A fifth of calories consumed around the world come from rice, and in recent months, due to climate change, the growth in world population and stock market volatility, prices have escalated. So rice can no longer be considered the bland accompaniment to meat, chicken or fish but a precious ingredient in its own right.
Rice has played an important part in Jewish cultural history. Its cultivation began simultaneously in numerous countries over 6,500 years ago, but the Asian rice (oryza sativa) was introduced to the Middle East in Hellenistic times - grains have been found in a grave in Susa, Iran, dating from the first century CE.
By the second century CE, it was cultivated in Mesopotamia and Persia. The Moros brought rice to Spain in 700CE after conquering the country, and local Jews were quick to adopt it as part of their dietary culture. Jewish merchants began to exchange this adaptable grain for silks and spices, and especially for citrus fruits. They even embraced an ancient Egyptian and Syrian tradition of throwing rice at a bride and groom to symbolise fertility and good wishes.
Indeed, rice has long been an integral part of the Sephardi diet alongside vegetables, lemons, herbs, spices and healthy olive oil - and now patently plays a major part of the Ashkenazi diet. So, maybe it is time to rethink that innocuous bag in your kitchen cupboard.
For perfectly cooked rice, use basmati, which gives a nice fluffy texture. Use 450g (1lb) rice with 600ml (1 pint) water, stock and salt to taste. Wash the rice a few times to remove excess starch and leave to soak in fresh water for half an hour. Drain and put into a good saucepan with water or stock and salt, bring to the boil and add a tight-fitting lid. Lower heat and leave to simmer for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, and leave for another 5 minutes with the lid on. Gently fluff with a fork and serve. Of course, you can add coconut milk or a few strands of saffron, chopped fried onion to add variation while Sephardic "pink rice" is enriched with chopped tomato, chopped fried onions, garlic and thyme.
Or try my unusual herby mushroom, chestnut and red wine risotto which is cooked in the oven - so much easier than the traditional risotto, and is made with short grain brown rice - full of goodness, imparting nutty flavours - healthier, higher fibre and low GI while still giving that soft, comforting deliciousness.
For 4-6 portions, use 350g, 12oz short grain brown rice (not basmati). Heat oven to Gas Mark 3, 170º C, 325ºF. Sweat one large peeled and chopped onion, 1 finely chopped stick of celery and two chopped, well-washed leeks in 1 tablespoon olive oil with a peeled and crushed clove of garlic in a heavy casserole that can go from stove to oven.
Soak 25g (1oz), porcini mushrooms or equivalent, adding 400ml (14fl oz) boiling water. Leave to stand for 8-10 minutes until re-hydrated. Add 450g (1lb), chopped, fresh mushrooms to the onion mixture with a few fresh thyme leaves, cooking for a few minutes. Drain and chop dried mushrooms, add the mushroom liquid, the rice, 750 ml (1pint, 5oz) stock, and 100ml, 3½fl oz medium dry red wine to the pan and bring to the boil. Season with freshly milled salt and black pepper.
Cover and place in the oven. Check after 30 minutes in case it is drying out - you may need to add a little more stock. At this stage add a tin or packet of ready-to-use chestnuts (optional). Stir gently. Then cook for another 15-20 minutes. The mixture should be creamy and unctuous.
This dish is a substantial meal in itself but as it is parev, you could add cheese or even leftover chicken for a more substantial meal.
● 4 dessertspoons pudding rice - use Arborio for a really sensational creaminess
● Either 700ml, 1¼ pint, whole milk or extra rich, 400ml, ¾ pint whole milk 300ml, ½ pint evaporated milk, or for a low-fat option use 700ml, 1 pint skimmed milk
● 1 dessertspoon molasses
● Rind of a lemon
● 1 vanilla pod
● Handful raisins or sultanas
● Grating of nutmeg (optional)
● Set oven atgas mark 4, 400°F, 200°C. Wash the rice before placing in a pint oven-to-table dish.
● Split the vanilla pod removing the seeds (save pod for later re-use).
● Grate the lemon rind.
● Add to the rice and the milk with the rest of the ingredients. Grate nutmeg on surface if desired.
● Place dish on a metal tray. Bake for 20-30 minutes, then lower heat to Gas no 3, 300°F, 150°C for another hour.
● Serve hot or cold with poached fruit.