- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2005

We’re a month into the new year, but many of us still want to keep our meals light and nutritious as we decompress from the holiday heaviness.

Maybe we are actually taking seriously our New Year’s resolution to eat more healthfully. Or maybe we just gravitate toward simplicity because it’s refreshing and wonderful on its own merits. Whatever the reason, it’s great to have Chinese New Year as an excuse for slipping more fresh vegetables onto our plates, and rice is a terrific dish to start with. When you add enough vegetables and other interesting tidbits to cooked rice, you end up with a perfect one-dish meal.

One of my favorite vegetable-rice combinations is a colorful fried rice made with long-grain brown rice. Long- and short-grain brown rice have similar nutritional profiles, but their textures are very different.

Short-grain is more glutinous and therefore cooks up into a softer, starchier and fairly sticky mass that is great for some uses but not my favorite background for fried rice. I prefer the fluffy separate grains that result from correctly cooked long-grain brown rice.

Yet it’s easy to cook long-grain rice wrong and end up with something that is too wet or too dry, undercooked or overcooked. After years of experimentation, I finally found two methods that work well.

One is to cook rice in slightly too little water. The other is to cook it in way too much. The first way is more precise and involves measuring but takes less time. The second requires more steps but requires no measuring, so some people prefer it.

The too-little-water method goes like this: Use 2 cups rice to 3 cups water. Combine them in a saucepan, add a little salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to the tiniest simmer, then cover and leave it alone for 40 minutes. Fluff with a fork at the end of this time and give it a taste. If the rice is still underdone, add just a splash more water (2 to 3 tablespoons), cover again and give it another 5 to 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork again, and the rice is ready. The yield will be about 6 cups.

If after reading the too-little-water method you are still uncertain about cooking long-grain brown rice, you should try the way-too-much-water method. Here’s how: You need 8 to 10 cups water (it doesn’t need to be exact), 1 tablespoon salt, 2 cups uncooked long-grain brown rice and 1 tablespoon canola oil.

Put water and salt in a large saucepan and bring to a rolling boil. Meanwhile, place rice in a strainer and rinse several times under cold running water.

Add rice to boiling water, and let it boil rapidly for 30 minutes, or until tender to the bite. In other words, almost done. Drain rice in a strainer over the sink, and rinse with warm running water.

Brush oil over the bottom surface of a 9-by-13-inch pan and spread rice out in an even layer. Tightly cover pan with foil and bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 25 minutes, or until rice is done to your liking. Makes about 6 cups cooked rice.

Note that the rice can be made up to several days in advance. Store it in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator. Serve the following dish for Chinese New Year or anytime with a simple egg-drop soup. For dessert, make a winter fruit salad out of apples, orange sections, pineapple, bananas and a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds.

Vegetarian fried rice

1 teaspoon plus 2 tablespoons canola oil, divided

2 large eggs, beaten

1 cup chopped onion

1 large carrot, cut into thin slices on the diagonal

1 large stalk celery, cut into thin slices on the diagonal

2 stalks broccoli, chopped

teaspoon salt, divided

pound firm tofu, diced

2 small zucchini, diced

1 tablespoon minced garlic

6 cups cooked long-grain brown rice, fluffed with a fork so grains are separate

4 to 5 scallions, both white and green parts, minced

Soy sauce

1 to 2 cups frozen peas, defrosted

1 to 2 cups chopped, toasted almonds, optional

Chinese sesame oil and chili oil in shaker bottles

Place a large wok or deep skillet over medium heat. Count to 30 slowly, then add 1 teaspoon oil. Swirl to coat pan. Add eggs, and make a thin omelet in any way to which you are accustomed. Transfer to a plate and cut into small pieces. Wipe out pan and return it to heat.

Add 2 tablespoons oil, and swirl to coat pan. Turn heat to high, and add onion, carrot, celery, broccoli and half the salt. Stir-fry over high heat for about 3 minutes. Add tofu, zucchini and garlic, and stir-fry for another minute or two. Add rice, a little at a time, mixing it in with a large fork so it is distributed evenly among the vegetables. Stir-fry for another couple of minutes.

Add remaining salt, along with scallion. Keep cooking until everything is heated through, then season to taste with soy sauce. Serve hot, topped with peas and almonds, if desired. Pass shaker bottles of sesame oil and chili oil to allow diners to season to taste. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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