Recently while at a farmers' market, I ended up in a friendly conversation with a fellow shopper about Korean melons and kholrabi. At the end of our chat, she remarked that I was so lucky to have learned how to cook from my mom as a child. I get that a lot. People assume if you enjoy cooking you must have been doing it all your life and learned from your momma or granny. I actually learned from neither and oddly enough, until a few years ago I hardly cooked a lick. Now don't get me wrong, I've loved food ALL my life...but my zest for cooking? That started just short of 5 years ago. (Up until then my claim to fame was a half-assed green salad and a rubbery shrimp scampi.) Cooking's not in my blood. Growing up, my mom had about a half a dozen recipes in her repertoire and my dad would burn hot dogs so badly on the grill I would have to peel the charcoaled outer skin off to get to the edible core. These days my mom rarely cooks, maybe a pot of rice here or there and if the mood strikes she may grill some mackerel. My dad sticks to making the one recipe he does best- homemade spaghetti sauce. Neither of my parents would give Ina Garten a run for her money. In fact, they store pots and pans in their oven and dry goods in their dishwasher, that's how often they cook. They did however encourage me to be open-minded and try all kinds of food when I was growing up- from matzo balls to deep-fried chicken gizzards to natto. Although these days I may have surpassed them in my passion for new delicious foods, as they tend to scratch their heads quizzically when I wax on about foie gras, sweetbreads and quinoa during my visits home. As for the cooking part, over the past few years I've taught myself- mostly by experimenting in the kitchen, pouring over recipes and gleaning handy tips from friends who are amazing cooks. So when people tell me they can't cook...I like to point out that they can cook, they just choose not to. They just need to put the time and the effort into learning how to cook. Start with the simple dishes and work your way up...and most importantly- have fun!
One of the things that keeps cooking interesting for me is stumbling upon new and unique ingredients. For example, one of my recent finds at my local grocery store was a mysterious-sounding rice by Lotus Foods called "Forbidden Rice."* The name was just so cool and the color so intriguing, I couldn't resist picking up a small bag to play around with. As it turned out Forbidden Rice is a heirloom short-grain rice with a bit of a nutty taste, chewy texture and an intense inky purple hue (once it's cooked). This Thai black rice is pretty versatile and you could use it in many of the same dishes that you would use wild rice in. Additionally, it's quite the healthy addition to any diet as it's high in antioxidant-rich anthocyanins, iron and is a good source of fiber. For my first attempt at using it, I wanted to keep it uncomplicated so I opted to make a rice salad. Prowling around the Internet, I found an easy recipe by Charlie Ayers utilizing Forbidden Rice. (Charlie Ayers is the former executive chef for Google.) I liked that it had a spicy dressing, so I used that for my salad and just changed up the ingredients to what I had on hand or preferred. The result was a tasty, eye-catching salad with a bit of a kick. Now you could also jazz this salad up by adding some chopped sweet potatoes, mandarin slices or even some shelled edamame. Or you could top it with a protein such as a ginger-sesame salmon fillet or some sliced citrus-soy marinated flank steak to make it a full meal.
[* Supposedly in ancient China, black rice was reserved only for the emperor/royal family and was not available to the public; hence, the name "Forbidden Rice."]
Spicy Forbidden Rice Salad
1 cup Forbidden Rice
1/4 cup scallions, green & white parts thinly sliced
1/2 cup Sweet Twister pepper, diced
1/2 cup English cucumber, diced
1 cup roasted/unsalted cashews, chopped
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
juice of 1 lime
1/2 teaspoon sambal oelek
1/2 teaspoon honey
salt and ground pepper, to taste
1-2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
1. Put the rice, 2 cups of water and a generous pinch of salt in a small pot or saucepan and bring to a quick boil. Cover, reduce the heat to low and allow to simmer for about 30 minutes (until liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender).
2. In a small bowl, mix together soy sauce, sesame oil, lime juice, sambal oelek, honey, salt and pepper. Set aside and allow flavors to meld.
3. When the rice is ready, remove from heat. If there is any excess water, drain. Allow to cool.
4. Once cool, place the rice in a large bowl and add green onions, Twister pepper, cucumber and cashews. Mix together thoroughly.
5. Give the dressing a quick whisk then pour over the rice salad. Mix it up really well. Taste. Add more salt, pepper, lime juice, honey or sambal oelek if needed. (If you want it spicier, up the sambal oelek.) Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.
6. Serve at room temp or chill in fridge.