Shall We Serve Rice Today?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Panama
IF YOU were from Panama you would probably answer without a moment’s hesitation, “Yes, by all means, we must have rice.” Rice is eaten in most homes seven days a week, and often twice a day. If asked whether other staple foods were not eaten here, someone would be sure to answer: “Of course, we like potatoes, macaroni, spaghetti and other starches, but, in addition to rice, not in place of it.”
Rice is relished by small children to the extent that they will cry for it as some children in other countries cry for candy or ice cream. Children here love rice so much they are known even to pray for it. A missionary tells of conducting a Bible study with a mother and her nine children:
“We were studying about the ‘Lord’s Prayer.’ When I asked what Jesus meant by telling us to pray for our daily bread, one of the children concernedly asked, ‘What about the rice? Can’t we ask for rice too?’ Others chimed in, ‘Yes, what about the rice?’
“‘Bread’ was alright, but not in the place of rice! After their mother and I explained that ‘bread’ included rice and all the other material necessities of the day, they calmed down and were ready to continue with the study.”
What makes rice so well liked here by both young and old? It is the delicious way it is prepared and because it is so easily digested. Come, see how it is prepared.
A Basic Recipe
We will begin with a basic recipe. First, we need an iron or aluminum paila, a heavy pot with a rounded bottom. This makes it easier to turn the rice without stirring it. A heavy skillet or flat-bottomed pan can be used, but these do not serve as well. And, of course, rice in a thin-bottomed pot will burn easily.
Let us begin by preparing a small amount. Take two cups of rice, wash quickly in cold water and drain in a sieve. Do not soak rice in water; that would make it pasty. Put your pot on a high flame and pour in a little oil, lard or vegetable shortening—about two tablespoonfuls. When it is hot, put in the rice and stir until every grain is well covered with oil. Add one tablespoonful of salt (or less) and three cups of water; either hot or cold may be used. Due to the hot flame it should boil almost immediately. Boil quite vigorously until it looks dry on the surface.
Now turn down the flame to a low simmer and cover tightly. In ten or fifteen minutes turn the rice gently with a large spoon, but do not stir. Cover tightly again. In fifteen or twenty minutes your rice is ready to serve with your meal. It should be light and fluffy. If you are cooking a larger amount it will take a few more careful ‘turnings’ to loosen the rice and get the bottom grains to the top and vice versa. Also, it will require more time, but once the rice is done it may remain on a low flame for some time without losing its fluffiness.
Not all rice is the same, some takes a little more or a little less liquid. But with experience you will learn how much to use. Do not worry if the rice has browned some on the bottom, or even if it is burned slightly. This only adds to the flavor. You may serve your beautiful white rice off the top; children love the concolón scraped off the bottom.
For a change you may want to try this: When your oil is very hot, add just two tablespoons of your dry, washed rice and toast to a golden brown. Then add the rest of the rice and stir until every grain is covered with oil, and proceed as in the above recipe. This gives a delicious toasted flavor to all the rice.
Experience will make you like most Panamanian housewives, who each have their own methods. As one said, “I never measure the water, and never look at the clock.” Even many of our twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, both boys and girls, are experts at preparing very tasty rice.
Tasty Meal Suggestions
Rice beautifully accompanies almost any type of meal and, here in Panama, generally occupies most of the space on a served plate. If yours is for a hardworking man, this would mean a heaping portion. Usually meat is prepared with a well-seasoned tomato sauce, and a small piece of meat is served with a little sauce on top of the rice, with two or three slices of fried plantain. Add a generous serving of stewed beans or lentils and you have a complete meal. A chicha, a cool, sweet drink, or a cup of coffee will do nicely to finish off the meal.
Here is another suggestion. Take one carrot, and one or two each of onions, sweet red peppers, tomatoes and celery sticks. Dice these. You can also add one mashed clove of garlic—using more or less garlic according to your taste. Add all of this to your hot oil at the start. Also add either cubed ham, pork, dried shrimp or chicken. After all of this is fried lightly and stirred often to keep it from browning, add your rice. An extra half-cup of water may be required, but, remember, we want to keep it all dry and fluffy.
