Brought to the table in perfectly rounded mounds with an order of black beans, served in heavy chafing dishes on buffet tables, or ladled out of giant cookers from the kitchen counter, white rice hides in plain sight. Though a staple throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, white rice specifically anchors every Cuban meal. Its primacy partly due to large waves of Chinese immigration, I can’t imagine a better blank slate for beans, shredded beef stews, picadillos and plantains. I probably end almost every post with the words “serve over fluffy white rice” but had yet to include a recipe. When my sister texted me to find out how to make it. Rushed and reluctant to text back, I wondered why she didn’t just look it up here, then I checked and realized it wasn’t on my site. Oops.
Deceptively simple, it took me awhile to get my rice right. The directions on the package never quite worked and by cutting down traditional Cuban recipes to a reasonable amount (they’re built for extended families), I’d end up with either undercooked grains or pots of mush. I considered getting a rice cooker or “Hatachi” – so ubiquitous in Cuban homes that it’s in the brand name pantheon with Band-aids, Kleenex, and Xerox. My mother, who doesn’t cook, made brilliant rice using just a pot, a slatted metal cover and a paper towel (which routinely caught fire but the rice turned out well). I knew there was a trick to it and I couldn’t lose the counter space to a cooker until I found out.
Finally, I ended up where I should have started with Nitza Villapol. Rather than combine the water, rice and oil at the start, a few cloves of mashed garlic are sauteed in oil to infuse it with flavor. Once you’ve added the rice and water and brought it to a simmer, it’s set over a low flame and left undisturbed while it finishes cooking so it can’t burn, overcook, or generally get away from you. I usually made rice haphazardly so I decided to pay attention for once and question everything to get it all down. I’ve included those notes below. Unfortunately, while I was thinking about it, I wasn’t responding to the initial text and my sister went riceless. I’ve added the desperate email she sent me in the comments section but please keep in mind she’s prone to rich mischaracterization so serve over fluffly white rice.
Arroz Blanco/White Rice
Adapted from Nitza Villapol’s Cocina Criolla. The first question that came up was whether or not to rinse. I always did but wasn’t sure why. It turns out, a rinse washes away excess starch that makes the rice clump together (good) as well as the nutrients added to replace what was stripped during processing (not so good). I could see the benefits of both – clumpy rice that’s healthy versus fluffy rice that’s nutritionally deficient. I decided to treat myself to a rinse. I typically use brown rice or other hearty grain when I’m looking for a nutrient-rich option so I can keep white rice simple depending on the texture I’m looking for. Plus, to be honest, the rinsing felt ritual so I hated to skip it.
The other thought I had was whether or not to cover it completely or loosely while it’s cooking. I tried both methods and by leaving the lid slightly off, the rice came out firmer but still cooked through, so it’s really a matter of preference. The water also evaporates more quickly so it’s important to check it so sooner. When I’d like the rice to be a little creamier, I keep it covered. After it’s cooked however, it’s best to leave the cover firmly on and let it sit off heat for 5-10 minutes before fluffing it with a fork to separate the grains.
The final problem was adding the water. Once you’ve heated the oil, it has to be completely off heat before pouring in the water. It will send up a billow of hissing steam. If I’m feeling skittish, I set a frying screen over the pan and pour the water directly through the screen.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove of garlic, peeled and mashed
1 teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups water, hot
1 cup long grain white rice, well rinsed with cold water until it runs clear
In a heavy saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add mashed garlic and cook on both sides until golden. Remove garlic from oil and discard.
Off heat, carefully add hot water and salt (See Notes). Bring to a high simmer over medium heat. Immediately stir in rice and return to a simmer. Cover and cook undisturbed over low heat until the water is absorbed and the rice tender, about 20-30 minutes. Remove from and heat and let stand covered about 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve.