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How-To

Mexico’s Surprising Rice Dishes

These recipes get complex flavor and great texture from the pilaf method and lots of savory additions

Fine Cooking Issue 35
Photos: Martha Holmberg
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Would your list of the world’s greatest rice dishes include any from Mexico? Mine didn’t until recently (perhaps due to my early years spent wolfing down combination plates in Mexican-American restaurants). I’d never dreamed that the cuisine laid claim to rice dishes that can be ranked in the same class as an Italian risotto or an Indian pulao.

It wasn’t until I began to spend more and more time in central and southern Mexico and to enlarge my circle of Mexican friends that these recipes came to light, one after another, like unexpected treasures at a rummage sale. Ranging from earthy to elegant and able to be prepared a day or two ahead and reheated in the microwave, I find these rice dishes to be the ideal accompaniment for nearly any meal and, in the case of arroz huérfano (orphan’s rice, pronounced ar-ROHS WHEHR-fah-no), an excellent main dish in its own right.

Simple ingredients, complex flavors

Rice came to Mexico from Spain, where it had been introduced by the Moors during their seven-century occupation. To the Spanish rice dishes, which often included onion, garlic, saffron, and nuts, Mexicans added tomatoes and both fresh and dried chiles, as well as their own inspiration. Most rice in Mexico looks more like what we think of as short-grain than long-grain. In truth, much of it is simply a long-grain variety produced and packaged with less than ideal quality control. Either variety, however, will serve for these recipes, and although certainly not traditional, Thai jasmine rice or some of the new American hybrids such as Texmati or Jasmati add that indefinable extra that has made them so popular in recent years.

Of equal—if not more—importance than the rice is the main liquid. The recipes will be good with plain water, better with canned chicken broth, and superb with a lovingly created homemade broth of chicken, turkey, pork, or a mixture of them. When following the rice recipes, use unsalted broth or adjust the salt accordingly.

The recipe for arroz rojo (pronounced ah-ROHS ROH-hoh) calls for ancho chiles, which are dried poblano chiles. They have an earthy, slightly fruity flavor and are usually of mild heat. But beware because, as with most chiles, they can vary in heat and are capable of producing an unpleasant surprise to those sensitive to chile heat. In the Southwest, these chiles are now quite common in supermarkets and are easily obtainable through mail-order sources.

You’ll notice that I use several types of fat in the recipes—butter, olive oil, and vegetable oil. From the time of the Spanish conquest until recently, lard was the fat of choice in Mexico. (Before the Spaniards arrived, there was very little fat in the diet, and frying wasn’t usually part of the cuisine.) In recent years, however, because of greater awareness of health considerations, as well as price and availability, vegetable oils have become more and more common. While a neutral-tasting oil can be used for any of the dishes, I like to use olive oil, often in combination with butter, because although it doesn’t taste like lard, it nevertheless provides a bold statement that goes well with most Mexican dishes, including these rices.

A blender makes the best purée

In Mexico, the blender is the modern appliance that imitates some of the functions traditionally performed by the metate and molcajete, specifically grinding chiles and puréeing sauces. A food processor works okay when you want to make roughly ground salsas, but it doesn’t do as well for purées like the chile purée in the arroz rojo recipe. But if you don’t have a blender, do use a processor for the chiles and to purée the spinach and cilantro for the arroz verde (pronounced ah-ROHS VEHR-day);your results just won’t be as smooth.

The cooking liquid for arroz verde is a blend of stock, milk, spinach, and cilantro.

The pilaf method lets ingredients meld

With their rice, the Spanish also brought their pilaf-style preparation. In this typically Middle Eastern method, the rice is first sautéed in a little oil until it just begins to color. Following this, some Mexican rice dishes require an intermediate step where puréed tomatoes or chiles are fried with the rice until most of the liquid evaporates, leaving behind just the intense essence of the ingredient. Only then are the water or broth and other ingredients added and the pot covered. After the rice has simmered, it should be gently stirred, covered again, and allowed to steam off the heat for an additional 15 to 20 minutes. This breaks up any clumps of rice that might have formed, ensuring more even cooking and a better overall texture. 

For the pilaf method, start by toasting the rice. The grains should take on a bit of color, which helps to prevent a mushy result.
Add your liquid, add your flavor. Canned broth is okay, but if you use homemade, you’ll appreciate the difference.
When the liquid boils, pop on the lid and lower the heat. Cook slow and steady until the liquid is absorbed. Then fluff, cover, and steam off the heat.

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