I find it hard to write about rice without using the word “versatile”. It’s overused, I know, but all the different kinds of rice and ways in which it can be cooked and eaten never cease to amaze me. I love it plain and steamed, as a sideshow. I love it possibly even more, however, when it is the show itself, with a full cast of other ingredients and absorbing the flavours with which it shares the pot. To showcase its versatility, here are two recipes, one sweet, the other savoury, one using short-grain and the other long-grain rice, plus a sharp salad to serve with all manner of rice dishes.
Italian rice cake
This is inspired by the sweet rice cakes so popular in northern Italy. In this version, Basque cheesecake meets rice pudding, in which a creamy, fragrant rice cake is soft set and scorched on top. It’s best served at room temperature, so if you’ve made it in advance and kept it in the fridge, take it out an hour or so before serving, so it’s not chilled.
Prep 10 min
Cook 1 hr 5 min
Cool 2 hr 30 min
1 litre whole milk
200ml double cream
200g arborio rice
2 vanilla pods, split, seeds scraped out and pods reserved
2 lemons, skin finely shaved to get 10 strips
1 small orange, skin finely shaved to get 4 strips
175g caster sugar
Butter, for greasing
5 eggs, 2 whole, the rest separated to get 3 yolks (save the whites for another use – I’ll be doing a column on using up egg whites next month, so watch this space)
2 tsp tapioca starch
Combine the first six ingredients in a large saucepan, add 110g sugar and a third of a teaspoon of salt, and bring to a simmer on medium-high heat, stirring every now and then. As soon as it starts to simmer, turn down the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring regularly, for 25 minutes, until the rice is cooked and the milk is thick and creamy. It will seem as if there is still a lot of liquid, but the rice will continue to absorb it as it cools. Leave the rice to cool, stirring occasionally, for about an hour, until it is lukewarm, then remove and discard the vanilla pods.
Heat the oven to 220C (200C fan)/425F/gas 7. Butter and line the base and sides of a round 23cm springform cake tin.
Put the two whole eggs, three egg yolks and 50g sugar in a stand mixer with the whisk attachment in place, add the starch, then beat on medium-high speed for three minutes, until moussy and tripled in volume. Fold the egg mix into the rice in the pan until fully incorporated (there’s no need to be too gentle here, because it will take a few turns to get it fully mixed in), then pour into the lined tin.
Sprinkle the remaining 15g sugar over the top of the cake, bake for 20 minutes, then turn off the heat but leave the cake inside for another 20 minutes. Take out and leave to cool for about an hour and a half, until it’s room temperature, then cut into thick wedges and serve.
Allspice chicken and rice with dill and yoghurt
One-pot, flavour-packed chicken dishes are my definition of comfort. This one pairs especially well with the cucumber crunch salad below opposite, but any crunchy fresh salad will do.
Prep 25 min
Soak and marinate 1 hr
Cook 1 hr
For the rice
300g basmati rice
2 tbsp olive oil
4 onions, peeled and thinly sliced (750g)
20g dill, chopped stalks and all, plus a few fronds to garnish
5 garlic cloves (25g), peeled and crushed
20g thyme, leaves picked, stems discarded
Salt and pepper
2 tbsp pine nuts
3 tsp allspice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
200g Greek yoghurt
For the chicken
6 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs (850g)
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
Salt and pepper
Put the rice in a medium bowl and wash under cold running water until it runs clear. Cover with fresh cold water, leave to soak for an hour, then drain.
Meanwhile, put the chicken in a large bowl with the lemon juice, garlic, half a tablespoon of salt and a good grind of pepper, toss to coat, then leave to marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour.
Put a large saute pan for which you have a lid on medium-high heat and, once hot, add the butter and olive oil, and melt. Add the onions, chopped dill, garlic, thyme leaves and a quarter-teaspoon of salt, and cook, stirring frequently, for 25 minutes, until the onions have caramelised and turned dark brown.
Transfer about 100g of the onion mixture to a bowl, then add the pine nuts, allspice and cinnamon to the remaining onions in the pan and cook, stirring, for another two minutes.
Stir the drained rice and three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt into the onion pan, then pour in 375ml boiling water. Stir, cover and leave to cook on a low heat for 30 minutes. Take off the heat and leave the rice to steam gently, still covered, for 10 minutes.
While the rice is cooking, heat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6 and put the chicken and all its marinade on an oven tray lined with greaseproof paper. Roast for 40 minutes, until the skin is crisp and golden brown, and the juices run clear when you poke the tip of a small, sharp knife into the thickest part of the thigh.
Transfer the roast chicken to the top of the rice pot, then pour over any juices from the roasting tray. Serve straight from the pan, topped with the reserved onion mix and dill fronds, with the yoghurt in a bowl on the side.
Cucumber crunch salad with curried cashews
This fresh, crunchy salad is the perfect accompaniment to all kinds of savoury rice dishes.
Prep 25 min
Cook 20 min
4 lebanese cucumbers, halved, deseeded and cut into ½cm-thick slices (350g)
400g ripe datterini (or cherry) tomatoes, halved
Salt and black pepper
1 red onion, peeled and cut into thin rounds (130g)
1 large carrot, trimmed, peeled, then cut into thin ribbons (I use a vegetable peeler; 100g)
1 red chilli, thinly sliced into rounds (remove and discard the pith and seeds if you prefer less heat; 20g)
20g flat-leaf parsley leaves, roughly chopped
½ tsp nigella seeds, toasted
For the curried cashews
100g cashew nuts
1 tsp olive oil
2½ tsp madras curry powder
For the tamarind dressing
70g tamarind puree
1½ tbsp maple syrup
2½ tbsp fresh lime juice (from about 2 limes)
For the mint dressing
20g mint leaves
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
75ml olive oil
Heat the oven to 170C (150C fan)/325F/gas 3.
In a large bowl, mix the cucumbers and tomatoes with a half-teaspoon of salt and leave to sit for 30 minutes.
In a small bowl, mix all the ingredients for the curried cashews with a quarter-teaspoon of salt, then spread out on a small oven tray and roast for 15 minutes, until deeply golden and dark in places. Remove and leave to cool.
Meanwhile, mix all the tamarind dressing ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
Put all the mint dressing ingredients in a small food processor, add a half-teaspoon of salt, and blitz to an almost-smooth green dressing.
Drain the cucumber and tomato, discarding the liquid they’ve released. On a large, lipped platter, artfully layer up the cucumber, tomato, onion rounds, carrot ribbons, chilli, parsley and both dressings. Top with a scattering of the cashews and nigella seeds, and serve.