My maternal grandfather was an antiquarian, supposedly one of Europe’s best. By many accounts he was also a dead ringer for Roger Moore, and on business trips to England would get stopped and asked for his autograph. You know, I’ve never actually asked whether, in response, he tried to explain, or forged Mr. Moore’s signature, or just signed Asbjørn and left people to puzzle over it…Anyway, my mother grew up in a house full of gorgeously bound old and rare books. And because we inherited many of the books after my grandparents died, my brothers and I grew up surrounded by them as well.
There’s something about old books that insinuates itself into your psyche so that you become more at home and at ease when surrounded by walls of red leather bindings, gold embossing, marbled end pages, than almost anywhere else. Old books have a soul. And perhaps it’s actually genetic, but all of us in my family have a deeply rooted love of them. Their looks, feel, contents.
We each have a particularly strong affinity for books about different subjects. My mother can’t resist books of folklore, old children’s books, or books on flowers. One of my brothers loves books of maps and political tomes, while the other prefers novels. I love books of poetry, of natural history, and old cookbooks. You can go ahead and just feign surprise at that last one. But truly, old cookbooks are fascinating. And, I think they give you a stronger sense of the voice and fashion of a period than you could find in any history book.
I have one from the 1930s that I particularly love called Much Depends on Dinner. Every time I read the title, I think to myself, “da*# straight it does!” (and have to acknowledge that any cookbook that alludes to Lord Byron in its title is bound to be awesome). The author, Mary Grosvenor Ellsworth, an avowed former cooking disaster but lover of eating, takes you under her wing, dispensing advice on everything from how much you should be willing to pay for mushrooms to how to convince your grocer to set aside the best fruit for you to can, and expounding on her reflections about how best to impress at a dinner party or why Italians eat pasta.
I particularly like her declaration on rice, “The desire and ability to cook with rice seems to bear a curious relation to race and climate. I can’t remember encountering a grain of rice in France, yet Spain and Italy are full of it. All around the Adriatic, the Bosporus, the Indian Ocean and up the Pacific coast, people practically live on it…” I must say I agree. Or more accurately, I must say this is the case for me. As someone from a country so far north it’s Santa’s first stop on Christmas Eve, rice is generally one of those things I can take or leave (not counting rice pudding, which falls more into the pudding category anyway). I don’t actively dislike it, but most of the time it seems like an unnecessary side plot to the main dish. With curries and stir fries, I frequently don’t even eat the rice. I just shove it aside into a neat little pile. And up until last week, even risotto didn’t change my mind in spite of my weakness for all things creamy and cheesy. But then I had a baked risotto, which has some of the characteristic creaminess of stovetop risotto, but is less in danger of developing a gummy texture, laced with bright fresh flavors that made my tastebuds do a little leap of surprise and joy. This was an idea I could get behind.
So, the other day when I was cooking up a lamb curry, I put myself on a mission to make a rice I wanted to eat just as much as the curry itself. Fusing the idea of biryani – an Indian baked rice dish – with my memories of baked risotto, I made a basic baked risotto but started it by sauteeing loads of onions, ginger, garlic, and Indian spices until the air in the kitchen was thick with amazing fragrance. I stirred in the rice to get it thoroughly coated with the rich flavors, and then in addition to stock I added some canned tomatoes for their bright acidity. And because I had one I threw in some chopped sweet potato. Bingo! Rice just got a whole lot more interesting to me. After coming out of the oven the rice was so aromatic and so tender it truly didn’t need the curry.
But having a curry to serve with it certainly doesn’t hurt! This rice would be a lovely accompaniment to any meat or vegetable curry. And if you stirred in some cooked chickpeas or lentils and some chopped cilantro you’d have a brilliant vegetarian (and gluten free) meal.
Baked Risotto with Indian Spices (serves 4)
- 2 Tbs. butter (or ghee)
- 1 large yellow onion, diced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 Tbs. grated fresh ginger
- 1 Tbs. garam masala spice blend
- 1 1/4 cup arborio or carnaroli rice (you could use basmati rice too, if you wished, but the baking time would be cut down to about 25 minutes, and you’d only need 1 1/2 cups stock. Even better, you could try it with farro or barley, I think the cooking time would be similar, but I make no promises because I can’t eat those anyway!)
- 1 large sweet potato, cut into small cubes
- 1 tsp. salt
- 3 cups vegetable or chicken stock
- 1 14-oz can of diced tomatoes
- Preheat your oven to 355F.
- In a large pot that is also oven proof, melt the butter over medium-high heat until foaming. Stir in the onion and cook for 3 minutes, until translucent. Stir in the ginger, garlic, and garam masala and cook, stirring, for 1 minute, until it becomes nice and fragrant.
- Stir in the rice and sweet potato pieces and cook one minute more. Add the salt, stock, and can of tomatoes and stir. Bring to a boil. Cover tightly and pop into the oven.
- Bake for 50-60 minutes, until all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender but not mushy. Take out of the oven and let stand covered for 5 minutes, then serve. If you’d like, you could also stir in about 1/2 cup of coconut milk right before serving to make a really rich rice dish.