Kitchn Love Letters

This Recipe Forever Changed the Way I Cook Rice (It Comes Out Perfectly Every Single Time)

updated Apr 1, 2021
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greens in baking dish over rice with metal spoon in it
Credit: Caroline Lange

After years of private chefing, recipe testing, and cooking for myself, I’ve found I get an enormous amount of satisfaction out of distilling a recipe down to its most basic elements— the ingredients, the method, the pan size, the timing — and then moving the pieces around, like clothes for paper dolls. This kind of experimentation has taught me so much, and so tangibly, about the science of cooking, and the art of it, and how they intersect: How whole-wheat flour tends to need more water than all-purpose; how older potatoes, a little dehydrated, will roast up browner and crispier because their sugars are concentrated; how stirring (or not) transforms a recipe. One new move in a favorite recipe means you’ll end up somewhere totally different than the last time you made it.

I love this recipe for baked rice with confit tomatoes and garlic from the cookbook Ottolenghi Simple because it offers so many opportunities for this kind of play. As written, the recipe is both relaxed (by which I mean hands-off) and completely, achingly delicious. The tomato confit sounds much fancier than it is: just cherry tomatoes and olive oil, whole spices, barely chopped alliums, and cilantro stems that might otherwise have ended up in the food scrap bowl. They sit in the oven untouched and uncovered for an hour, collapsing into a silky, just-caramelized slump. Then you pour in basmati rice and boiling water, cover the pan, crank the oven temp, and bake until the rice is tender, 25 minutes. 

This process solves two common kitchen quandries: how to cook perfect rice (yes, the answer is the oven for perfectly tender, never gummy or dry rice) and what to serve it with. Here, they cook simultaneously, perfuming each other — the tomatoes separating into soft fruit and warm pseudo-vinaigrette, the result more than the sum of its parts. 

Credit: Caroline Lange

One Basic Formula, Endless Ways to Experiment

The recipe has three essential elements — the rice, the vegetable, and the infused olive oil— plus one optional element, which is fresh fold-ins once the rice is cooked. With the rice-cooking quandary resolved, the remaining elements remain wide open for experimentation. Ottolenghi himself has done it! This one has the same confit garlic and shallots but also curry leaves, lemon zest, and saffron. This one is baked with just mint sprigs and a bit of butter, then run through with a salsa of olives, walnuts, pomegranate, and feta. And this one features black cardamom and bay leaves, plus gingery, cinnamon-spiced caramelized onions folded in after baking. This family tree of baked rices all rely on the same technique.  

Any braise-able veg can be swapped in for the tomatoes, keeping in mind that tomatoes are very juicy and less-juicy candidates (like cubes of squash, sliced fennel, or roughly chopped broccoli rabe or hardy greens) would benefit from being covered with foil during their hour-long roast so they don’t crisp too much. Softer vegetables (zucchini, for example, or eggplant or bell peppers) would do as well uncovered as the tomatoes do.

You could do 100 percent onions. You could add cooked beans — black, garbanzo, kidney, cannellini — to soak up the flavors of the oil and vegetables. Trade the whole cinnamon sticks for whole dried chiles, star anise, smashed cardamom pods, bay leaves, or a small handful of lightly crushed whole spices like coriander and fennel seeds. Add crushed anchovies, strips of lemon peel, a splash of white wine, a handful of raisins. Change out the cilantro for mint or fennel fronds or parsley or scallions. Use hot broth (or a just-boiled mixture of water and coconut milk) instead of water. And at the end, once the rice is cooked, fold in frozen peas, crushed pitted olives, pomegranate seeds, chopped nuts, or crumbles of soft cheese. 

Credit: Caroline Lange

With my heart ready for spring, my latest favorite version (and the one pictured here) starts with chopped leeks, lots of crushed garlic, mint still on the stems, and some chopped parsley (both leaves and stems). I also added lemon peel and crushed fennel, cumin, and coriander seeds. Once the rice was cooked, I added frozen peas, chopped parsley and mint leaves, and goat cheese. It was fresh and green-tasting, with pockets of jammy roasted garlic and bright, cool cheese — the sort of side dish that’s hardly a side dish, and never gets old.

At Kitchn, our editors develop and debut brand-new recipes on the site every single week. But at home, we also have our own tried-and-true dishes that we make over and over again — because quite simply? We love them. Kitchn Love Letters is a series that shares our favorite, over-and-over recipes.