I'm just going to say it up front: the key to this whole dish is the cheese. (Isn't it always?) Cooked long and slow, this cheese melts into the rice and forms a crust on the bottom of the pan. The whole dish becomes infused with rich, smoky, caramelized cheddar, which a taste that's just this side of heaven.
The other key to this dish is patience. Put the rice mix over heat and then put your hands in your pockets. Let that caramelized crust form on the bottom of the pan for a good five minutes before scraping it up and stirring it into the rice. Then put your hands back in your pockets for another five minutes. And repeat another five or six times.
It will seem like you're burning the dish. In a way, you really are. But consider this a controlled charring for the purpose of deliciousness. You really want that crust to turn a dark, dark brown and get extremely crispy.
A cast iron skillet is the best pan for this crust-building endeavor. My neighbor, who originally introduced me to this dish (and was, in turn, introduced to it by another friend of hers), also likes to use a nonstick skillet because it makes it easier to scrape up that bottom layer.
One last note: my neighbor stresses the importance of making the rice a day ahead and using it in this dish while still cold from the refrigerator. I think this helps the rice absorb the cheese without becoming greasy, and also breaks up the overall cooking time.
Take this rice dish to your next potluck and just watch what happens. I guarantee you people will be scraping up the last grains of rice from the bottom of the bowl and begging for the recipe.
Makes about 8 cups or 8-10 servings
4 cups cooked and cooled rice (either brown or white rice is equally good here)
1 1/2 cups (6 oz) cheddar cheese
1 green pepper, diced small
1 16-oz can diced tomatoes and their juices (I like roasted tomatoes in this recipe)
1 cup fresh or frozen corn
1 2.25-oz can black olives, minced (about 1/2 cup minced)
1-3 teaspoons chili powder, to taste
1-3 teaspoons salt, to taste
Optional Extras: 1-2 diced sausage links, 1 cup shredded chicken, 1 cup black beans, 1/4 teaspoon cayenne, 1-2 teaspoons chiles en adobo
Combine all the ingredients in a big bowl, starting with one teaspoon each of the chili powder and salt (you can adjust later to taste). Stir until everything is evenly mixed, squishing the tomatoes against the side of the bowl as you go.
Set a cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the rice mix and spread it evenly over the bottom of the pan. Cook for 30-40 minutes, stirring every five minutes. Be patient and don't be tempted to stir more frequently!
The cheese will melt and start to form a burnt-looking crust on the bottom of the pan. Every time you stir, scrape up this crust and mix it back into the rice. The whole dish will gradually pick up a deep, almost chocolate-like flavor from the seared cheese. (If you actually smell or see smoke, turn down the heat a little or scrape a little more frequently.) Taste it every so often during cooking and stir in more salt or chili powder as needed.
Let the rice cool a little before serving. The flavors are really at their best when the dish is slightly warmer than room temperature and it's even better the second day. The rice can be reheated in a slow cooker, a low oven (covered with aluminum foil), or in the microwave for a few minutes on HIGH. Leftovers will keep for one week.
(Image: Emma Christensen)