If you wish, for a change you can add two cups of finely cut, fresh, green string beans, but do not add them until the rice is reasonably dry, and you are ready to cover it for the steaming. Put the finely cut string beans on the top. Then after the first ten minutes of steaming, turn them under. They will not get well done, but will give a fresh, crunchy flavor to your nourishing rice. In fact, any of the vegetables may be added at this stage instead of frying them first.
Some cooks may prefer to add the sautéed vegetables and meat to the already cooked rice. The only drawback may be a little too much oil, which may not favor your waistline. Leftover rice may also be added to the fried mixture, but, again, watch the amount of oil. Add only a sprinkle of water, and cover tightly in order to steam for a few minutes. The rice will not lose its fullness.
Are there any leftover beans or lentils in the refrigerator? After you fry your rice, add these with the water. But when you add the salt, remember that these were already salted. Proceed as you would in the basic recipe.
A uniquely flavored rice is made with coconut milk and is truly delicious if you like the coconut flavor. Take one coconut and grate the meat with a fine grater, or put it in a blender. Add about five cups of water and strain through a sieve, pressing tightly until all the milk has been extracted. Boil until you have about four cups of liquid left. Add one tablespoonful of salt and two cups of rice. This will have to be cooked rather slowly, as it has a tendency to burn easily. When rather dry cover tightly. You may need to turn it several times before it is thoroughly done in order to keep it from sticking. It can be served with any meal.
A Special Dish
So now, with all this experience, shall we try our ‘very special occasion’ rice? It is called arroz con pollo, chicken with rice.
Cut up a three- or four-pound chicken into moderate-size pieces. Add one tablespoonful of vinegar or lemon juice, and two tablespoonfuls of salt. Add finely cut onion, tomato, celery, parsley, sweet red pepper, mashed garlic, a little black pepper and any other spices to your liking, but sparingly. Mix thoroughly and let it stand for one hour, covered. Add one cup of tomato paste or two cups of tomato catsup. Put on a low flame and let the sauce steam for about a half hour, or until it is very thick. Add eight cups of water and cook until the chicken is tender.
In a large iron pot put about four tablespoonfuls of oil, and set it on a high flame. When it is hot, add four cups of rice and fry. Make sure that each grain is covered with oil. Remove the chicken from the sauce and strain out the vegetables. Add seven cups of the liquid sauce to the rice. If there is not enough liquid sauce on the chicken, add water to suffice. Add salt to taste and boil until reasonably dry.
Now, you can either de-bone your chicken and mix the chicken with the rice, or set aside the pieces of chicken to be added later. Take the vegetables that had been strained out of the sauce, along with olives, capers, pimentos and one cup of whole-kernel corn, and one cup of peas drained of liquid. These are all put on top of the dry rice, covered and steamed for about twenty minutes.
If you are cooking in a rather thin-bottomed pot, you may want to put the pot in the oven for this stage so as to assure yourself that the food will not burn. After twenty minutes turn the rice very carefully, keeping it fluffy. Steam again for twenty minutes, covering tightly. Taste to make sure that all the grains are well done, but not pasty. If the rice is not well done, steam a while longer. When it is all done heap the rice on a large platter, with the pieces of chicken arranged on top and around. Garnish with strips of pimento and sprigs of parsley. All you need to complete this meal is a light salad.
A Valuable Food
According to one authority, rice is eaten by over 1,500,000,000 people on earth today, or almost half of the human race. Brown rice, which is the rice grain from which the husk has not been removed, contains B-complex, E and K vitamins, and has more nutritional value than polished rice. Polished rice contains about 25 percent carbohydrate, small amounts of iodine, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and almost negligible amounts of protein and fat. When is the last time that you ate rice?
We extend a hearty invitation to you to use our recipes and, if you visit Panama, to try some of our rice dishes firsthand.