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The how-to on cooking rice, heirloom grains and all

The how-to on cooking rice, heirloom grains and all
Written by Emily Storrow | Photos by Jennifer Cole

Asheville chef Ashleigh Shanti talks all things rice

Rice was always on the table during Ashleigh Shanti’s Virginia childhood. Cooked with shrimp or vegetables or simply covered in butter and black pepper, “it was our thing,” she says. Now the chef de cuisine at Asheville, North Carolina’s Benne on Eagle, she’s found herself a champion of rice, specifically its heritage strains, in all their nutty, earthy glory. “The lack of knowledge Americans have about rice is astonishing. We’re so accustomed to white rice. But there’s a whole world out there,” she says. And for Shanti, heritage rice is about more than just the rich range of colors, flavors, and aromas. “To me, it’s important to use heritage grains because it’s a way to build a connection to the past,” she says. “It’s possibly the same crop my ancestors harvested and fed their families. That makes it really special and deeply personal.”

A Foolproof Guide to Cooking Rice

When Shanti cooks heirloom rice at home, she goes super old school. “I use 1:3 cooking method,” she says. (That’s one part rice to three parts water.) She throws in a couple bay leaves and brings everything up to a boil. While the cook time can vary based on the variety of rice, twenty minutes is her ballpark. When that time’s up, the rice may be perfect. But if there’s still water left in the pan, have no fear. Shanti spreads the rice on a sheet tray and finishes it in a 250-degree oven for about ten minutes, salting at the end. “You won’t always be able to remove the lid and fluff your rice with a fork,” she says. “This method gives you a bit of forgiveness.”

The Rinse Cycle

It can be tempting, but unless you’re making a risotto, rice pudding, or another dish that’s meant to be thick and creamy, you shouldn’t skip this step. Watch for the water to turn from milky to at least mostly clear. Or, take a cue from the Benne kitchen and soak your rice, changing the water out three or so times until it stays clear.

It’s About the Journey

There are dozens of types of rice, and cook time vary. Shanti recommends home cooks experiment with them. “It’s all trial and error getting to know different varieties. You’re gonna screw up some—I still accidentally overcook it sometimes,” she says. “But you should find out how you like your rice.”

 shrimp purloo

Shrimp and Field Pea Purloo

Purloo is a mainstay at Benne on Eagle. It showcases rice’s stovetop flexibility: easily cooked in concert with other ingredients, first uncovered and then lid-on. The beauty of this recipe is that it can be made with a range of rice (just stick with long grain) and whatever vegetables you have on hand.