Once you live in an area long enough, you start to notice food trends, especially if you like to eat out (which I do). In Los Angeles, when you’re not focusing on the grass-fed beef and the house-made buffalo mozzarella and the artisan cocktails, you start to notice side dishes. It wouldn’t be Los Angeles, I suspect, without the ubiquitous kale salad. These folks love their kale. And when it’s not kale, it’s quinoa, toasted or steamed or boiled, getting cozy with vegetables or dried fruit or the lightest of vinaigrettes. Sometimes, in a really ambitious nod to “California Cuisine,” kale and quinoa get combined in the healthiest, hipster-est, most trendy-bohemian side dish the world has ever seen.*
But the other side dish I’ve been noticing a lot lately, spurred along, no doubt, by the dozens of Chipotles lining every other street corner, is cilantro lime rice. Whether it’s speckled with zest or dotted with the occasional herb fleck, or the bright green of a rice dish Sam I Am would be proud to serve alongside some huevos rancheros verdes, it shows up on so many menus that at some point I was bound to become either totally sick of it, or completely obsessed.
Clearly, my palate chose the latter. I adore it. At one of our current favorite Culver City haunts, my dinner choice is based on which dish comes with a side of cilantro lime rice. I fall on the love side of the Great Cilantro Divide – I admit that there is a soapy quality to it, both in taste and in aroma, but it appeals to rather than repulses me – and lime is quite possibly my favorite citrus option. These flavors paired with a fluffy, starchy, perfectly cooked scoop of rice are a side dish I would eat next to almost anything.
But the problem, as with most things I end up obsessed with, is that not all cilantro rice is particularly good. The herbs are dull and flavorless, or the lime isn’t assertive enough, or the rice is mush, or I don’t want to pay for the accompanying $20-30 entree as often as I want the zesty side. And so, as usual, I have to saunter into the kitchen to make my own.
I toyed around with some flavor combinations, playing with spices and vegetables and heat, and ended up with something so bright and tart and satisfying that we almost didn’t want the blistered corn quesadillas I’d made to go along with our rice. This was fresh, and vibrant, and almost overloaded with lime and cilantro flavor – maybe my favorite rice side dish since my mom’s pilaf (which I’m convinced will never be topped).
Make this for your family. Pair it with grilled fish or carne asada or stewed black beans or chile relleno. And if you like it, let me know! Maybe it can serve as my penance for the overly complicated, labor intensive loaf I pushed upon you last week.
* I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I don’t have anything against kale or quinoa, and I agree that they are quite tasty together. But then, I am a bit of a healthy bohemian type, though certainly not very trendy. Which is why it’s taken me till now to fall for this dish…
Cilantro Lime Rice
Serves 6-8 as a side dish
¼ cup olive oil
½ teaspoon whole cumin seeds
½ teaspoon coriander seeds, crushed in a spice grinder or with the side of a knife blade
4 cloves garlic, minced
¼ – ½ cup diced onion (I used a red onion, but yellow or white would be fine too)
1 ½ cups long grain white rice
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
3 cups low sodium chicken broth, vegetable broth, or water
2 bunches cilantro
1 – 2 limes (using 2 whole limes results in a very strong lime flavor. This was what I wanted. If you want less or you aren’t sure, start with the juice from 1 lime and work up from there)
- Heat the olive oil in a medium pot over medium heat. When it is shimmering, add the cumin and coriander and turn the heat down to medium low. Let the spices warm and release their aroma – this should take about 3-5 minutes (it will look like a lot of oil for just this little palm-full of spices. Don’t worry. We are using this for the vegetables and toasting the rice as well).
- While the spices are heating up, prep your onions and garlic. When the cumin and coriander smell toasty and begin to pop occasionally in the pot, add the onions and garlic and sweat them over medium low heat for 5-8 minutes. You want the onions to get translucent and the garlic to become aromatic, but not browned or crisp.
- Add the rice and turn the heat up to medium high. Let it sizzle, stirring frequently, until some grains of rice are opaque and bright white but some are still translucent and pale. It will smell a bit reminiscent of popcorn or puffed rice, and that is a good thing.
- When the rice is toasted, add the salt, pepper, and broth or water. Stir well and cover to bring to a boil. Once boiling, turn the heat down to medium or medium low and simmer for 15-18 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender but not mushy.
- While the rice simmers, prepare the cilantro. Tear or chop the leaves and tender upper stems from the tough ends and place in a blender or food processor (alternatively, if you don’t want the extra dishes or don’t mind big pieces of cilantro, you can just chop it up with a knife). Add the lime juice and pulse in 3 second bursts until the herbs are very finely chopped and almost become a paste.
- When the rice is done, uncover it, fluff it with a fork, and add the cilantro and lime juice mixture. Combine thoroughly to ensure even greenness, then serve immediately. Too much time between adding the cilantro and serving the rice will result in a less vibrant green color.