I have a huge collection of cookbooks that I’ve collected over the years. Some are well worn and others look brand new, but all of them have been read and loved. Yes, I’m one of that rare breed that actually reads cookbooks cover-to-cover like a novel. One day, after being told by a friend I was in a cooking rut, I went searching for new recipes for an upcoming party. When I am deciding on menu items I think about the ingredients and how complementary they are to each other, the colors and how they will look on the plate, the nutritional value of each component, is there an array of textures, and above all the tastes – do I have a nice blend of flavors. The human tongue is sensitive to 4 basic tastes, sweet, sour (acidic), bitter, and salt. Different areas of the tongue respond to different tastes. The front it sensitive to sweet, the sides to sour, the front and sides to salt, and the back to bitter. Try a fun experiment, keeping your tongue still place some salt right in the middle. Unless your saliva dissolves and disperses it, you can’t taste it at all. Likewise, an ingredient that has multiple compounds in it will taste differently depending on what part of the tongue it stimulates. For example, on the tip of the tongue saccharin tastes sweet, but at the back of the tongue it tastes bitter.
All the senses of the body are involved when we eat, taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound, and the best dining experience is when all of them are involved. We obviously think about the taste first when we think of food, but what about when you have a cold and can’t smell it? Food isn’t very appetizing without the wafting aromas. And when we bite into a crisp apple, the crunch is as important as the taste. It just wouldn’t be the same experience if there was no sound! If you serve nothing but pureed food, it’s boring. Add some crunchy lettuce, a rough wild grain, and a chewy piece of bread and suddenly it is texturally interesting. It is said we eat with our eyes first. How a plate looks is very important to the overall satisfaction with the meal. You should have a variety of colors which guarantees you have a lot of nutrients. My mother used to say if the plate is “pretty” it will be healthy for you!
When my friend challenged me to serve something new at the next party, I wanted an interesting side dish to go with the pan-seared chicken I had chosen as the main course. I love wild rice with chicken. I turned to “The New York Times Cookbook” by Craig Claiborne, an amazing collection of recipes from the former editor of the New York Time’s Dining and Wine Section. (Their website is a great source of recipes too: http://www.nytimes.com/pages/dining/index.html) Like the venerable “Joy of Cooking”, and more recently Mark Bittman’s award winning “How To Cook Everything”, it is a reference book that should be in every cook’s collections. No matter what you’re thinking of cooking, there are most likely recipes to inspire you. World cuisines, ingredients, techniques, and courses are covered in depth. From family dinners to the fanciest of dinner parties, you’ll find recipes you will love. I found today’s recipe and have been making it for my family, friends, and catered events ever since.
Did you know that wild rice is not rice at all but grass? It grows in areas of shallow water, so prevalent in the state of Minnesota that it is the official state grain. Surprisingly the Central Valley of California is the other main producer of wild rice. It is naturally gluten-free and high in protein, potassium, B-complex vitamins, and dietary fiber. Complex carbohydrates take longer for the body to digest keeping you feeling full longer and don’t spike your blood sugar. Delicious and good for you, what more could you ask for! Adding sautéed vegetables adds even more nutrients and textures to the dish as well as bright colors. Try a blend the next time you’re thinking of serving rice for dinner. You may find that it is so much more interesting and delicious than plain white rice that you’ll never go back!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
Using a wild rice blend with brown or other rice types is a great way to save some money (wild rice is expensive on its own) and have a variety of textures in one dish. Store brown and wild rice in airtight containers in the refrigerator. Unlike white rice, which can be stored at room temperature for many years, brown and wild rice have natural oils in the outer layers that can spoil and turn rancid. Always smell rice before cooking and throw it away if it doesn’t smell good.
Kitchen Skill: Toasting Nuts
Why: To enhance the natural flavor of the nuts.
How: You can toast nuts two ways, in the oven or on the stove. The oven gives a more even toasting without the need for stirring, but can burn if you aren’t watching carefully. In a skillet, you can watch them more closely, but they need a lot of attention because they turn from perfectly toasted to burned and inedible in a second. Make sure nuts are shelled and all similarly sized (they cook more evenly.) Bake in the oven at 350°F for about 8 to 10 minutes, shaking the baking sheet halfway through. All ovens vary, so check the nuts often. Or toast them in a skillet over medium-high heat, stirring constantly for 5 to 7 minutes. As soon as they start to turn brown, remove from the heat and let the residual heat of the pan finish toasting them.
- 1 tbsp butter
- 2 scallions, white part finely chopped, green part sliced diagonally
- 1 cup wild rice, well rinsed (or a blend of wild and brown rice)
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 cups chicken broth (or use salted water for vegetarian)
- 2 tbsp oil
- 3 green onions (trim off tough ends first and discard, then chop into 1/2-inch pieces)
- 1/4 lb snow peas, strings removed, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 4 large mushrooms, thickly sliced
- 1 can sliced water chestnuts, drained
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp pepper
- 1/4 cup toasted sliced almonds
- Melt butter in large pan. Sauté chopped whites of onions in butter until tender. Add rice, salt, and broth. Bring to a boil. Stir once and reduce heat. Cover and simmer 35 minutes until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender, or according to package directions. Remove from heat and let sit undisturbed, uncovered.
- Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add snow peas and water chestnuts. Cook, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes. Add green onion tops and mushrooms. Sauté only until mushrooms are tender but not mushy and most of liquid has evaporated. Transfer rice to a large bowl and fluff with two forks to separate grains.
- Toss vegetables with rice, add salt and pepper to taste, and transfer to an ovenproof serving dish. Sprinkle top with toasted almonds. Keep warm in a slow oven until ready to serve.
- Yield: about 4 servings