Probably the biggest sin for a Caribbean cook is to make boring rice. Caribbean cooks have, of course, a number of rightly famous and delicious rice recipes (red beans and rice, dirty rice, congo beans and rice and, of course, the inimitable Haitian riz djondjon to name but a few). Their biggest “hidden talent”, in my opinion, is to make absolutely amazing “plain” rice, so tasty that you’d happily eat just the rice by itself. In retrospect, this is a crucial skill in a poor country, when many times there isn’t a whole lot else to “go with” the rice.
In my world view, people are either “Team Rice” or “Team Potato”. At the risk of pandering to stereotype, in my experience and travels I’ve found it absolutely true that the Irish have an almost irrational love of all things potato. And Caribbean peoples are highly skilled rice cooks and, ooooh yes, critics. Don’t ever serve them plain old white rice, mes amis, you won’t hear the last of it…ever. Due to my upbringing, I’m firmly on “Team Rice”. My mother, a Midwesterner of Irish/German heritage, is absolutely “Team Potato” in spite of many decades of living in “rice” dominant countries. I suppose one’s formative years play an important role.
I didn’t learn how to make rice until I left home and had moved to the States. I quickly tired of my own limited culinary skills so every time I came “home” for the holidays I was really motivated to learn so I could recreate my favorite dishes. I learned this recipe many decades ago and have been making various iterations of it ever since. It goes something like this:
The Best Plain Rice
Serves 4 people (or 2, if they really like their rice)
1 coffee cup full of rice (or whatever measuring vessel you choose, the size or volume is up to you). The type of rice you use is a personal choice but I find that Basmati rice works well.
Vegetable Oil or Coconut oil
2 or 3 cloves of good pungent garlic
2 teaspoons of vinegar
1 bouillon cube – vegetable bouillon if you want to keep it vegan/vegetarian, otherwise chicken bouillon is a good choice. Maggi cubes are, of course, the Caribbean cooks’ “gold standard”, if you are trying for “authenticity”. Or, if you’re wicked bougie, you can substitute the volume water for homemade chicken stock or maybe some of the expensive stock in a carton you bought at Whole Foods.
1 respectable heavy duty cooking pot with a heavy lid.
1 clean cotton dish towel
Optional but highly recommended:
2 or 3 heaping tablespoons of Epis/Sofrito (see here for my version):
1 whole Scotch Bonnet pepper
Sprigs of fresh time or rosemary
First, mes amis, put the rice in a fine mesh strainer and rinse it in the sink for a minute or 2. This gets rid of excess starch and any other impurities/hitchhikers. (This step is not optional – so pay attention, you). Set aside the rice.
Next, put a decent amount of oil in a decent size heavy pot or sauce pan. We are going to infuse this oil so you must put enough oil in the pot, a generous amount to cover the bottom, but don’t exaggerate. Put the burner to medium. As the oil in the pan heats up, give each garlic clove a decent whack with the flat of chef’s knife and throw them in the hot oil. Using a wooden spoon, move the garlic cloves around in the oil so they do not burn and, more importantly, infuse the oil. You don’t want the cloves to burn or blacken, but the exterior of the garlic cloves should look slightly crispy. This should take maybe 2 minutes. (At this point, you can add the optional epis/sofrito and mix it with the infused oil/garlic for another minute or so. I highly recommend you do this.)
Now add the coffee cup/jam jar/whatever of rice and mix it with the infused oil in the pot briefly so all the rice grains are covered by the oil. Turn the burner heat up to high and add your water, which would be 2 times the volume of the rice, so in this case, 2 coffee cups full of water. Next add 1 teaspoon of vinegar for each measure of water (so if two coffee cups of water, then 2 teaspoons vinegar). It doesn’t really matter which kind, but go ahead, I know you’re itching to use apple cider vinegar. You MUST add the vinegar – it will make your rice fluffier beyond your wildest, most feverish dreams. If you do this one simple step, you will heralded far and wide as a rice GENIUS, the Chosen One, etc.
As the pot comes to a boil, add the bouillon cube and stir the mixture sufficiently so that the infused oil and bouillon are diffused. Once you’ve achieved the boil, immediately reduce the heat by half, or maybe even just a tiny bit less than that.
At this point, you can add the optional Scotch Bonnet pepper. If you do add it, make sure it’s whole, with no rips or tears and preferably with the stem still on it. Now add the option thyme or rosemary. Now put the clean dish towel across the top of pot and and anchor it with the tight fitting lid. It’s important that lid is tight. In a pinch, put heavy stuff (within the bounds of reason and safety) on the lid to make sure it’s doing it’s job. Let the rice cook for roughly 10 minutes. Never less than 10 minutes, and possibly a little bit longer. Once you are familiar with the rice and the pot that you use, you’ll have a feel for how long it takes. DO NOT, under pain of excommunication from Team Rice, lift the lid before the rice is done.
That’s it, the rice is ready to eat. Lift the lid and carefully extract the optional scotch bonnet pepper and thyme sprigs, if you added them. Grab them by the stem, if possible, and chuck ’em in the trash. You will now serve the most flavorful and fluffy rice your friends and family have ever encountered. They will look at you differently. People will gravitate towards in a vain attempt to capture some of your indescribable je ne sais quoi mojo. Or maybe they’ll just compliment the rice. Either way, worth the effort.
** Nutritional Commentary
I get it, white rice is just sort of nutritionally barren carbs and the bouillon cube adds sodium, etc. However, I think the infused garlic oil not only makes this dish tastier, it helps make it healthier. If you add the Epis and/or Scotch Bonnet pepper, the tastiness and nutritional value goes up exponentially.