Saturday, August 9, 2014

Recipe: Vegetarian Red Rice, Guam's Achiote Pilaf

Where's the beef? Parmesan red rice with Korean carrot and radish salad and pan-seared yellow squash with miso
Achiote seeds (Bixa orellana)

My mother briefly joined a vegan group led by the Guam Seventh-day Adventists Church—two things I thought I’d never hear in one phone call. Eventually her weakness for crab got the better of her but she no longer eats chicken, beef or pork. Over the centuries every culture that passed through the Marianas Islands left a little something on our tables—America, Philippines, Japan, Korea, Spain, and Portugal and even Germany have contributed the our culinary history—and now the people from Veganda. But one dish that is ubiquitous to any Chamorro meal is arroz rojo con achiote, better known as red rice; it’s a type of pilaf made with achiote seeds.

In the late 1600s, Spain’s trade route brought this New World spice (also called annatto) to Guam from Mexico by way of the Philippines. Prized for the deep saffron color that it gives to food and its unique flavor, it has notes of pine, nutmeg and green pepper corn. It’s not as exotic as it seems, achiote is used to give cheddar cheese and other foods an appetizing orange color. You can buy it as powder, paste or whole seeds from your grocer’s Latin food section. 

Red rice was usually served on special occasions, but these days it’s a regular part of island fare. It’s the perfect foil for all of Guam’s island foods, including pizza... no joke. It takes the edge off of spicy foods and goes well with stewed or roasted vegetables, seafood or grilled meats. Often times we islanders are criticized for eating too much starch. But new studies have found that eating moderate portions of cooled rice and other resistant starches provide the prebiotics that contribute to our health when eaten with fermented foods. But it’s hard not to over-do something this tasty though, I could eat a whole pot!

Vegetarian/Vegan Parmesan Red Rice (Hineska' Aga'ga)
This recipe is gluten-free made with whole dried achiote seeds to get the pure flavor; I find the powder to be slightly bitter and the paste usually has MSG. Whole achiote seeds and bacon drippings are the most traditional ingredients, but I’m breaking from tradition by making this as a vegetarian dish; for a vegan version exclude the parmesan cheese or substitute with white miso. It’s important that your sauce pot’s lid fits well in order to create a gentle steam. Traditionally a mat of banana leaves is used to cover the surface of the rice and the bottom of the pot to impart a smoked grassy flavor. But let’s get real about urban living. You can cut a piece of parchment paper to fit between the lid and pan to trap steam. Liquid smoke is optional, but I use for certain dishes such as this. So put that rice maker away—we’re going old school today.

You’ll need:
  • 2 cups long grain white rice or converted white rice
  • 3 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
  • 2 large cloves garlic, crushed and minced
  • 3 tbsp grated parmesan cheese
    (For vegan option exclude cheese or use 1 tbsp white miso paste instead)
  • 1  vegetable bullion cube
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp liquid smoke (optional)
  • 1/4 cup dried achiote seeds
  • coffee grinder
  • fine sieve
  • mixing bowl
  • sauce pot with a heavy bottom and a tight fitting lid
  • wooden or nylon spoon
Two Ways to Make Achiote Water
The rich red color comes from the outer skins of the achiote seeds. The first (coffee grinder) method is used for very old seeds that are almost black. The second is used for seeds that are deep red in color. For both methods you’ll need 1/4 cup achiote seed and 2 cups of hot water to make “tea.” Achiote water should be a translucent carmine color. For larger batches, you can make achiote water ahead of time and refrigerate in a jar.

Method 1—Coffee Grinder : Boil water. Mill achiote seeds into a course powder in a coffee grinder; it should be the texture of rough beach sand. Put into a mixing bowl, add hot water and stir vigorously with a spoon. Let it rest for ten minutes. Strain liquid through a fine sieve twice. Reserve the liquid and discard the sediment.

Method 2—Hand-rubbed: Boil water. Put whole seeds into a mixing bowl and add hot water. Let it cool enough to handle. While the water is still warm rub the seeds together with your fingers to release the dye; it should take about five minutes. Strain liquid through a fine sieve and reserve the liquid. Discard the seeds.

Make Red Rice
Preheat 2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil in a stock pot. Salt onions and garlic and sauté until onions are translucent. Add achiote water, bring to a boil and dissolve vegetable bullion. Add rice, grated parmesan cheese (or miso) and remaining olive oil and stir. Simmer uncovered on high for five minutes. Cover and lower heat; simmer on low for 10 minutes. Remove cover and stir rice once more; add liquid smoke (optional). Return cover and continue to simmer for six more minutes. Take the pot off the burner and let it rest for another 10 minutes. Remove cover and fluff red rice gently with a wooden or nylon spoon.

The saffron color deepens and flavors bloom as the rice cools. Serve at room temperature topped with scallions or toasted sesame seeds. When made earlier in the day or the day before the flavor and aroma become even more pronounced. Serving with acidified foods like pickled green papaya, fermented radish salad, kimchee or even just a squeeze of lemon intensifies achiote. Red rice tends to caramelize and brown at the bottom of the pot; save this to make Chamorro fried rice.

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