Thursday, 30 April 2009

The Rice Breakfast unravelled

I recently made a culinary discovery that changed my life. It’s an obvious one and dare I say that for half of the world’s population this will hardly be a revelation. Wanting to prepare myself dinner one evening I decided to cook a meal from the only two ingredients I desired; eggs and rice. Two staple foods and not much that can go wrong in the way to instant gratification. I cooked the starchy white rice for 15 minutes, seasoned it with salt, pepper, a dash of olive oil and a squeeze of a lemon, and topped it with a poached egg that bled out onto the rice when slashed open with a knife. I have cooked this recipe since, modifying the type of rice or substituting it for other cereals, as well as used various spices and seasonings, while maintaining the core of the recipe: cooked grains topped with a poached egg.

Rice plays a key role in my kitchen and on my plate with the variety of rice depending on the mood I’m in: Plain rice is for comfort; the white soft grains coat the inside of my mouth like a security blanket, while coarse brown rice adds to the equation a nutty, rough finish. Stirred with salt, pepper, olive oil and finely chopped dill, the rice is my secret hiding place in the land of pasta and Parmigiano. I prefer black rice when it is dressed with an Asian style sauce of raw garlic, ginger, fish sauce, red chillies and lime, and caramelized onions, green lentils and a pinch of cinnamon transport plain white rice to a Mediterranean Mujadara.

The visit schedule to the rice farm in Piedmont had mentioned a ‘rice based breakfast’. All it took was these three words to appear for my expectations to spiral out of control.

We had arrived at the rice farm late at night and were greeted by a smiling man who showed us to our rooms in the farmhouse. The boiler was broken and the 24 of us had gone to bed without the prospects of a shower, but with a rice breakfast to look forward to.

The next morning breakfast was served a short walk away at the farm estate. Coffee arrived followed by a bowl of cookies that turned out to be made of rice flour. Nowhere near an egg on rice. I would have to wait until lunchtime, I thought while trying to stay positive.

Following breakfast Rinaldo introduced himself as the owner of the farm. He was a tall, thin, broad shouldered man in his mid thirties, dressed casually yet elegantly, in a matching pair of designer jeans and a sweater. His slim physique did not reveal the hardship of farming rice, nor did his delicate, nail bitten hands.

The schedule between breakfast and lunch was a busy one; we were told of the farm and organic rice farming, went out to the rice fields and took a tour around the feudal estate before returning to the dining room.

Rice featured heavily on the menu. A starter plate contained three mounds of cooked plain rice. No salt, no pepper, no nothing. We were to test, taste and talk about rice.

I have a soft spot for rice. It’s a source of immense comfort. But it’s a raw material, a foodstuff. It thrives on companionship and requires love and attention that come in the form of oils, spices, vegetables and proteins. Sending rice on a plate stripped bare is the culinary equivalent of standing in front of your classmates wearing nothing but underwear. The following dish was two mounds of white risotto. I was visually undernourished. One mound was made from Rinaldo’s rice, the other was of a competitor brand with the two types barely distinguishable. I may not have been able to differentiate the two mounds by looking at them, but tasting them revealed their true personalities. I tried the whiter risotto first. It took a few seconds for the rice to accustom to the new environment inside my mouth, before collapsing into an array of textures and levels of hardness. It was like reading a first draft of random thoughts; It was all over the place. The second risotto had a uniformity to it as if all the grains of rice knew they were part of a bigger idea, all cooked to the same degree and none with a desire to stand out from the crowd, the way I like it.

Throughout the entire day Rinaldo did not crack a joke nor release a smile, but what he lacked in sense of humor and a lightness of being, he made up with his rice.

When the two balls of rice ice cream came out it was all over. There were no eggs on rice that day.

A saying in Hebrew literally translating to ‘expectations are for pillows’ comes to mind. A frugal allocation of words to meanings in the Hebrew vocabulary has expectations and pillowcases sharing a word between them. I guess I’ll go and make my bed.

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