Monday, March 12, 2012

Tools of the Trade - The Rice Cooker

I recently rediscovered my rice cooker. I don’t know why. It’s been sitting on my counter all this time. It’s not as if it had spent any time hidden from view. But somehow I suddenly noticed it again. I equate this to a child with toys. Sometimes kids get bored with the ones that they’ve been playing with and it isn’t until they stop playing with them for a while that they develop an interest in them again. So it is with my rice cooker.

I guess I was less than enthused about the machine because I would just use it to make the same old thing: rice. But I was thinking as much as I admire its value as a rice cooker, there has got to be more that I could be doing with it. And that’s when I discovered that you really can make all sorts of things in it.

It’s no surprise that grains are perfect for cooking in a rice cooker. They are all just variations on the same theme: grain + liquid. The only thing is that you might have to play around with the amount of liquid in relation to the grain, as some grains are heartier/thicker than rice, and some are more delicate. Brown rice takes longer than white rice, for instance, and requires a bit more water be added. But aside from rice, you can also make oatmeal, risotto, polenta and quinoa, to name a few. Give ordinary rice a little bit of added flavor by adding chicken or vegetable broth instead of water. Add spices to the liquid before cooking. For example, make “Spanish rice” by adding chili powder before cooking. Make coconut rice with lime, saffron rice, pistachio rice, etc. Experiment and see what kinds of concoctions you can come up with.

If your rice cooker came with a steamer insert, it’s a no-brainer to use it to steam veggies, potstickers, or tamales. If you don’t have the steamer insert, you could try putting a flexible silicone insert in the pot. Don’t use a metal one, else you risk scratching the non-stick lining. I hear that replacing the pot can be expensive.

Use it to poach fruit. Pears would be especially good, in a little Riesling or red wine. Slice the fruit, add the liquid, a little sugar and a cinnamon stick or whole cloves.

Make a frittata, layering all the items in the pot and then pressing the “Steam/Cook” button. (

I’ve read that you can use your rice cooker to make soups, stews and beans. But frankly, I’d use my slow cooker for this.

My favorite: make breakfast in it. If yours has a timer, prep everything the night before and set it to be done in the morning. What’s nice about that is that breakfast can be enjoyed by everyone in the house, no matter what time they get up. What I do is add oats, twice as much water, a pinch of salt, a pat of butter, a small handful of dried fruit such as raisins, cranberries, cherries or blueberries, and maybe some walnut pieces and/or spices such as cinnamon or cloves and set it for the time I get up. Voila – breakfast is ready with minimal effort. When it’s ready, I just add some milk and sweetener.

And lastly, one-pot meals are simple and easy to make in a rice cooker, especially for the time-challenged. Toss a bunch of stuff in, close the lid, push the button, and dinner is ready in no time. The only thing to watch out for is the meat – it should already be cooked when it goes in. You basically just want to reheat it, or finish meats that you might have just browned in a saute pan, and not cook it from raw. One of my favorite dishes is unbelievably simple: white rice, chicken and green chilies. It’s so satisfying and ridiculously easy to make and it's on this week's menu again, after a long absence. Serve it alone, with a salad or other veggies, or use it to stuff a burrito.

Green Chile and Chicken Rice

1 1/2 cups medium grain rice
3 cups low sodium chicken broth
2 Tbsp. dried minced onion
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 can (10 oz) chicken breast chunks with liquid
1 can (4 oz) diced green chiles with liquid
salt to taste

Place all ingredients in the inner pot of the rice cooker and stir. Cover and press the Steam/Cook button. Allow to cook until rice cooker switches to warm mode. Add salt to taste. Stir and serve immediately as a main course. Serves 4.

If you use a rice cooker in a novel way, let us hear from you by posting a comment.

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