No matter how short or how long my shopping list is, I never manage to escape the grocery store without a rogue item ( or three) that catches my eye. This, I think, is generally a good thing: it forces me to come up with new things and ways to cook in order to use the ingredients that I pick up on impulse.
The other day, my impulse buy was a small and overpriced bag of Bhutanese red rice (should they start shelving it next to the National Enquirer?). I've been meaning to try red rice for quite a while now, but it seems never to have caught my eye before. Red rice is a whole-grain rice, like brown rice, but instead of brown, it's....you guessed it.
As any reader of this blog knows, I'm a faithful consumer of anything whole-grain, and I'm particularly fond of grain salads and pilafs, which combine grains with other treats like vegetables, spices, seeds, and nuts. Preparing grains with these additions is a wonderful way to mix new flavors and to brighten up an otherwise dull side-dish. Before blogging about my new red rice, I wanted to come up with a grain salad or other similar recipe to showcase the grain, but was a bit stuck. When pairing grains with other flavors, I often rely on ethnic flavors - quinoa with "New World" flavors, bulgur with Middle-Eastern touches, or brown basmati rice with peas, cashews, and Indian spices. I was at a loss for what makes something Bhutanese though.
Being the worldly citizen that I am, I decided to scrap the whole Bhutanese thing and just go with color. Red rice? How about some more red stuff to throw in there? I finally decided on the simple, yet unusual combination of red chard stems (not leaves!) and apples. This was based both on what I had in my refrigerator and what I thought would amount to a season-appropriate, warmly-flavored but light dish. And guess what? I was right! This red rice pilaf, heightened with the flavor of some diced shallot and a hint of curry powder, is flavorful and satisfying, and has a lovely combination of textures and flavors.
The chard stems in particular are a great ingredient to use, not only because they add nice texture and a slightly sweet, earthy, beet-like flavor, but also because they are often something that gets tossed in my disposal whenever I'm making chard. You know the old saying: one man's compost is another man's whole-grain pilaf.
The trick with chard stems is to cook them long enough so that they lose their toughness, which is only about 10 minutes or so. I pull off the green leaves (and save them, of course), chop the stems into half-inch lengths, saute them for a minute in a frying pan, and then add a bit of water and cover so that any crunch is steamed away. Their flavor here works beautifully with the apple and curry.
And then, of course, there is the rice. The most common descriptor for red rice seems to be "nutty," which is the ubiquitous and indiscriminately-used term that describes just about every whole grain there is. Indeed, many grains do have a nutty flavor; I think millet and brown rice do, among others. However, I would not describe red rice as "nutty" so much as, well, tomato-y. Oddly enough, cooked red rice has an almost sweet hint of tomato juice - it's not overwhelming by any means, but it's there, and it's delicious. I find red rice to be refreshingly different than other varieties of rice that I've tried. Its mild, yet pronounced flavor make it just the right thing for dishes like this, which are meant to be about the grain, and not about garnishing a big hunk of meat. In fact, this dish could certainly be the centerpiece of a vegetarian meal (and then again, it would also work as a nice stuffing for a chicken or turkey...)
But I'll leave those choices up to you. Here's the recipe for red (chard and apples) on red (rice). Enjoy!
Red on Red Rice Pilaf
3/4 c. uncooked Bhutanese red rice
dash of olive oil
2 shallots, diced
stems from one bunch of red or rainbow chard, cut into 1/2 in. lengths
1 small sweet/tart apple, such as Paula Red, finely diced
1/2 tsp. (or to taste) curry powder (I used Sun Brand Madras)
salt and pepper, to taste
Prepare rice: bring rice and a little less than 1 1/2 c. water to a boil with a pinch of salt, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer until water is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Set aside. In a small frying pan, heat a bit of olive oil and add diced shallots. Then add chard stems, a bit of salt and pepper, and saute for a few minutes. Add a couple tablespoonfuls of water to the pan, cover, and cook until the chard is soft and no longer tough, about 10 minutes. Uncover, add diced apple and curry powder, and saute for another minute or so, until the liquid in the pan has evaporated. Adjust the seasonings, then add mixture to the rice. Stir to combine and serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 2-3; can be scaled up for a crowd.