That little white carton of rice leftover from take-out night. How many times have you had one of those knocking around in your fridge, fossilizing over the course of a few days until it gets sad enough to toss in the trash? Or, if you’re like me, a serial over-portioner, are in a permanent state of disbelief that such a small amount of dried rice will swell to feed my family, leaving me with a steady supply of leftovers on hand? It’s easy to just pitch this ubiquitous side, but it’s better to eat it. Here are some ways to enjoy every last grain of goodness.
Hot, fragrant rice straight off the burner is delicious, but leftover rice that has been allowed to cool brings unique properties that are imperative to the success of the dishes that call for it. Cooled rice firms up in a way that helps it retain its shape when it comes to the stove a second time. The texture not only provides a pleasing al dente bite, it also keeps the rice from clumping up and turning mushy, as it certainly would if you tried to substitute freshly cooked rice in your recipe.
The International Rice Genebank holds over 127,000 varieties of traditional and wild rice varieties. There are recipe solutions for using up every variety of rice from thin and slender long grain varieties such as American long grain, basmati and jasmine to shorter and stubbier medium grains such as Japanese sushi rice and Bomba (used in paella) to the most diminutive short grain rices, like starchy and sticky Arborio (used in risotto).
There are a few things to keep in mind when shopping for rice. Although several varieties of GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) rice have been developed, none are currently under cultivation on a commercial scale. However, conventionally grown rice is often contaminated with pesticides and has been known to carry high levels of arsenic. When possible, choose organic rice to limit exposure to toxins.
Basic Rice Cooking Tips
Although only some varieties call for it, it’s a good idea to rinse all rice before cooking it. The jostling that occurs during shipping causes the grains to rub up against each other, creating rice dust or flour that, if not washed away, can easily gum up your pot of rice, making it sticky when cooked.
The method that I find most successful for cooking rice is to boil it like pasta. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add enough salt to make it taste like the sea. Add your rice (not more than 1/3 the volume of water), return to the boil, stir once and reduce to a steady simmer. After 15 minutes for white rice and 30 minutes for brown or black rice, taste a few grains. They should be tender, without any speck of white in the middle. If they are still tough or have an opaque white core, continue to simmer, testing as the rice cooks, until all of the rice is tender and uniform in texture throughout. Drain the rice in a colander and return it to the pot. Cover tightly with a lid and set aside for five minutes to steam and soak up any residual moisture on the exterior of the grains. Fluff with a fork and serve.
Storing Leftover Rice
It’s very important to cool any uneaten portions of cooked rice promptly. Like other starchy foods, such as cooked potatoes or pasta, cooked rice is an ideal vector for bacterial growth if handled improperly. Be sure to refrigerate any uneaten portions within a maximum of two hours of cooking. Properly cooled rice keeps, covered and refrigerated for four to six days. You can also freeze rice for up to six months. Doing so makes having home-cooked rice easy to have on hand. Freezing is particularly useful for brown rice, which has such a long cooking time. You can freeze small amounts of leftovers or cook up a big batch and freeze it in individual portions for later use.
Reviving Leftover Rice
Rice that has been well covered and refrigerated for only a day or so or was promptly frozen can be reheated and served as is. Transfer it to a steamer basket or fine mesh colander and set over a pot of boiling water. Cover tightly and steam until fluffy and tender, about two to three minutes.
Alternatively, you can use leftover or frozen rice in the following recipes. If using frozen rice, you can add it directly to soups, stews or the sauté pan without defrosting.
Sautéing brings cold rice back to life and then some. Stick with the basic formula or you can riff on the recipe any number of ways to take the dish all over the culinary map. Asian, Mediterranean, Latin flavors all work. Want to turn it into a meal? Put an egg on it.
3 tablespoons neutral oil, such as organic canola
1 onion, diced
1 cup assorted leftovers (such as cooked vegetables, meat or fish)
2 cups refrigerated rice
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock or water
Flavoring agents (Asian: 1/4 cup soy sauce + 2 teaspoons sesame oil; Mediterranean: 1/4 cup chopped olives, 1 tablespoon minced dill, juice of a lemon; Latin: 1 cup diced tomatoes, 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, 1/2 teaspoon Ancho chili powder)
Salt and pepper
In a medium sauté pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about three to five minutes. Add the leftovers and sauté until heated through, about two to three minutes. Add the rice, breaking it up in your hands before adding to the pot if necessary, and sauté, stirring constantly, until heated through and beginning to brown, about three to five minutes. Add the stock or water and your flavoring agents and simmer until most of the liquid has cooked off, about five minutes. Serve immediately.
Over half of the world’s population eats rice as a staple food. Uses for leftover rice are evident across all cuisines that enjoy the grain. Here are a few ways to use up leftover rice that span the globe:
Calas: these New Orleans rice fritters can be made sweet, dusted with powder sugar, or savory, studded with green onions, minced jalapenos or, if you’re feeling lux, crab or shrimp.
Rice Pudding: the creamy, sweet base takes on any number of flavors. Try cinnamon and raisins, cardamom and pistachios or coconut and chocolate morsels.
Fried Rice: this Chinese take-out staple not only uses up your leftover rice, but its myriad iterations take on any other leftovers you have hanging out in the fridge as well.
Congee: a comforting bowl of this Asian porridge is the cure for what ails ya.
Arancini: my kids go crazy for these cheese filled Italian rice balls.
Dirty Rice: another way to cook up leftover rice from our friends down south.