Recipe: Restaurant-Style Mexican Rice

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If you've ever attempted your favorite Mexican restaurant's rice at home and failed, raise your hand. Well you can put it down now, because this one is my all-time family favorite and I think it will become yours too. To be honest, I like it so much better than the rice usually served when I dine out.

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Whenever I go to Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurants, I always find myself dumping salsa and queso over my rice to make it more delicious. I've always thought it had potential, though, and over the years I've tested countless different recipes in my quest to master it at home.

The funny thing is that I'm actually not a rice lover at all, which probably explains why I like Mexican rice — because you're supposed to add a bunch of stuff to make it better! The best kind of Mexican rice, to me at least, is infused with a complex tomatoey flavor and each grain has just the right amount of bite; no mush, please! (Cheese dip optional but not required.)

A few years ago I finally found a recipe that came close to what I was looking for. It came from one of those generic crowd-sourced websites so you know it's gonna be a long shot, but despite my doubts it actually proved to be a keeper. Well, a keeper that needed some work. (Once a recipe developer, always a recipe developer.) But now that I had a solid base to play with, I could tweak and adapt it to my personal tastes, and eventually I came up with a streamlined version I think is pretty close to perfect.

The key to this recipe is to sauté the rice in sizzling oil until toasted and golden brown. This helps the grains keep some of their texture after they are cooked. Next, the rice simmers in a puree of tomatoes, onions, and chicken stock to really absorb all of those delicious additional flavors. A handful of cilantro, a few big squeezes of lime, and a light fluff with a fork guarantees the best rice ever, every single time.

Now I can't say if this recipe is anything close to authentic (probably not), but I do know that it's damn good. I suggest playing around with it to make it your own. I love the loaded tomato flavor, but you can reduce the amount of tomatoes and sub in more stock if you want a slightly mellower taste. If you like lots of heat go big on the fresh chiles, but whatever you do don't skip the cilantro — I think it's a must. (And if you need something to serve with your new favorite rice, I highly recommend a batch of Delta Hot Tamales!)

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Restaurant-Style Mexican Rice

Serves 6 to 8

1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes
1 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/3 cup neutral cooking oil, such as canola or safflower (or rendered lard)
2 cups long grain white rice
1-2 chile peppers, such as jalapeño or serrano, seeded and minced
4-5 garlic cloves, pressed
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
Juice from 2 limes, plus additional wedges for serving

Place the tomatoes and onion in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Transfer 2 cups of the tomato mixture to a medium saucepan. Stir in the chicken stock, salt, and cumin and bring liquid to a boil over medium heat. (Reserve excess for another use, like Tomato Sauce.)

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a heavy Dutch oven over medium to medium-high heat. When the oil is sizzling, add the rice and sauté, stirring frequently until lightly toasted and golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the jalapeño and cook until they have softened, about 2 minutes, lowering the heat if necessary. Add garlic and cook for an additional 30 seconds.

Pour the boiling tomato mixture over the rice and stir to combine. Turn heat to low and cook, covered, until liquid has evaporated and rice is done, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and gently stir the rice. Return the cover and allow to rest undisturbed for an additional 10 minutes. Add cilantro and lime juice; fluff gently with a fork. Taste and adjust seasoning if desired. Serve with additional lime wedges.

(Image credits: Nealey Dozier)

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