I'd venture to say that of all the staples in your kitchen, rice is both one of the easiest to cook and one of the easiest to screw up. What could be simpler than putting rice and water in a pot, bringing it to a boil, and letting it simmer till the water is absorbed?
Yet there are many potential pitfalls along the way - adding too much or too little water, stirring too much or too little, or at the wrong time, setting the heat too high or too low, and cooking the rice too long or not long enough. Different types of rice - short, medium and long grain, brown rice, wild rice - can require different treatment, and be more or less suitable for different uses. What if you want to add a liquid ingredient like tomato sauce? How does that affect the amount of water you need? One or two mistakes and you can end up with a pot full of mush, or burned rice stuck to the bottom, or a messy stovetop from a boilover ... you get the idea.
One solution that's worked for me is cooking rice in the oven. This has some drawbacks, though. For one thing, rice is often served as a side dish, and you may want to use your oven for the main course. Even if you don't, using a full size oven to cook a pot of rice doesn't seem terribly energy efficient.
Enter the rice cooker. This handy appliance takes the guesswork out of cooking rice, and can produce remarkably consistent results. Yet do you want to shell out anywhere from $25 to over $100, and take up valuable kitchen counter space, with what Alton Brown would call a "unitasker"? And how do you know what kind to buy?
A newly published book, 300 Best Rice Cooker Recipes, can help. Despite the title, this is more than just a recipe collection. Author Katie Chin provides a practical, thorough, and informative guide to using your rice cooker, and in doing so she demonstrates that these devices are far more versatile than the name implies.
Chin, who's described somewhat vaguely on the back cover as a "private chef, food consultant and spokesperson, television personality and cookbook author," starts off with an introductory chapter that covers the various types of rice cookers, features to look for, and advice on selecting the one that's best for you. She then discusses the many types of rice (including such exotic varieties as Bhutanese red rice and "forbidden black rice"), other grains such as millet, quinoa, buckwheat and barley, and legumes like black-eyed peas, lentils, and various beans. General cooking guidelines are provided for each, showing the recommended ratio of rice or grains to water, and the optimal cooking time.
The remainder of the book is devoted to the recipes, which are arranged thematically, with chapters on breakfast, soups, main dishes, sushi and even desserts, most of which are grain-based puddings. A separate chapter delves into "steam cuisine," and explains how to use your rice cooker as a steamer for preparing entrees like steamed fish, veggies, custards and more.
Cooking tips accompany each recipe, and occasional side boxes provide helpful information about some of the ingredients called for in the recipes, from the commonplace (shallots, for example) to the hard-to-find (such as sambal oelek, an Asian chili sauce). Two sections of full-page color photos show what many of the dishes should look like, though somehow I doubt that my versions would come out quite so picturesque.
In short, there's a lot packed into this book. But the question remains, is it worth buying any cookbook these days, when it's so easy to find recipes for free on the internet? The answer to that, I guess, depends on your cooking habits and preferences, and on the cookbook itself.
If you don't like rice, or if you don't own a rice cooker and are certain you never will, then obviously isn't for you (of course if that were you, you probably wouldn't have read this far). And if you are less interested in recipes than in captivating writing, ditto. This is a manual, not a literary work.
But if you own a rice cooker and would like to get more use out of it, 300 Best is well worth picking up. You'll learn more about your appliance, about rice and other grains, and about many ways to use your rice cooker that almost certainly never occurred to you before.
And if you've never bought a rice cooker because you saw it as a one-dimensional device that was good for only one thing - cooking a pot of rice - this book will dispel that idea in a hurry. You might want to make some room on your bookshelf for this volume, and some room on your kitchen counter for a new rice cooker.
300 Best Rice Cooker Recipes, by Katie Chin.
400 pages. Publisher: Robert Rose (July 28, 2011)