Thursday, June 5, 2008

An Ode to A Rice Cooker

Since I was a child, food has been one of the loves of my life. My grandmother tells endearing stories of me eating chilled shrimp as a toddler, while I fondly remember creating pancakes without a recipe in her kitchen a few years later. My Easy-Bake Oven was my favorite toy and my idea of fun was cooking for my parents. By my teenage years, my ideal gift was a dinner out and I dreamed of owning my own inn or restaurant. Once the realities of that lifestyle hit, I decided that cooking and eating would remain (for now) a hobby of sorts, though I made sure to find a partner that would indulge as well. And, like any other mom-to-be, I had visions of life with my children. And for me those included using food as a way for my children to experience the world. I imagined us traveling and eating in hole-in-the-wall restaurants, creating pad thai and sushi rolls and jab chae and baking at home.

So, one of the ultimate curve balls that have come my way as a mother has been having 2 children with food allergies. My older son was first diagnosed with allergies to dairy, wheat, eggs and nuts. More in the future.

But when I made the decision to nurse my second child, I knew that I may need to alter my diet slightly: minimal spicy food, caffeine, cabbage. All manageable. Well, one colicky baby later, I have adjusted my diet so that I don't eat soy, dairy or wheat as long as I continue to nurse him.

The reality is that when I first set out to experiment I was at a loss to envision life without cookies, pasta, cereal, toast, steamed buns, tofu, ice cream, cheese, and good butter. Yet, watching my son slowly stop crying, no longer grasping up his little legs nor hollering in pain and seeing him become an angelic little peaceful boy made it worth it.

But it doesn't mean that it hasn't been challenging, especially when I had set out to enjoy food on this time off. The dairy has had its own level of complexity: reading each label not only for the obvious (milk) but for casein-the biggest culprit for gassy babies. I will confess that I have occasionally forgotten (big mistake: Thai iced tea; little mistake: bite of scone). As for the soy, I only eliminated soy milk and tofu, choosing to use soy sauce and soy oils. The wheat-that still remain the hardest as at times I find myself craving, just CRAVING a big cinnamon bun or Chinese noodles or banh mi from Pho Viet in the Super 88 Food Court.

What has saved me? The obvious, of course: that my son is so much happier, more comfortable and content. But on a practical note, there were 3 other things. First: At least I love to cook. Thus, I can adapt recipes so that noodles are now rice noodles, rice milk replaces dairy, oatmeal is my new breakfast treat and I can cook chicken in multiple forms. Ironically, my restaurant crawls have also been helpful as I have rediscovered the world of Asian and Latino restaurants. As both are dependent on rice, rice noodles, corn and beans, they have provided me with many meals. And I have found myself enjoying foods that I never would have otherwise eaten: sweet arepas (without cheese), bowls of Vietnamese bun, gorditas with chicken and sweet rice dumplings for dessert. Finally, I have a new appreciation of rice in all its forms. I have now willingly (and happily) drink rice milk (really not bad!) and eat rice paper, rice noodles, rice crackers, rice chips.

But what I eat most of all is, in fact, rice. I splurged and spent all of $35.00 at Target on an Aroma rice cooker, and another $20.00 on the Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook. Together, my family and I have been well fed, trying Spanish, sushi, Basmati, Thai Purple and Jasmine rice. Every rice dish that I have made in the rice cooker has come out perfectly and I continue to be amazed at the range of tastes and textures that rice provides. In fact, the Thai sticky rice was a revelation: simultaneously sticky, soft and with a subtle tooth that comes from steaming the rice after soaking it overnight. The one dish that hasn't been a true hit, Cuban rice and beans, was the one that I dared to make in my dutch oven. Next time: I am converting it to a rice cooker!

And, most ironically, when I have strayed and eaten a roll, a cookie or noodles, I find myself feeling quite full, as if my body, too, has embraced this new diet. So, can I envision this for my life? Absolutely not. But is it fine for now. And, for my son-it is absolutely worth it!

Today's recipe is one of my staples. Fabulous for when you have leftover rice, it is really a template in that you can adjust this in so many ways.

Incredibly Easy Not-Really Fried Rice

A few cups of cooked, cooled rice (any type will work; leftovers are great here)
About 1 cup of frozen vegetables (peas or edamame I especially good)
About 1 cup diced protein (optional, but I like tofu or leftover cooked chicken)
1-2 eggs, scrambled lightly in a separate dish
2 T Soy Sauce
sesame oil
2 T minced ginger and/or scallions (yup, optional)
hot oil or hot sauce (I love the Korean kind-but again this is optional)

Oil a skillet or wok and heat it on medium high heat. Add the rice until it is warmed through. Add the frozen veggies and protein and again mix until it is hot. Move this to the side of the pan and pour the scrambled eggs in. Let them set for 2 minutes and then mix into the rice. Add the soy sauce, sesame oil to taste, the optional seasonings and try it. Add more soy sauce or sesame oil or hot sauce.

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