If you've been watching Top Chef (of course you have), you must remember this season's Episode Six, the quickfire challenge that asked the chefs to identify a range of food products by sight or by taste.
Some of the tests were easy: tapioca pearls, oatmeal, bow tie pasta (Top chefs? My six-year-old grandchildren could identify bow tie pasta.). Some were a bit more difficult: hearts of palm, fish paste, Thai eggplant.
So, here's my quickfire challenge.
Should a Top Chef be able to identify basmati rice, just by looking at it?
Yes, indeed. Pure basmati grain is four-to-five times as long as it is wide, and has a slightly and uniquely twisted tip, almost like the toe of Ali Baba's shoe.
For centuries, basmati -- the word means "queen of fragrance" in Hindi -- has been grown in the foothills of the Himalayas, in the Haryana and Uttar Pradesh regions of India and the Punjab region of India and Pakistan. The best quality pure basmatis are from Dehra Dun (Type 3) and Punjab (Type 370, which was the first basmati released for commercial cultivation, in 1933). The basmati rice plant is delicate, and needs to be tended with care.
When cooked, the rice (which is available in white or brown varieties) expands both in width and, especially, in length. It is famously aromatic, with a slightly nutty flavor that works particularly well in traditional pilaf and biryani, and in somewhat less traditional stuffing and fried rice.
Washing and pre-soaking the basmati results in a softer and more elongated grain. It's often soaked for 30 minutes or up to two hours, with or without salt, so the rice becomes less brittle. To prepare the rice for cooking, pour the rice into a large bowl. Fill the bowl with cold water and swoosh around with your hand. Immediately pour out the cloudy water, leaving the wet grains in the bowl. Repeat 3-4 times; on the fourth fill, leave the water in the bowl and let the rice soak for 30 minutes. The soaking water, which is full of starch from the rice, usually is discarded, though in some families in India, according to rice experts Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, the water is used for ironing -- a great way to recycle.
Aromatic rice pudding
From Seductions of Rice, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, this rich and sweet pudding originates in Calcutta. Serves 6-8.
1/2 cup basmati rice
8 cups whole or 2% milk, plus more if necessary
5 inches cinnamon stick, broken into several pieces
4 green cardamom pods
Generous pinch of salt
6 Tbsp palm sugar or brown sugar
Wash the rice thoroughly until the water runs clear, then drain in a sieve. Spread on a towel on the counter and use a rolling pin to break the rice into smaller pieces. You do not want a mush, or evenly sized pieces, you just want to break it down a little. Set aside on a plate or in a sieve to dry while the milk reduces.
Place the milk in a large, heavy pot and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, then lower the heat until the milk is barely simmering. Add the cinnamon stick and cardamom pods. Cook for 45 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent sticking and to prevent a skin forming on the surface (if a skin does form, stir it back in), or until the milk has reduced to about 6 cups.
Add the rice and salt and continue to cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until the rice is tender, 35-40 minutes. As it cooks and absorbs liquid, the mixture will thicken; if necessary (if the rice is not yet cooked and the mixture is very thick), add a little more milk.
When the rice is very soft and tender but not a mush, add the sugar and stir gently to dissolve. Cook for another 5 minutes, then taste for sweetness and add a little more sugar if you wish. Remove the cinnamon stick and cardamom pods. Serve warm or at room temperature.
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