When I was in college, a new friend of ours who had recently arrived from Norway cooked a pasta dish for the ladies in our house. We were bowled over by this sweet, foreign boy who cooked this a tasty meal. He’s so tall! So blond! With an accent! And he cooks! Carried away by such novelties, and the delectable dish itself, we ate more than we normally would have allowed ourselves (except for, of course, when one of us would make a pan of brownies, and everyone would devour them in a scant 2 hours, thinking, surely, ‘I didn’t eat that many brownies; those other three girls have no self control!’ Obviously, when all four people are thinking this, all four people are wrong). When we finished swallowing the pasta dish as though it were a pan of freshly-baked brownies, everyone wanted to know: ‘Rassmus, how did you make this dish? Why is it so good???’ He proceeded to describe the recipe, which I’ve forgotten except for the three most important ingredients: cream, half and half, and sour cream. Oh, good god. Have you ever tried to offer a California college woman a full-fat latte, let alone a dish containing not one but THREE kinds of cream? Four female faces paled, as though we had just discovered some horrific news; really there is nothing so horrific to a college woman as the prospect of gaining weight.
This sentiment isn’t entirely confined to the 18-22 year olds among us, however – the 30 year old me still sometimes panics when butter is called for in a recipe. As a culture, we have recently eschewed fats, creams, butters, all oil except for olive. We have replaced a gazillion items with fat-free alternatives that not only taste horrible, but contain spoon upon spoonful of sugar, which is much worse for our health than natural fats. Though we are finally beginning to recognize the dangers of sugar, we have, I think, been slow to re-introduce any sort of fat to our diets. At least, I know I have been. So, I’m often stil surprised to find just how GOOD fat tastes. And it makes everything else you eat taste good. I went to an Italian restaurant last night where we were served a salad of dried, thinly sliced beef, thinly sliced pecorino, and arugula, which was drenched in high quality olive oil. Did the salad need the oil? No. Did it taste wonderful? Yes! Even a little bit of fat can go a long way toward improving the flavor of a dish and making the dish more satiating (I am slowly learning). When Gilles suggested the other night that we make a rice dish with cream, I didn’t argue; I embraced the idea. Guess what? It was good.
Chicken and Creamy rice
1 lb of mushrooms, we used crimini and shitake
1 small onion
2 cups rice, we used a mixture of brown and wild
4 cups cooking liquid, we used 3 cups veggies stock and 1 cup water
1 cup half and half or cream, we used half and half
6+ leaves of fresh sage (optional)
1 lb chicken, we used two small chicken thighs, skin on, and two chicken bratwursts made in-store at Whole Foods
3 cups spinach
Dice onion. Clean and slice mushrooms. Add onion and mushrooms to a large sauce pan with a bit of oil and cook over medium heat until both are soft. Add rice and cooking liquid to the saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for recommended cooking time (usually closer to 20 minutes for white rices, 40 for whole-grain rices), until rice has absorbed the liquid.
Meanwhile, rinse the chicken, season with salt and pepper (but not if you’re using chicken sausage), and cook in a saute pan. We cooked the thighs first over high heat to brown the skin, and then reduced the heat and covered the pan with a lid and cooked until a cooking thermometer indicated they were done. We removed a few tablespoons of fat from the pan about half way through cooking. We removed the thighs and cooked the bratwursts in the same pan until browned on all sides and cooked through. The cooking method you choose will depend on the type of chicken you choose. Remove most of the fat from the pan, but be sure to pull up the good, browned bits from the pan to add to the rice later. Allow chicken to cool slightly and cut into bite-sized pieces. At this point, we returned the chicken to the cooking pan to pull up the rest of the good brown stuff (deglazing with chicken: the next big thing?). You could also deglaze the pan with a bit of white wine if you have a bottle on hand.
Pour the cream into a small, heavy-bottomed sauce pan, add the sage leaves, and simmer for 3-5 minutes.
When the rice is finished cooking, salt to taste, and add in the cooked chicken. Remove the sage from the cream and add to the dish, incorporate and adjust your seasoning as necessary. Lastly, add the spinach, which will wilt with the heat of the rest of the dish. You may need to rewarm the dish before serving, depending on how synchronized the cooking of your rice and chicken were.