Monday, 9 May 2016

Remembering Roger Ebert: One-Pot Chicken Rice

About three years ago, the famed writer and film critic Roger Ebert passed away. The news brought back memories of an article he wrote, extolling the virtues of the humble one-switch rice cooker.

Back then, I'd barely cooked anything myself, even though I'd written about food for a couple of publications. When told of this during a lunch date, Em, a journalist and former colleague, was surprised. She believed that to write about food, one must have cooked some - or risk looking like a hypocrite.

Partial mise en place for the one-pot rice. Counter-clockwise from top
left: one large yellow onion, chopped; eight brown mushrooms, sliced;
brown rice; and two (I think) cloves of garlic, finely chopped.

The H-word made me uncomfortable, to say the least.

Not too long after that, I started trying out simple recipes, from Western-style carrot and mushroom soups to pastas and curries. I'd even prepared food for other people, a couple of times.

Recipes for rice-based dishes, however, remained untouched. I managed to find plenty of excuses to put it off. Until the day I ran out of cooking gas.

Marinated chicken, cut into pieces. Didn't think it and all the mushrooms
and onion would brown properly in the rice pot, so...

On impulse, I took home a plain rice cooker - after paying for it, of course. The same kind of pot Ebert used for the one-pot dishes in his article. I used it to boil my pastas at first, because the left-over basil pesto I made was dying in the fridge. Spurred by minor successes in this, I began contemplating those one-pot recipes, starting with a rice dish.

So on Saturday, I assembled the ingredients.

Nothing complicated: just brown rice, chicken, brown mushrooms and mixed Italian herbs, with one chopped yellow onion, a bit of garlic, and chicken stock. The chicken - two deboned drumsticks - was marinated overnight with salt, pepper, mixed herbs, finely chopped garlic and rice bran oil.

As I prepped the ingredients, problems emerged: too much chicken, too much mushroom (about eight went in, the whole small pack, basically) and too much onion for one person - and one 1.8-litre rice pot to handle. So much for frying everything in that pot first. I was also spooked by several power outages in my area recently, including one that happened in the afternoon.

New wok to the rescue! Properly browned chicken (and
everything else), at last.

So I browned the marinated chicken, which I cut into pieces, in a made-in-China non-stick wok without additional oil. The utensil worked pretty well for what I assumed was a knock-off, and I ended up pan-frying everything I used in it. I fished out the chicken and left a bit of the juices and fat on the wok for the next stage.

Most of the chopped yellow onion was browned and reduced quicker in the wok on medium heat; it would've burned in the stainless steel pot I'd been using before. "Most", because I'd set aside some raw chopped onion as a "vegetable" to be added to the pot to cook.

Or maybe the onions got "browned" by the mushrooms that followed. Once the 'shrooms were sufficiently sweated out, a bit of chopped garlic went in.

Browned chicken reunited with sauteed mushrooms, onion and garlic.

The superbly browned chicken (by the wok) went back into the wok for a few tosses, then, the brown rice. Earlier, I'd washed and soaked the rice in water for a bit, according to the instructions on the pack, for softer rice. Of course, I drained it first.

(So, technically, not a one-pot meal. Sorry, Mr Ebert.)

A few minutes later, all of it went into the rice pot, with a sprinkling of more mixed herbs and chicken stock. Instead of the rice cup, I used the blue earthenware rice bowl, with a helpful border near the top. One measure of rice to two and a half measures of chicken stock. I also tossed in a couple of good-sized cloves of crushed garlic.

At the last minute though, I added a sprinkling more rice and a bit of water, just in case. This was the first time I cooked rice in this apartment.

Raw brown rice getting tossed with the good stuff. Coming together nicely.

After turning on the pot, I ended up adding a bit more rice, with a bit more water. I didn't mind if it turned out a bit soggy. A short while later, I wondered why the pot wasn't scalding hot. One look at the control panel and- silly me, I didn't set it to "Cook".

Unlike the pasta, I didn't have to mind the pot so much. While boiling pasta, the water would bubble violently and creep out of the pot, creating a mess. The designer had the foresight to put the power socket under one of the handles, to keep spills away. Sone would argue that all the other ingredients with the rice would minimise violent bubbling.

It must've been about half an hour or so before the pot decided that the rice was ready. Even before it was set to "Keep Warm" the pot was releasing aromas of cooked chicken, mushrooms and herbs. If I'd used arborio rice it would've made for a workmanlike risotto.

One-pot chicken and mushroom rice, ready for lift-off in the new rice
cooker. Another milestone in the kitchen.

The result? Delicious.

So delicious, I went out to specifically buy microwaveable takeaway containers and pack a portion for makan kaki Melody. Her input was crucial, and I had a good feeling about this important dish.

"Yummy", came her verdict via WhastApp. "Like claypot chicken rice." Which is not a bad thing.

Of course there was a hiccup. A lot of my kitchen adventures have at least one.

Scraping the bottom of the pot, I found blackened bits which I thought was burnt rice and stuff. Scraping a bit more, most of the black bits came off easier than I'd expected. But the taste ... savoury, strong and Marmite-like. I suspect that, because I didn't stir the pot intermittently while it cooked (does one have to?), some of the goodness at the bottom caramelised and started to burn.

Finished product, with a clump of dried mixed herbs on top.
And the bottom of the pot had something else...

I ended up cooking enough for four fastidious people or a pair of famished ones. One measure of rice, I would learn, was enough for a hearty meal for one epicurean editor, provided the dishes were good.

Most of all, I'd fulfilled a vow - kind of - to the late Roger Ebert. I'll be cooking more rice dishes for sure now, as I'm starting to get tired of pasta. And I'll be writing more entries like these with the hope that more people will take the plunge themselves. These are different times, though, where more young people are already doing more, and not just with rice cookers.

When they'd heard of me boiling pasta with a rice cooker, several Facebook friends, including Em, responded with messages of encouragement. Their input was also important, particularly Em's. She provided what I believed was the final nudge.

Here's looking at you, Mr Ebert. Thanks for everything.

"So," I wrote in reply to Em's comment, "So... can I write about food now? *looks hopeful*"

Her response: "Hahah yes. Clearly *tongue emoticon*"

My rice was yummy, but so is validation for a dish well done.


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