Simple, Easy Chicken and Rice

Today's post promises to be all over the map with a few rants regarding pet peeves, an ode to the wondrousness of awesome comfort food that is ready in 30 minutes and, well, whatever else might leap onto the page and surprise us all.

But let's start with the joy and wonder of a simple, delicious, quick and easy recipe that you can rely on to fill tummies and create smiles on those busy weeknights when dinner seems like the impossible dream.

The recipe in question originates with Mark Bittman, the NY Times recipe guru, prolific cookbook author and one of my favoritely reliable sources for good eats.  And what makes me supremely happy about this recipe is not only its simplicity, but the affirmation from one very accomplished chef and food writer that every meal doesn't have to be sophisticated or complicated with new and trendy ingredients. There's lots of room in our daily lives for basic, wholesome meals.  And that's where I would put this one.  It just doesn't get much more basic than this... simply chicken and rice.

And not to disparage the simplicity here; chicken and rice is a time honored dish that shows up in just about every culture on earth.  We've got a few of those here on this site, namely, an Asian version of claypot (rice cooker) chicken and rice; a Mexican arroz con pollo; an Italian risotto (just add chicken), a scrumptious chicken marsala and rice bake, and I'm currently working on an Indian chicken biryani to share with you.  So yes, you may conclude that I'm most definitely a devotee of chicken and rice however it chooses to present itself.

As for this particular version, I loved the simplicity of Mr. Bittman's recipe...just some onion, water, rice, chicken.  (He also asks you to throw in a pinch of saffron, which is lovely, but I'll get to that in a second).  You honestly need nothing else to create a wonderful meal for yourself or those you love.  But, of course, not being one to leave well enough alone, I subbed in some broth for the water and added a teaspoon of turmeric to the rice instead of the saffron, and this is what I encourage you to do as well.  As much as I love saffron, you would need to add quite a bit more of the $$$ stuff to make a flavor difference in this dish, and I actually like the turmeric a little more. Heavenly days, was this good.  It also lent the rice a golden, saffron hue and subtly earthy flavor, that if I were Nigella Lawson I would be able to describe in more poetic verse.

(The above photo is of the rice after it has sauteed with the onions and turmeric.  No liquid has yet been added)

But now it's time to rant a bit and share a culinary pet peeve that I hope won't sound too very disagreeable.  But the thing is, I would absolutely LOVE to disabuse all cook's everywhere, including Mr. Bittman, of the notion that the best way to cook rice is with a 2 to 1 ration of liquid to rice.  Never in all of my 50 years of cooking have I ever had rice not be soggy or gummy with that much liquid.  The one exception to that is converted rice (like Uncle Ben's).  Maybe it's just me, and you cook your rice 2 to 1 and it works and you love it.  But wanting to trust Mr. Bittman's judgment in this particular recipe, I followed his instructions and used 3 cups of water to his 1 1/2 cups of rice and you guessed it.  Soggy rice.  In subsequent trials I reduced the amount of liquid to 2 3/4 and even to 2 1/2 cups which produced rice that was just about perfect...still moist and cooked through, but most definitely not mushy or gummy.

And as always, when talking about rice, I will encourage you to rinse it well before cooking.  This removes the layer of powdery starch on the surface of the rice that will also make it gummy.  This is especially crucial when using imported rice.  But I rinse all of my rice before cooking, which you can do well before the time crunch of dinner prep.  I place a bowl in the sink and find a strainer that fits just inside the bowl.  Place your rice in the strainer and then run enough water into the bowl to cover the rice, then slosh it around with your fingers, pull out the strainer, drain the water and repeat this about 3 times or until the water isn't so cloudy anymore.

Now just set your strainer in the sink and let the rice drain while you prepare the rest of the dish.  Once you get in the habit of doing this, you will notice a marked difference in the finished texture of your rice.  As long as you don't add too much liquid to it, that is.  The goal is to produce rice grains that are toothsome and somewhat separate.  I normally cook rice in my rice cooker and for 1 cup of rice I only add about 1 1/4 to 1 1/3 cups of water.  Of course, that amount increases if I'm using brown rice.

But if you're cooking rice on the stove, you can increase the water or broth to 1 1/2 or 1 3/4 cups for 1 cup of rice, as some of the liquid will naturally evaporate even if the lid is fairly tight.  Oh, and one other thing... you can also cook your rice as you would pasta!  Bring a pot of water to a boil (lots more water than you would otherwise need), add salt and dump in your rice.  Depending on the kind of rice you are cooking, you can let it go about 15 minutes before starting to test.  When it has cooked through, drain it until it is completely dry before adding it to your pan.  I often do this for fried rice by placing it in the fridge after cooking and once cold, it's ready to stir fry.  

Now then.  That's how you take a simple, easy chicken and rice dish and make it sound like something ferociously complicated and time-consuming.  Sorry.  🙈  But I do believe you were fore-warned that we would be all over the map today.

But seriously, there is nothing complicated about this dish unless you choose to make it so.  Simply put, just saute a little onion in your pan (or don't), add your rice, stir, add water, salt, stir, add chicken, cook, eat.  Done.  If you have more than 20 minutes for dinner prep, I've offered a few suggestions in my recipe for amping up the flavors a bit.  Add your own touches however you might see fit.  That's the beauty of chicken and rice...it's as practical as you need it to be on a busy weeknight or as fancy as you might like to make it for a special occasion.  And lots of options in between.  Here's the recipe...

Simple, Easy Chicken and Rice

The following recipe reflects the changes that I made to Mr. Bittman’s recipe.  Click here to see the original.  If you’re pressed for time, you don’t need to brown the meat first; I just like the little boost of flavor and color it brings to the party.  

Recipe adapted from Mark Bittman, NY Times

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, about 8 ounces, peeled and diced (almost 2 cups)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 lbs boneless (or bone-in), skinless chicken thighs
1 ½ cups white rice (I used jasmine)
1 teaspoon turmeric
Freshly minced parsley, thyme or cilantro for garnish (optional)

Set 2 1/2 cups of water (or chicken broth or a combo of the two) to boil. Place olive oil in a large skillet that can be covered, and turn heat to medium-high. Add the meat to the pan and sear on both sides until it takes on some good color.  Remove the meat to a plate.  Add the onions to the pan and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions soften and become translucent, 5 to 10 minutes. 

Add rice and turmeric to the onions; stir until each grain glistens.  Nestle chicken in the rice, add a little more salt and pepper and pour in the boiling water/broth. Turn heat to medium-low, and cover.

Cook 20 minutes, until all water is absorbed and chicken is cooked through. You can keep this warm over a very low flame for another 15 minutes; it will retain its heat for 15 minutes beyond that.  (I prefer to place the pot in a low oven, about 200 degrees F, until ready to serve).  Garnish with a sprinkling of fresh herbs, if you like, and a drizzle of lime juice.