Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Rice Bowl Project: Coconut Curry Cauliflower

                         “We eat rice and worship our ancestors”-old Charleston saying

When Siddhartha (the future Buddha) set off on his journey seeking enlightenment, at one point he attempted a path of asceticism that led him to starvation and almost certain death. One day toward the end of this six-year journey he allowed his mind drift back to his boyhood. He felt a sense of pure joy and with it the realization he could not sustain this joy if he didn’t eat. And at that moment a young woman of the village appeared offering him a bowl of rice gruel, saying, “Here, eat.” His was a decision not toward death but toward living.
Humans love stories. Whether you choose to believe it or not isn’t important. It’s the lesson.
To eat is the daily reaffirming of living.
Rice is the most widely eaten staple food in the world, providing over one-fifth of human daily caloric intake. It’s humble. It’s everyday. Combined with a small amount vegetables and perhaps some type of protein, it forms a substantial meal, a meal for many throughout the world. Rice can also be elevated into a risotto or a paella or a jambalaya.  But it’s still rice.

As for rice in America, it certainly didn’t come over with we Northern Europeans; we had no rice culture.
The story they would like you to believe is that rice arrived in America, in South Carolina, in 1685 on board a ship from Madagascar that had put in for repairs. This is still the story put forth by the Carolina rice company today although most scholars have found little evidence for this claim.
Rice cultivation in the United States actually goes back to 1675 with Italian immigrants planting rice in South Carolina, followed by French Huguenots who brought with them rice from Spain. By 1710 it was the work of African slaves.
Plantation owners advertised for slaves specifically from West Africa who would be familiar with the planting and harvesting rice. It was a situation that worked for the plantation owners until the end of the Civil War. Emancipation put a slow end to rice farming which dwindled away and disappeared in South Carolina by the early 1900’s. The planting, harvesting, threshing, and hulling of the rice crop, all of which was done by hand, is hard work. It wasn’t hard to make the decision to walk away and on to a new life up North.

Rice was (and remains) an important part of Southern culture. It’s a cultural heritage. Rice had been its leading export for years and it formed an important part of Southern cuisine, from plain boiled and buttered rice or the every-Monday red beans and rice of New Orleans.
photo credit-UC Davis

Recently I set off on a project of rice-centered dinners, not as an attempt of self-imposed austerity but simply to use what I have on hand and using these limitations to allow myself to be inspired. While they are presented as recipes, they are open for personal interpretation, to your own inspiration if you will. Except for techniques, you can substitute ingredients. They need not be followed exactly as put forth. I know that I may have some ingredients on hand that you do not. That comes from my long association with cooking. For the recipes I have avoided buying too much of what I don’t have on hand already. This is the first of many.
Here. Eat.
                                      photo credit: Panyaden School, Chiang Mai, Thailand*

Coconut Curry Cauliflower
I had made this one night with chicken and decided to make it a second time sans chicken, using the remaining cauliflower. You could just as easily sauté some pieces of chicken breast and cut down on the amount of cauliflower but honesty, you won’t miss this chicken if you don’t.
I used a store-bought curry powder; I know this isn’t the typical approach of many Indian cooks. Even though I have most of the ingredients found in curry powder, a store bought blend is the easiest for most people to find and use. The heat level varies from blend to blend, so my measurement might not be the same as yours. I used pistachios but any other unsalted nut  (cashews, almonds, even peanuts) will work.

2 cups cauliflower florets, cut into pieces
½ onion, diced (about 2/3 cup)
½ medium red bell pepper, sliced lengthwise into ¼” thick strips
½ Tablespoon Minced garlic
½ Tablespoon fresh ginger, either grated or finely chopped
1 Tablespoon curry powder
1 cup coconut milk
2 cups cooked rice
¼ cup unsalted pistachios
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
salt and ground black pepper
olive oil, for cooking
1. Place a small sauté pan over medium-high heat. When warm, add the nuts and toast the nuts until lightly browned. Remove the pan from the heat and empty the nuts onto a plate to cool. Set aside.
2. Place a large sauté with ½ cup lightly salted water onto the stove over high heat. When the water comes to a boil, add the cauliflower and cook until the cauliflower just starts to become tender, about 2 to 3 minutes, depending on their size. Remove from heat, drain the cauliflower into a colander, and refresh under cold running water. Set aside.
3. Return the pan to the stove over medium-high heat. When hot, swirl in about 2 tablespoons olive oil into the pan. Add the onions and red bell pepper. Cook to begin softening the vegetables, about 3 to 4 minutes; if they take on a little color, it’s fine. Adjust heat as needed.
4. Add the garlic and ginger to the pan and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then stir the garlic/ginger into the peppers and onions. Push the vegetables aside and add the curry powder. Let the curry powder toast for a few seconds then mix it into the vegetables. Add the coconut milk and stir together. Return the cauliflower to the pan; if the coconut milk appears too thick, you can thin it with a little water. Season to taste with some salt and ground black pepper. Cover the pan, lower the heat and simmer gently until the cauliflower is tender.
5. While the vegetables are cooking, place the rice into a strainer over a pot of simmering water to steam; make sure the water level in the pot doesn’t touch the strainer.
6. To serve, add the nuts to the rice and stir together. Divide the rice between two plates. Divide the vegetables between the two plates, spooning the vegetables and sauce over the rice. Garnish each portion with some chopped cilantro and serve.

A Quick Rice Tutorial
Making rice is incredibly easy. As one of the world's basic foods, it has to be although some have difficulties with it so here is a quick tutorial.
First, if you're going to make rice, make more than you need so you will have leftover rice to use a day or two later. Rice is usually a 2:1 ratio, two parts water to one part rice (unless otherwise directed by the package directions). 1 cup of rice cooked in two cups of water will yield 4 cups of rice. You see why it feeds the world; so little makes so much.
I make brown rice varieties which take longer to cook. I always use a timer: as when I make risotto, the timer keeps track of the cooking so you don't have to. Lightly salt the boiling water, add the rice, stir, and cover the pot. Lower the heat to low so the rice gently simmers. Brown rice takes about 45 minutes to cook, so I set the timer for 35 minutes. After 35 minutes have passed, I check the rice. By tilting the pan, you can see how much water is left in the pan, which means additional cooking time. I usually let the rice cook for another five minutes, then check the rice again. By this time, the water should been absorbed. Turn off the heat and leave the rice covered to let the rice steam and absorb what little water is left. Do not stir the rice, in fact don't stir the rice at all while it's cooking. After the rice has sat for another ten minutes (or longer), gently fluff the rice with a fork. The rice should separate into individual grains. If it doesn't, gently heat the rice for a few more minutes or put the rice into a strainer and steam the rice over a pot of simmering water to finish.

*The Panyaden School in North Thailand integrates Buddhist values with its modern curriculum. To read about their rice planting adventure:

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