My Food Network obsession remains, as it was a few weeks ago when I offered you these fridge pickles sweetened with melon liqueur, Beat Bobby Flay (or, as I like to call it, Beat Up Bobby Flay). There are many reasons for this, though I think it ultimately comes down to our penchant for rooting for the underdog: Flay is accomplished and talented and usually wins (plus he presents as somewhat arrogant, which makes unseating him that much more satisfying), so we want the challenger chefs who strut into the arena to throw him off.
Anyway, when the challenger presents a dish that involves rice, BFlay’s typical move is to cook the rice just to, or even a little under, chill it, then pop it into hot cast iron for a minute or two right at the end to achieve crispy bits. Achieving a crispy bottom layer on rice, far from the universal disaster we might conceive of when addressing the burnt lacquer bottom of what was supposed to be a fluffy potful, is a sought-after result in a number of cultures. Tahdig, socarrat, xoon: when the phenomenon has its own name, you know it’s something worth emulating.
Hot off the crunchy corners of a baked pasta dish, I started eyeing the rice in my pantry for all its crispy potential. This is a loose remaking of my “‘stuck pot’ red rice” from a few years ago, but faster, with fewer ingredients, and easier to throw together: the rice gets parboiled – just ten minutes in the water so it’s still chalky in the center – while corn and onions sauté until toast-brown in a mixture of butter and olive oil. The rice, along with a few spices and some lime zest, gets stirred in with the corn and onions, we splash on a little tomato and lime juice, and then the whole mess gets pressed and cooked until a crusty bottom layer forms. Then, we scrape, flip, and cook again. By the time there’s sufficient crispiness, the rice is fully cooked and flavored with the acidic liquids we added.
This works best in cast iron, but if you don’t have a cast iron skillet, regular non-stick would probably be fine too. If you do have a cast iron skillet and never use it, for fear of improper “seasoning” or sticking or cleaning procedures, don’t look to the internet to make you feel better. There are pages and pages of complex instructions for prepping, cooking in, and maintaining your cast iron cookware, enough to whiz you right around the wheel from encouragement to intimidation. Instead, I have found what works best is my friend M’s casual, summer morning advice: “just cook eggs in it all the time with lots of butter. Or meat.” I laughed, but then I tried it, and my skillet is now no longer patchy and sticky with attempts to bake on an oil layer, but smooth and barely shiny, and when I went to flip this rice, not a single grain stuck to the pan surface, but lifted smoothly away with only a wooden spatula.
We had our crispy rice piled high next to bean and cheese tacos, but it would be equally good with grilled or roasted chicken, well-seasoned white fish, a tangled pile of charred vegetables or, as my sister declared when I described it, “I want to eat that with some salsa verde carnitas.” So do I, sister-friend. So do I.
Serves 4-6 as a side
1 cup long grain white rice
1 cup corn, fresh or frozen and defrosted
1 cup frozen and defrosted pearl onions
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
zest of one lime
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
juice of half a lime, or to taste
¼ cup tomato juice or v8
1 tablespoon each fresh oregano, fresh chives, and fresh cilantro, finely chopped
additional lime wedges to serve
- Bring a large, lidded pot of salted water to a full boil, then add the rice. Boil 10 minutes, then drain and set aside. The rice will be underdone; this is what we want.
- While the water is warming and the rice is cooking, heat the butter and olive oil over medium high heat in a large skillet, preferably cast iron. When the fat mixture shimmers, add the fully defrosted corn and onions, sprinkle on a little salt and pepper to taste, and toast until caramelized, stirring and tossing frequently, 10-15 minutes. As the vegetables start to brown, add the whole cumin seeds and stir well to distribute.
- When the cumin starts to smell toasty and the vegetables are nicely browned, add in the rice, the paprika, and the lime zest and stir well to distribute the spices and veg evenly. Stir in the tomato juice and the lime juice, then press the rice down into a compact layer.
- Continue to cook over medium high heat until crusty bits begin to form on the bottom, 4-5 minutes. In sections, turn the rice and expose the top layer to the skillet surface for another 3-4 minutes until this, too, gets a little crunchy.
- When the rice has crisped to your liking, remove from heat, scatter the finely chopped herbs over the top, and serve with additional lime wedges for squeezing.