Uncle Ben’s, before slowly lifting his head toward me with eyes full of pity and second thoughts. A few hours later, I was introduced to Goya’s Canilla Brand Extra Long Grain Rice, “a favorite for generations and a staple in the Hispanic diet…known for its role as a must-have for many classic meals.” I’d write this off as generic marketing tripe, except Canilla has, in fact, been used for generations in Mr. P’s family. The passing down of brands is evidently more continental than I would have expected.

The most maddening aspect of preparing Puerto Rican white rice (it’s probably identical to those of a few other countries, but I’m not married into their cuisines) is that anyone raised on it can detect minute imperfections, which just don’t register on an outsider’s palate, regardless of how many years you invest practicing. The best a newcomer can hope to achieve is a 75% success rate after 5 years of at least monthly practice. My resident Puerto Rican describes the ideal white rice as “unsplit, separate and well-defined grains (not mushy or sticky), with just enough salt and oil so that you don’t taste them, but you’d miss them if they weren’t there.” I’ve included photos because describing the desired final appearance is more than I have left this late in the evening (note that the top of the rice has been fluffed with a fork – when you take the lid off it will be flat, fluffing should be performed immediately before serving).

3 1/2 C cold water
2 C Canilla Brand Extra Long Grain White Rice
1/3 C vegetable oil
1 Tbsp salt

The proper vessel for cooking this would be a caldero, a cast aluminum pot with a tight lid. Something horrible happened to mine a few years ago and I haven’t replaced it, so I’m forced to make due with an all-purpose medium aluminum pot with a slightly thinner surface. You don’t need to make any adjustments to the recipe depending on your vessel, just keep in mind that the caldero is basically one of the ingredients, and you’ll be greatly rewarded (75% of the time, at best) if you invest a few dollars in one at your supermarket. Seriously, it’s a shockingly inexpensive cookware item.

Heat the water in your pot over high. Add the salt and oil and wait for it to come to a rolling boil. Add the rice, and stir once. That means one rotation of the spoon around the pot. Believe me, I understand. As soon as the water is boiling again, turn the heat down to low-low, but not the “warm” setting, if your burner has one, and cover the pot. Leave it alone. You might be inclined to give it a good stir or two — don’t do it. Let it cook until you don’t see any water when you lift the lid, not even any starchy goo. Skim a small spoonful off the top and nibble a few grains between your front teeth – if they exhibit any crunch or snap whatsoever, the rice is still raw, and it needs to be cooked until there’s no hint of al dente. Once the rice is done, leave the heat on and remove the cover. Let it cook for a few more minutes to dry out some of the condensation before serving.

If your first attempt is catastrophic, you might be inclined to give up and move on, and I really can’t blame you after washing my hands of risotto; I can’t even bring myself to link to the posts. But, if you’re now intrigued by the challenge, I’ll advise you as to the probable culprit in what I assume turned out to be sticky, al dente mush. The heat has to be low enough so that the the insides of the grains have enough time to cook, but not so low that the water temperature drops below a simmer, resulting in a warm, starchy bath. It’s difficult to tell once the water level drops out of sight but hasn’t yet completely evaporated, which is why the nibble-test is crucial.

After living with the arroz-monkey on my back for almost a decade, I still get smacked with a yearly train-wreck when I least expect it, so don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it, more or less, eventually.

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