Monday, February 27, 2012

Rice: Toasted, Not Stirred!

My earliest childhood memories in the kitchen are of adults having heated conversations about rice. The way it should look, how it should taste, and what texture it should have. Above all, they would ultimately concur, never stir it after you've poured the liquids, otherwise you'll get arroz meneado. Nothing could be worse than ending up with an atole, a porridge-like rice sticky and gooey from being stirred. These conversations swirled around the kitchen where opinionated cooks (friends and relatives) jealously guarded the integrity of the rice.

This is not much different from the frenzy in Italy over the possibility of overcooked pasta, which for Italians brings on a lot of excitement and emotion, something which can actually get a little scary if you're not used to it. Trust me, they don't like overcooked pasta. It's the same with rice, it's got to be just right.

Rice was the staple we ate almost everyday with beans. And like the beans, it could be prepared in a variety of ways. But one thing is for certain: if you want rice that is fluffy and not stuck together, you have to begin by toasting the rice in oil.

Each time I toast my rice, I feel my Tía Oralia leaning over my shoulder, telling me how the rice should sound when it's stirred in the pan before adding the liquid. When I make white rice with crema mexicana, I am twelve years old again, sitting primly in a flowery summer dress with Tía Gloria doting on me in her cavernous, lonely house in Monterrey.

Mexican rice is easy to master and quick to prepare, why would one ever eat instant rice? On the other end of the spectrum is paella. Much revered by Spaniards (who inherited rice from the Moors and then introduced it to the New World,) paella is not for culinary slouches. My good friend, Ana from Seville, taught me to make a delicious paella with short grain rice, a rice that reminds me of the arborio rice I use for risotto. The technique for making paella also includes toasting the rice in oil.

In addition to being a simple dish, rice is healthy, especially if you pair it with vegetables or legumes like lentils or beans. It's also gluten-free. If you're game, experiment with the million different varieties of rice in specialty grocery stores: basmati rice, arborio rice, red rice, black rice, or brown rice. Brown rice, for example, is a very healthy rice, but it's not as easy to make a pilaf style rice which is what latino and Spanish rices are.

All rices have different cooking times and not all will end up fluffy. But, beware! Your aunts might suddenly appear from the más allá (the beyond) to scold you about technique. For now, enjoy this easy recipe for simple rice and, remember, no stirring once you pour the liquid!

White Mexican Rice

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 10 mins

Cook time: 20 mins

Total time: 30 mins

Serves: 4 - 5

To rinse or not to rinse rice, that is the question. I stopped rinsing rice long ago. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that our mothers rinsed rice prior to cooking because it was dirty with bits of debris. That's not the case with the rice we buy now so, many years ago, I decided to skip that step.


  • 2 cups long grain rice

  • ¼ cup canola or corn oil

  • 2 cloves garlic

  • 1 teaspoon cumin powder or grind cumin seeds yourself in a molcajete (mortar)

  • 1 onion, minced

  • 2 teaspoons salt

  • 4 cups chicken broth or 4 cups water with 2 Goya chicken bouillon cubes

  • ¾ cup chopped or sliced fresh vegetable of your choice such as red sweet peppers, lima beans, peas, carrots, etc.

  • sprigs of cilantro for a garnish

  • corn tortillas to be warmed on a comal and eaten with rice.


  1. Heat the oil in a pan that is no more than 3 inches high on the sides and place the rice to brown slowly; stir the rice for about 3 minutes on low flame to toast it

  2. Add the chopped onion, garlic, salt, and vegetable and cook for another 3 minutes. You may need to add additional oil.

  3. Add the liquid, arrange vegetables evenly with a spoon, and bring to a boil. After it's boiling, lower to a steady simmer and leave uncovered as it cooks slowly.

  4. After 15 minutes, check to see if rice is almost ready, if water has evaporated too quickly and rice is still not done you make have to add a little more liquid, (keep it heated so you can add it if needed).

  5. Serve it in the same skillet or transfer to a heated earthware bowl with a lid and garnish with the cilantro.


Add a dollop of Mexican cream, which is a bit like clotted cream, to the rice when it is ready if you want to make it like my Aunt Gloria's rice.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Cochinita Pibil

The banana leaf has been used in the Americas and elsewhere, for that matter, for millennia as the environmentally friendly aluminum foil used to keep food moist during cooking. This Yucatecan dish is a fusion of the Mayan and the Spanish, a love child of this blending of two contrasting worlds. It is a "surprise du chef" to be opened up at the table like a gift, revealing the achiote-colored meat flavored with sour orange and other spices.

Instead of using recado rojo or achiote paste, I have ground the achiote seeds myself with the rest of the spices because I don't like some of the additives in the commercial paste but you might want to take advantage of the convenience of the achiote paste, especially if that is all that is available to you. Add it to your mixture a tablespoon at a time until you get the desired consistency and color: about as  thick as porridge and a rusty red color.

The name, cochinita, means suckling pig and pibil in Mayan language is the underground pit.  Here, I've used pork shoulder and set my oven at 325 degrees for about 3 hours. I personally don't like the look of shredded meat, so I leave mine in large chunks. 

A a brief search online will show you there are a million ways to prepare Cochinita Pibil, but the similarity will always be in the length of cooking time. It does take time to cook, but you don't have to stand by the stove; it will take care of itself. This meat will be so tender and flavorful, you will not need a knife.

Cochinita Pibil 

Prep time: 30 mins

Cook time: 3 hours

Total time: 3 hours 30 mins

Serves: 2

You will need to marinate the meat for at least an hour with the achiote mixture and the sour orange juices. Leaving it to marinate overnight is even better. Many of these spices are available through our friends at Latinbag.

  • 1 lb. pork shoulder cut into large chunks

For grinding together in a coffee grinder or molcajete
  • 3 tablespoons achiote seeds
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons salt
Liquids for the marinade:
  • 1 ¼ cup sour orange juice or juice from about 3 oranges and 2 (juicy) limes
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar

Toast on comal
  • ½ red onion cut into about 4 pieces
  • 5 cloves peeled garlic
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 2 guajillo chiles split open (first simmered for 10 minutes)
  • 1 package banana leaves


  1. For grinding in a coffee grinder (if you don't have a coffee grinder just throw them into the blender with the other sour orange juice and blend for about 3 minutes until it is no longer grainy)

  2. In a blender mix the dry achiote ingredients above with the orange/lime liquid until it is blended into a thick sauce

  3. Marinate the meat with this sauce in the refrigerator for at least one hour, but overnight is even better.

  4. On a comal or iron skillet on a very low flame, toast the chunks of onion, the peeled garlic, bay leaves and guajillo chiles

  5. Wash the banana leaves and heat them slightly on the skillet or comal to soften them.

  6. Lay them out on the bottom of your baking dish leaving 'flaps' that will fold after you've placed your marinated pork into the dish.

  7. Arrange your toasted spices on top of the marinated pork.

  8. Fold over all your 'flaps' until the pork is completely encased in the leaves.

  9. Cover the dish with a layer of tin foil for additional protection.

  10. It will be ready from between 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

  11. Serve it on a bed of rice or make tacos with the meat garnished with red onion that has soaked in lime juice.

Garnish for tacos

  1. ½ red onion sliced thin and soaked in fresh squeezed lime juice