Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Rice cookers

In my previous post, I talked about how to do a basic stir-fry.  If you like Asian food, the one essential kitchen appliance is an automatic rice cooker.  If you don't have one, you are missing out on the joys of quick and easy rice!  Rice cookers allow you to cook rice without once checking on the process.  They never boil over; your rice is never sticky, and the cooker can keep the rice warm for several hours.
Rice cookers were invented by the Japanese, and the best and most expensive ones are made in Japan.  Sanyo, Panasonic and Zojirushi (maker of automatic hot water kettles and thermoses) are some brands.  These days, they all feature non-stick pans, eliminating the need to soak the pan overnight in cold water before washing.  Many of them also have removable steamer trays, which enable you to put an inch of water in the bottom of the pan, then the tray, and then vegetables or other foods on top.  I've never used my rice cooker for anything other than rice, but I do know that people steam other foods in them.  The cheaper rice cookers are made in China or Korea, and they are perfectly serviceable.  Obviously, the best place to look for rice cookers is an Asian supermarket.  In San Francisco, there is a market at 711 Clement Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues) called the New May Wah.  Big selection of housewares there.
To make rice in a cooker, first decide what type of rice you like.  Despite having grown up in Japan, I really don't like short-grain, sticky rice.  I prefer long-grain California-grown white rice, but you might like the short-grain type.  Each rice cooker comes with a little plastic measuring cup.  Use this as a general rule of thumb: for enough rice for 2 people with leftovers, measure 2 cups of dry rice.  Rinse in cold water and drain ( I just use my hand to let the water flow out of the pan).  Add 2 1/2 cups of cold water, or, if you prefer, chicken stock to the rinsed rice. In general, use 1/2 cup more water than rice, so 3 cups rice = 3 1/2 cups water, 4 cups rice = 4 1/2 cups water, etc. Plug your rice cooker in, and turn it on!  It only takes about 20 minutes to cook that quantity of white rice, but brown rice takes at least 45 minutes.
Once you've used a rice cooker, you'll never go back to cooking rice on top of the stove!  You can walk away and do other things while the rice is cooking - no peeking until it is done.  Once the button pops off, lift the lid of the cooker, and, using the paddle provided, stir up the cooked rice.  Cover the pan again (make sure the 'keep warm' light is on), and your rice will keep hot until you are ready.

My basic stir-fry recipe

Chicken with Thai Basil and bak choy

Most nights, I'm just cooking for my daughter and myself, so I'm looking for something fast and healthy.  Anything stir-fried fits the bill since I can cook the meal in one pan plus my rice cooker.
Here's what I made yesterday, when I happened upon a lovely bunch of Thai basil.  For those of you who haven't tasted Thai basil, it's less sweet than your garden-variety basil.  The leaves are dark green, tinged with purple.  I wouldn't pair it with tomatoes, but it is delicious with chicken.
For 2 people:
one small - medium white onion, diced
a small chunk of fresh ginger, peeled and diced
a bunch of Thai basil - leaves only: strip the leaves off the stem, wash and spin dry.
another green vegetable of your choosing:  I used baby bak choy (Chinese baby cabbage), but asparagus  or snow peas would be nice as well.
Optional, if you like spicy:  a small jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely minced.
boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into strips, or, if you're lazy as I was last night,chunks.
Alternatively, you can use pork.
dry sherry
soy sauce:  I prefer to use Japanese soy sauce, NOT Kikkoman.  Here in the Bay Area, there are loads of Asian markets that stock many varieties of soy sauce (shoyu, in Japanese).  I use Yamasa "less salt" shoyu.
peanut or grapeseed oil for the pan.

It helps to have a wok to do stir-frying.  The volume of the vegetables can be quite large, and a regular frying or saute pan's sides are just too shallow to accomodate the vegetables.  I have a great non-stick pan from Atlas that I got at The Perfect Edge in San Mateo years ago.

In the wok, bring some water to a boil.  Blanch your green vegetable (which you have cut into smaller pieces) in lightly-salted water for a minute or two, then shock it in ice water and drain while you prepare the rest of the dish.
Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil until just below the smoking point, then add the diced onion and saute until light brown.  Then add your meat and the ginger, and saute until the chicken is well-browned on all sides (2 minutes or so).
Now add the Thai basil leaves and stir and toss until they begin to wilt. Add the other vegetable and stir well to reheat.
Finally, add some sherry (or chicken stock if you cannot use alcohol) to the pan and bring it to a boil.  Lastly, season the dish with a splash of soy sauce & some freshly ground pepper.
Place in a heated bowl and serve with white or brown rice.