recipe: Spanish-style baked rice

baked rice with salad on thrifted Heath Ceramics

Since the weather's been mostly gray and wet in Portland this June after being quite summery in May, I've been cooking more wintry things again lately, using the stovetop and oven to help boost the heat level in the apartment without actually turning on the heat: miso soup, mushroom pizza eaten with undressed baby kale, a casserole. I was a child of the 1970's and '80's, so I know casseroles—giant rectangular Pyrex meals busy women or their preteen children could whip together in a jiffy, things involving canned soups, frozen potatoes, and ground beef. Casseroles are true comfort food: baked savory, melty goodness.

But the only real casserole I make today in my contemporary childless working life is one my great-aunt Mary made for me when I was a houseguest sixteen years ago. I suppose it may have been one of those What do I serve a vegetarian? moments, but she was rather casual about the simple meal: baked rice with a salad. She cooked easily, naturally, like her mother, like my grandmother, like my own mother. We ate at the round oak kitchen table, she and I, plus her quiet fourth husband. It was a tasty dish, so I asked for the recipe. I have no idea where she'd gotten it from, probably some magazine or cookbook. (It was she, after all, who passed along to me her hardcover copy of Anna Thomas' classic Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two.)

pre-baked rice ingredients in thrifted Le Creuset casserole

Over the years, I've tweaked the recipe a bit. It's always taken longer to bake than the stated time and also needs more water than called for to avoid crunchy-rice syndrome (ick). Adding a can of chickpeas, for example, boosts the protein level up to main-dish status. One could omit the cheese to make it vegan (but why?) or skip the beans and use it as a side dish to accompany a chicken breast or something meaty. Black olives can substitute for green, if desired. The spices and herbs are flexible, too, according to preference. I now chop the onion instead of slicing it, so the onion cooks more and better stays on the fork. I'll add garlic sometimes. I add cumin if using garbanzos. I often dice the cheese instead of shredding it to save on dishes. And if my green olives aren't stuffed with pimiento, I might chop up a little canned roasted red pepper. It'll work, regardless.

Aunt Mary's Spanish-Style Baked Rice

1 cup brown rice, rinsed
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1 can (14.5-oz or more) diced tomatoes
1 medium onion, sliced or chopped
1 or 2 cloves garlic, chopped (optional)
2/3 cup green (or black) olives, sliced
1 can garbanzo beans (optional)
1 cup shredded or finely diced cheese, such as cheddar or Jarlsberg
1/4 cup olive oil (or less)
spices and herbs to taste (e.g., dried mixed Italian herbs, cumin, red pepper flakes) 
salt and cracked pepper

Add the oil to the casserole first, swirling it around to coat the dish. Then mix in the other ingredients. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit with lid on for an hour, taking the lid off for the remaining half hour or forty-five minutes of cooking. (The original recipe calls for 30 minutes covered and 45 minutes uncovered.) When done, the water will have absorbed into the rice, the rice will be tender, and the top layer will have some color. Let it rest for 10 minutes before serving. Serves 4-6 as a main dish.

Spanish-style baked rice in green Le Creuset pot

(If anyone knows the original recipe source or can link to a similar version, do let me know.)

What's your favorite casserole?

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