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Rice Dreams

May 17, 2016

There are lots of reasons that rice makes me angry.

Today, I’m going to let go of one major issue concerning rice that I wrote about in 2012 and which was validated by our pediatrician in 2015. Look. We all die. Chances are, it’s not going to be the rice that gets you in the end. Right?

That said, if you’re going to order something with rice, you should enjoy it. Really, if you’re eating any food, you should be enjoying it. Life is too short. You only get so many meals. It’s prudent to make the most of them… even if you’re on a diet.

Gah. I hate my stupid diet. Later tonight I’m going to eat donuts, and fried chicken, and live high on the hog. I’ll make up for that with lots of oatmeal and lowfat yogurt next week. But this Yelp Elite Event at Cider Belly is going to be totally worth it.

But back to rice. I’m hoping a chef or two will weigh in on this, because the world’s greatest rice dishes are guaranteed to be a shadow of their true potential at most restaurants.

Let’s look back on the relatively recent brouhaha at Parish Public House. The Times Union critic didn’t order the jambalaya, but if she had I imagine she would be equally displeased. And for good reason.

Jambalaya falls into a group of rice-centric dishes like risotto and paella, which are staple dishes within their regional cuisines. And that makes total sense. Like much of the gourmet food we enjoy these days, they started out as cheap ways to fill up the bellies of the working class. Just so long as there was someone in the kitchen to deal with the time intensive chore of cooking

All of these dishes require patience. The flavors of the ingredients need to permeate the rice. The rice needs to break down and thicken the dish. And it’s a high-wire balancing act to produce a dish with tender grains in a well-integrated dish that’s neither too wet nor too dry.

Time and patience are two things that restaurant kitchens don’t typically have.

Maybe, just maybe, if your restaurant was dedicated almost exclusively to the pursuit of one of these dishes, it could be executed properly during service. Of course, patrons would know in advance they would be there for a long long time while their food cooked. But I waited at DaDong in Beijing for my duck to come out of the open wood fired oven, and it was worth every single awkward minute.

I’m imagining the paella restaurant of my dreams. It has a long fire pit, kind of like the one at Brooks’ BBQ. But instead of passing racks of chicken along the pit’s length as it progressively cooks a stage at a time, it’s paella pans filled with traditional ingredients. And instead of briquettes, the traditional pans are passed over vine cuttings. Then, all the flavors would combine into a harmonious whole, including the smoke from the fire.

That’s paella.

But all too often, it’s just rice with stuff on it. Much like risotto can be. Except risotto can be even worse because kitchens pre-cook the rice, hold it, and the finish it with cream in an attempt to replicate the natural creaminess from the starch of the short grain rice.

That’s not risotto. That’s creamy rice with bits in it.

You know what? Sometimes creamy rice with bits in it isn’t even half bad. You take rice, and cheese, and cream, and asparagus, and mushrooms, and that can be delicious, I’m sure. But risotto it isn’t.

I’ve been complaining about this for years, and my oldest friend ADS says that it really is unfair to compare restaurants to the standards that Marcella Hazan sets in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. And he may be right. But when I go out to eat at restaurants, I want to be wowed. I want to be served food that I can’t (or won’t) make at home.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to be the poor guy who has to stand over hot risotto pots all day doing nothing but stirring.

The point here is that there are a bunch of delicious foods that are just too ridiculously labor and time intensive for restaurants to do well. And they would do well to leave them off the menu. Now, should you choose to order one of these dishes, you’re on your own. As far as I’m concerned, you’ve joined the executive chef in la-la land.

It’s almost guaranteed to fall short.

And as I mentioned before, life is too short. When confronted with a large menu, it’s important for the savvy eater to do a bit of triage to find which dishes are going to be great. As great as these classic rice dishes may be, they should be the order of last resort.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. -R. permalink
    May 17, 2016 10:46 am

    There’s a fascinating, timely article on the BBC you might enjoy:

    http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20160510-the-humblest-paella-beloved-by-chefs

    • albanylandlord permalink
      May 18, 2016 12:39 am

      neat story, thanks

  2. May 23, 2016 11:44 am

    “Maybe, just maybe, if your restaurant was dedicated almost exclusively to the pursuit of one of these dishes, it could be executed properly during service. ”

    Eh-hem…

    http://www.yelp.com/biz/risotto-albany

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